The Preacher's Wife

The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities

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Kate Bowler
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2019.
     456 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780691185972.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Evangelical women have occupied significant positions in ministry since evangelicalism’s emergence in the 18th century. While women have been studied in great detail, their rise as celebrities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has not received treatment in a monograph. In The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, Kate Bowler offers a compelling account of the emergence of evangelical women as celebrities and ministry leaders.

Bowler demonstrates that evangelical women celebrities inhabit a world of contradicting expectations; they are conservative but marketable, submissive but successful, modest but sexy, all things to all people but nobodies. Some have negotiated these contradictions successfully throughout long careers, others imploded magnificently, and still others subverted these contradictions and challenged the expectations of evangelical womanhood. Regardless of the direction of their stories, they all exhibit the complexities of women in public view, both in the church and in the nation.

The first chapter traces the pulpit in women’s megaministry. Women have navigated church prohibitions against women preachers and pastors throughout the history of evangelicalism. In the process, women have forged alternative avenues of influence, authority, and power in the evangelical marketplace. The second chapter examines women’s ministries in the context of debates about women’s work. As societal shifts reimagined women’s participation in industry and politics, evangelical women emphasized their roles as wives and mothers. This move against societal trends preserved women’s images in the evangelical market. Chapter 3 studies evangelical women as entertainers. Entertainment avenues allowed women to promote themselves and their ideas before mixed audiences. Chapter 4 evaluates evangelical women’s redemption narratives. These narratives showed the delicate balance women play in the evangelical marketplace, particularly the balance between authenticity and self-destructive exposé. The fifth chapter discusses beauty in evangelical women’s megaministry. These women’s bodies displayed their modesty and desirability, contradictions that both elevated and constrained certain women’s influence. 

The Preacher’s Wife is a triumph. The contradictions of evangelical women’s megaministries are poignantly elevated, but not at the expense of the dignity of Bowler’s subjects. Bowler carefully gives sympathy without condescension, admiration without hagiography, gripping revelations without shameful disclosures. The book is entertaining, humorous, and informative. Its clarity and smooth prose make it accessible not just to academics, but also to non-academic readers, who will find the glossary of key terms remarkably helpful.Students and scholars will find the tables and appendices nearly as exciting as the chapters. Bowler did not invent the table and appendix, but her previous book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford University Press, 2013), and The Preacher’s Wife may be evidence that she has perfected them. 

While it does not undercut the book’s brilliance, the lack of clarity about the word “evangelical” led to some points of confusion. The book’s glossary defines evangelicalism as it has shifted over the last century in the United States after the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and emphasizes evangelicalism as a subculture. The glossary further explains that “evangelical” will also be used to include Pentecostal. The entry for “conservative” defines it in relation to evangelicalism’s biblical literalism, right-wing politics, and complementarianism. While Bowler notes that this framing is general and oversimplified, evangelical remains the umbrella term throughout. These definitions and conflations are problematic when viewing certain large denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention’s view of women in ministry is quite different from the Assemblies of God, which differs also from the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Each of these denominations, by the book’s definitions, fall under evangelicalism’s conservative gender hierarchy. Yet, these denominations lie on a spectrum of support for women’s denominational and ministry leadership. A stronger differentiation between the evangelical marketplace and denominations would have helped clarify the terminology. However, this lack of clarity does not detract from the book’s value or disrupt its arguments.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is that Bowler’s research subjects knew as much about her life as she knew of theirs. Her story is carefully woven into the book, too, and her questions to them are occasionally turned back on her. Indeed, Bowler and these evangelical women share similar experiences and occupy similar spaces, navigating a world of Christian celebrity, self-disclosure, and especially public pain. It seems to be a book that only Kate Bowler could write, and what a magnificent book it is. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Gunter Parrish is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kate Bowler is the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel and the New York Times bestselling memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved (Random House), which she wrote after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35. She is Associate Professor at Duke Divinity School.

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