I don’t remember what prompted me to download Kate Bowler’s 2019 book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. Maybe someone in the Duggar Family News recommended it. Or maybe I saw something about it on YouTube. I imagine Jen of Fundie Fridays could have suggested this well-written and researched book about the wives of high powered evangelical leaders like Joel Osteen and his ilk, and women who are high ranking evangelical leaders themselves, like Paula White-Cain and Juanita Bynum. In any case, Amazon tells me I bought this book in July 2022. I just finished reading it this morning, and that seems fortuitous, as it’s Sunday– the Lord’s day. 😉
I have never been a very religious person myself, although I grew up going to the local Presbyterian church. I do come from a very Christian family, with musical parents who were avid churchgoers, although church was never a family affair for me. My mom was always the organist at some church, so she never sat with the family. My dad was always in the choir. My sisters are much older than I was and out of the house for much of my childhood. Consequently, although I was compelled to go to church, and even had a job working at a church camp for two summers, I have never been particularly devout.
However, even though I’m not much of a Christian, I do find religion interesting. For over half of my childhood, I lived in Gloucester, Virginia, a once rural county about an hour’s drive from Pat Robertson’s Christian mecca, Virginia Beach, Virginia. I watched a lot of television in the 80s, and back then, we had independent Channel 27, WYAH, which was owned by Robertson, who also owned the Christian Broadcasting Network cable channel. Because Channel 27 was owned by a Christian evangelical leader, a lot of religious programming was aired. I would occasionally watch some of the shows, mainly getting a kick out of the over-the-top televangelists and local programs. For example, the late John Gimenez and his wife, Anne, of The Rock Church in Virginia Beach used to air their services every Saturday night on Channel 27. I would watch in amazement, as the church had a full band, complete with electric guitars and keyboards, and Gimenez would dance and sing. This was not something I had ever seen in my very conservative whitebread Presbyterian church, which was quite traditional, and at least for me, as a child, extremely boring.
As time went on, religion became more polarized… and polarizing. I noticed extremes on both ends. It seemed like a lot of people were abandoning traditional “boring” churches for megachurches or fringe religions. Or they were going atheist, or embracing non-Christian faiths. I started noticing a lot more mainstream programming on television, like Joel Osteen’s broadcasts from his Lakewood Church. When we were living in the States, it was a rare Sunday morning that we didn’t catch at least part of his show– lots of feel good prosperity platitudes from the Houston Astrodome, his gorgeous wife, Victoria, at his side.
In her book, The Preacher’s Wife, Kate Bowler explores the women who are married to famous celebrity evangelical church leading men. After all, even though they aren’t typically the ones leading the church– as many religions require that men do the leading– the women are often the ones prodding their husbands to go to church, rather than staying home and watching sports or doing chores. Bowler rightly points out that the wives of church leaders are role models to the women and girls of congregations. They are expected to lead by example, and sometimes they even get involved with actual leadership roles. For example, Bowler writes about how, as Joel Osteen delivers his folksy, feel good sermons, Victoria follows up by imploring people in the 40,000 strong congregation, as well as those watching at home, to support the ministry with “love gifts”.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of Bowler’s work, by the way, or the comprehensive scope of her research. She has a PhD, teaches at Duke University, and has written several well-regarded and top selling books. The Preacher’s Wife is her third book exploring the “prosperity gospel”, and how it’s used to sell faith based lies to a public desperate to believe. She can also be found on YouTube. Below is Kate Bowler’s TED Talk, which was very well received, as it accompanied her first book by the same title, Everything Happens for a Reason– and Other Lies I’ve Loved.
I was impressed by the scope of women Bowler profiled in The Preacher’s Wife. Yes, she mentions people like Ruth Peale, wife of Norman Vincent Peale– and parents of the man who taught my philosophy class at Longwood College (now University) in the 1990s. Ruth Graham also gets some discussion, as does the daughter of Ruth and Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, who was arguably the most talented preacher of the Graham parents’ brood, but did not inherit the ministry because she’s a woman. But Bowler also writes of Paula Stone Williams, a well-known pastoral counselor who started out life as Paul Williams, and later transitioned to a woman. I’m sorry to say that before I read Bowler’s book, I had never heard of Paula Stone Williams, but I’m now listening to her TED Talk. She’s a great speaker, and I have Bowler’s book to thank for letting me know she exists.
This book is not about religion, per se, but it is about the business of religion. And make no mistake about it, today’s religion is very much a business. Bowler writes about how some of today’s megachurches have fashion shows, where congregants can shop for the beautiful dresses or statement necklaces worn by the “preacher’s wife”, who is often perfectly coiffed, manicured, and dressed to the nines. She includes photos of flyers for makeovers sponsored by churches, where makeup and fashion experts mix the proper Christian beauty image with Bible verses. But she also includes discussion of Christian leaders like Liz Curtis Higgs, who promote forgiveness, grace, and acceptance, even if they wear a size 22 dress.
I would not recommend this book to anyone looking for devotions or encouragement. That’s not what this book is about– it’s not meant for preachers’ wives who need to be uplifted. Rather, The Preacher’s Wife is more of a secular expose of powerful, influential, and frequently wealthy women in evangelical circles. Bowler also doesn’t just stick strictly to the wives of the preachers. She also mentions female preachers, like Joyce Meyer, who admitted to having had a facelift to make herself more appealing to her followers, and the late Gwen Shamblin Lara, who famously died last year with her husband, as they flew in their private jet over Nashville. Gwen Shamblin Lara is famous for her Weigh Down Workshop and her church, the Remnant Fellowship.
I will admit that it took some time for me to get through this book. For me, it wasn’t necessarily a page turner. However, when I did sit down for reading sessions, I was impressed by the quality of the writing and research, as well as the broad spectrum of evangelical women who were profiled in this book. There were so many that I’d not heard of before, as well as some who were very familiar to me. And the fact that I am interested enough to look up Liz Curtis Higgs and listen to Paula Stone Williams speaking on YouTube, shows that for me, The Preacher’s Wife was well worth reading. I think it would make an excellent resource for anyone doing academic research on this subject, as well as good reading for smart people who are just interested in what drives the world of evangelical Christianity– particularly those who are rich, powerful, and beamed to us on television and the Internet. This book was an eye opener for me, and I thank Kate Bowler for writing it.
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