The Body: Soul of American Evangelicalism?

MARCH 2007: ESSAY

by Margaret Bendroth

One summer during high school, my younger sister and I had a contest to see who could read the most books by Grace Livingston Hill. Almost a century ago, the prolific Mrs. Hill (whom we imagined as large and lonely) churned out scores of Christian Endeavor romance novels that would subsequently be reissued as pastel-covered paperbacks in the 1970s. Romancing GodThose formulaic stories of “love and faith,” filled with sleazy flappers and slick-haired roues, fresh young farm girls and strapping ministers’ sons, never, ever disappointed. I can remember nearly weeping with laughter over the thoroughly uncomfortable encounters that inevitably followed Christian conversion among her sinful, and saintly, characters. To our everlasting delight, the hero never actually kissed the heroine, but round about the same page in every single book he euphemistically “laid his lips on hers.”

Apparently, we did not get the last laugh. From the nightly news to the teeming shelves of the local Christian bookstore, it is clear that love, romance, and a whole lot more have pervaded the real world of American evangelicals. They have invaded the scholarly study of the movement as well, as a recent spate of fascinating new books attest. The implications of this trend, well represented by the three titles discussed in this essay, deserve close consideration, even by non-specialists, for they raise important questions about the nature of evangelical faith and its idiosyncratic role in the modern world.

Lynn Neal’s Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction, examines a literary industry that has grown far beyond anything Grace Livingston Hill ever allowed herself to imagine. Christian love stories, Neal argues, are the “dirty little secret” (my phrase, not hers) of an evangelical world hungry for secular credibility, an enormous publishing phenomenon that has been ignored by scholars and shuffled aside by movement insiders. Through text analysis, interviews with readers and reading groups, and correspondence with authors, Neal makes a convincing case that the world of evangelical romance is in fact an alternative feminine evangelical universe. The value system of the “love and faith” genre turns on its head the strident, polarizing, and ascetic strain that marks the evangelical side of our culture wars;  the heroines of Janette Oke and Brenda Wilbee achieve their triumphs of the heart by bridging cultural differences, learning tolerance, and abandoning themselves to the morally acceptable pleasures that come their way.

Marie Griffith’s Born-Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, draws back from the current scene to chronicle two centuries of conversation about sex, food, and bodily perfection in the American past. Drawing upon classic Protestant themes of personal transformation, she scouts the creative margins of American religious culture, peopled by an endless array of mystics, entrepreneurs, and opportunists. In truly glorious detail, Griffith analyzes a prolific literature of abstinence that arcs from Puritan fasting regimes to the Christian diet gurus of today, who insist that it is actually possible to “Pray Your Weight Away.” All of the continuing chatter about food and sex, Griffith argues, bespeaks more than just a yearning for a perfect size six and a perfect orgasm. It’s not Weight Watchers, she concludes,  but religious devotion that has made Oprah Winfrey such a haunting symbol in our world.

Finally, there’s Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, ethnographer Tanya Erzen’s startlingly even-handed take on the people and organizations behind the public controversy over homosexuality. After spending eighteen months as a participant-observer in the New Hope ex-gay ministry in California, Erzen brought back some important stories to explain why many conservative Christians resist the latest word from the biology laboratory and argue instead that homosexuality is a condition susceptible to divine healing and release. Behind all of the politicized hype about the “gay agenda,” Erzen says, are people longing for–and all too rarely achieving–the transformation of their own desires, in every realm of experience. In her deft description, the so-called “queer conversions” of struggling ex-gays (no longer homosexual but never completely straight) are not easy or instantaneous, but require years of re-learning flawed patterns of relationship with the same-sex object of desire.

Clearly, we have come a long way from Mrs. Hill’s lip-laying protagonists.

***

Over the past two decades, the study of American evangelicals has been growing and changing rapidly. The first serious studies, pioneered by historians like George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Joel Carpenter, told the story largely in terms of ideas and institutions. Straight To JesusBattling a heavy array of stereotypes about Bible-waving, chimpanzeetoting fundamentalists, that generation of scholars emphasized the intellectual substance and organizational skill behind the modern movement’s success. Their narrative centered on doctrines like biblical inerrancy and dispensational premillennialism, Moody Bible Institute and Youth for Christ. Written during the decades when resurgent evangelicalism was emphatically toppling the old mainline Protestant cartel from the top of the denominational heap, this wave of evangelical scholarship demonstrated the essentially normative character of conservative belief and behavior. The movement had its oddities, to be sure, but certainly no more than might be found among your average collection of middleclass Presbyterians.

Still, something was missing. That normative picture, though undeniably true, just didn’t explain enough social and cultural reality. Conservative evangelicals may well have been the canny upstarts who captured the American religious market or the intellectual heirs of learned nineteenth- century Calvinist divines, but a walk around the floor at a Christian Booksellers Association convention seemed to suggest a different story line. The spectacular destructions cherished in the “Left Behind” series, Frank Peretti’s wars between angels and demons, and even the sweet heroines of Christian romance, all pointed toward a wide gulf between evangelical Protestants and the rest of America, a divide that appeared to reside deep within the realm of the religious imagination.

Undeniably, part of the issue was gender. The emphasis on institutions and ideas had generally obscured the role of women in the fundamentalist and conservative evangelical movements; a story that focused on battles for control of seminaries and denominations by definition put men at center stage. But the gender issue is actually larger than that. Even now few academic studies of evangelicalism, or of American religion in general, deal head-on with the demographic reality that the consistent majority of churchgoers are women.

For a long time, the few books that did address the “woman question” tended to lionize the few brave souls who struggled against a tide of sanctified male prejudice. But, as Neal and Griffith point out, women are also the vast majority of the customers perusing the aisles in Christian book stores. They are by far the primary authors and consumers of all those diet books, self-help literature, and, of course, those romances. Not surprisingly, both Neal and Griffith have had to wrestle with pointed feminist questions about the meaning and implications of women’s role in popular evangelical culture. But there is no denying that that culture itself is, for good or ill, a predominantly feminine construct.The core identity of American evangelicals is a complicated question, and it has long defied a simple definition. Are evangelicals really all that different from other American Protestants? Is theirs just a family quarrel with mainline and confessional cousins? Are they in fact all that different from the average American, tuning in to Fox News for the latest on Anna Nicole Smith? If so, where does the difference lie?

The cultural turn exemplified by Erzen, Neal, and Griffith suggests that the real answer may have relatively little to do with ideas and institutions but dwells instead in the murky realms of socially constructed sexuality. That is, the truth lies far down that old scenic side-road once avoided by the truly serious scholar. To understand what makes evangelical religion “work” in our modern cynical age, the new scholarship insists, we need to listen to the ways that evangelicals talk about the human body.

***

There are good historical reasons for pursuing this line of inquiry. Indeed, given what we now know–and sometimes wish we didn’t know–about the private lives of American evangelicals, it seems incredible that historian Richard Hofstadter once described them as people who were terrified of their own sexuality. He was talking about popular evangelists like Billy Sunday, who drew enormous crowds during the World War I era with lurid denunciations of dancing and prostitution, abortion and venereal disease. But of course the larger and more obvious point was that lots and lots of people came night after night to hear a burly ex-baseball player talk about dancing and prostitution and abortion and venereal disease in painfully candid detail. If they were interested in a theological lecture, they could have gone elsewhere.

Where Billy Sunday left off, Texas evangelist John R. Rice took up, denouncing the World War II-era pleasures of the flesh in glittering detail, as the images thereof slithered from the private imagination onto the silver screen: “the embraces, the lewd scenes, the witty but dirty sayings, the love triangles, the bedroom scenes, the illicit romances, the drinking, the smoking, the unbelief, the divorces,”1 and so on and on. Advice from mainline Protestants on the subject did not even come close. “Like the first flight around the world,” one Disciples of Christ sex manual euphemized unhelpfully in 1924, “marriage must be the great adventure; manifestly it cannot so become if the flying equipment is hopelessly ruined on its trial trip.”2

Many decades before Hugh Hefner and MTV made it boring, evangelicals and fundamentalists were talking about sex all the time–and, as recent events prove, they are nowhere close to shutting up now. Perhaps not surprisingly, the evangelical resurgence of the last several decades has centered on organizations with a demonstrated ability to open–and keep open–frank conversations about erstwhile private matters. The political programs of organizations like Concerned Women for America, American Family Forum, and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family are certainly familiar. But even more important has been the growing array of evangelical family therapists, educators, and general advice-givers who have taught conservative Protestants to be more at ease with the secular language of personal growth and physical satisfaction. The new literature does not denounce sex and pleasure in the old fundamentalist style but affirms its central role in creating godly people, and does so in sometimes startlingly positive terms. To cite only one example, readers of one Focus on the Family magazine article may or may not have been surprised to learn that, as the enthusiastic author intoned, great sex “begins in church!” Those who read to the last paragraph did not hustle off to morning worship, however; the larger lesson was that Christians who strove to “believe well” would in fact “live well” on all fronts, including the marital bedroom.3

A closer reading of these texts suggests that though evangelicals may well be creatures of the surrounding therapeutic culture, they are not quite of it. The difference is difficult to pin down: is it a steadfast lack of irony, a pervading earnestness? Take for example, one of the passages in a Christian romance quoted by Neal:

He saw how the pulse raced in her throat and pressed a kiss to it. He heard her soft intake of breath and felt the answering warmth spread swiftly through him. He wanted her. He would always want her. And, praise God, she wanted him as well. (84)

(They are married, by the way.) Something about this passage, though it is vaguely about sex, is not–well–sexy. Neal is quick to explain that the Christian romance industry maintains a very close watch over salacious content in its novels, with clear guidelines of what is permissible. It is certainly understandable that Fabio and his glistening pectorals would be an unwelcome presence on the front cover of a religious love story; but the obligatory pious reference in the passage about kissing points toward a fundamental level of discomfort with the body among American evangelicals, even after many years of soaking in the acids of modernity. Somewhere, Grace Livingston Hill is nodding in agreement.

***

The discomfort has very deep historical roots. As Marie Griffith’s survey demonstrates very effectively, today’s evangelical diet gurus and romance mavens are the latest word in a very long and complex religious conversation about body and spirit. For all Christians, of course, a person is by definition someone with an eternal soul, an ineffable core of being with a special link to God. But the exact nature of the connection between soul and body has generated wide-ranging speculation and debate: In what sense does the body define the person? Can we ever transcend our physical limitations and desires? Is real transformation possible?

Over the past hundred years, our sense of what constitutes the essential core of a person–“spirit” or “soul” or whatever–has changed considerably. The recent public debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo suggests continuing and fundamental disagreement over the source of personhood. Is someone dead when the brain has stopped sending out signals? Or does the entire body need to shut down as well? The obvious efficacy of psychotropic drugs in relieving mental illness only makes the question of personhood more complicated. Now all of the human impulses that were once seated in the soul–motivation, joy, passion–are in most cases amenable to the proper doses of Prozac.

But the religious problem is more complicated than that. In the early twentieth century, the language of the self began to fold over into the concept of “personality,” an attribute that, as self-help authors are quick to remind us, can be endlessly shaped, developed, and altered by employing the right technique. But of course, though individual personalities could be improved–a shy and nervous person might conceivably become more confident, more cheery, or more serene–the results were never reliable. The real person, as it turned out, lurked far below the personality’s plastic exterior, deep in the realms of the subconscious mind. The so-called “discovery of the subconscious” in the latenineteenth and early-twentieth century led to emergence of what historians refer to as a “modern self,” no longer a single fixed entity but a complex web of subconscious desires. Who am I? And what do I really want? In our psychoanalytic age, the project of personal transformation involves no end of unforeseen difficulties.

The paradox has only deepened in the last several decades. If, as modern psychopharmacology contends, the spirit can be essentially shaped by the flesh, the body itself is becoming less and less malleable. “Go ahead and diet,” warned the thin blond nutritionist on the television screen overlooking my treadmill at the gym, “but in the long run you’ll never permanently change your body type. Ninety-seven per cent of you will gain back all the weight you lose within five years.” Better to observe your parents’ waistlines in middle age and plan accordingly: in the end it’s all a matter of hormones and genetics, not moral virtue.

It’s telling that evangelicals have so fervently embraced a losing proposition like diet programs, especially as the body has been declared to be more and more predetermined, less and less compliant to the human will. Or that the ex-gay movement continues to reject the rapidly entrenching popular wisdom that homosexuality is biologically determined, a product of particular hormones and genetic endowment that is never amenable to change. Certainly evangelical diet experts can be excoriated for their capitulation to consumer culture, and an astounding level of obtuseness about world hunger and true deprivation. Leaders of the ex-gay movement can be criticized for refusing to accept a growing body of scientific evidence. But it is important not to miss what it is that they are really doing–constructing new fronts in their ongoing complaint against modernity. They are resisting the paradox.

This question of body and spirit is really what holds evangelical culture together. Why do cases around abortion, euthanasia, and intelligent design generate so much heat? Are evangelicals just afraid of sex and science? Not really–it’s not the incipient fundamentalism but a vivid set of assumptions about soul and flesh that shape the evangelical political agenda. If the body, after all, is a manifestation of spirit and there is no such thing as dead, mechanistic flesh and bone, then it makes perfect sense to see objects that don’t appear to be alive–fetuses, brain-dead hospital patients, even the created universe–as infused with divine possibility. In a way it’s really a form of protest. Biology is not completely destiny: if a fat person can pray herself slim, a homosexual can settle down, marry, and raise a happy family.

No wonder, then, that the so-called “below the belt” issues have such staying power in the social and political realm. In the evangelical imagination, sex is far more than a human activity that may or may not be sinful, depending on the circumstances. It is, in some mysterious way, a fundamental source of change and redemption, fusing our basest desires and our highest spiritual yearnings. That is not a new idea and it’s not a bad one either–we’ve been batting the possibility around at least since Freud.

The odd romantic streak in conservative Protestant culture may, in fact, even explain the continuing and unmerited literary favor of a Grace Livingston Hill– though I have always refused to speculate about why I spent so many hours in her company during the prime days of a high school summer. I know it wasn’t the deathless prose or the moral lessons; it wasn’t a fear of losing out to my little sister, though in the end she won our contest handsdown. And I’m almost completely positive it had absolutely nothing to do with all that lip-laying.

Endnotes
1. What is Wrong with the Movies? (Zondervan, 1938), p. 105.
2. Quoted in John P. Marcum, “Family, Birth Control and Sexuality in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): 1880-1980,” Encounter 52 (Spring 1991), p. 118.
3. Marianne K. Hering, “Believe Well, Live Well,” Focus on the Family 18 (September 1994), p. 4.

Margaret Bendroth is Librarian and Executive Director of the American Congregational Association in Boston, Massachusetts.