You don’t hate me. You hate my brand.

Last week, after a hurried, 700-word article of mine generated exactly 2.5 gazillion responses on the internet, I found myself lying face-down on top of the covers on our bed in the middle of the day. 

Like, for an hour. 

Dan finally walked in to make sure I wasn’t dead…or worse, watching a Netflix series without him.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I’m just so sick of RHE,” I said, my voice muffled by our comforter. “I really need a break from her.”  

It’s funny how, as bizarre as that sounded, Dan knew exactly what I meant. There’s the Rachel whose strengths, weaknesses, dreams, quirks, passions, failings, and pet peeves he knows so intimately, the one still in her pajamas at 4 in the afternoon and pouting on his side of the bed, and then there’s the Rachel Held Evans who smiles from the corner of a Web site, cheerfully drumming up blog posts, pageviews, books, lectures, and the occasional controversy to be digested by the public each day.  

They aren’t complete opposites of one another, of course, but they aren’t exactly the same either. 

One uses a lot more profanity.

In the publishing industry, we talk a lot about a writer’s “brand”—the general impression an author leaves with readers based on her personality, writing style, favorite topics, marketing, packaging, and audience. But these days, you don’t have to have a book deal or a literary agent to cultivate a “brand.” You just need a little online real estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or some sort of blogging platform. 

Over time, as your life gets distilled into these little pixels, it’s easy for the people who see them—be they friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers—to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening, as you gather feedback and gain friends/followers/subscribers, you can start to believe it too. 

But we are not our messages, no matter how much we believe in them. We are not our filtered photos, or our tweets, or our political and religious ideologies. We are not even the stories we tell, no matter how carefully and truthfully we tell them.  

We are not our brands.

We are human beings—little bundles of cells and relationships and hopes and fears that can never be crammed into images or words. 

I have to remind myself of this now and then, when I see people discussing me on the internet in terms that dehumanize and reduce. They are caricatures, really, the sort of portraits you can pay a street artist in New Orleans to draw for you.  The features are exaggerated, but they are based on just enough reality to look familiar, to make me a little more mindful of those warts and moles and wrinkles. Other artists accentuate the positives, of course, but those are glamor shots and no matter how many I hang in my locker, we all know they’re not entirely true; it’s all about the lighting. 

It would be easier to ask for grace if I’d done a better job of extending it. But I too objectify other people. I’ve assumed that Mark Driscoll is his bullying, macho-man brand, John Piper the sum of his views on women. While these brands certainly don’t spontaneously generate, and while these ideas should be discussed, debated, and sometimes denounced, I find myself reluctant to retweet the fake twitter accounts or join in any online jeering.  Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to dish it out than it is to eat it up, let me tell you, and I think sometimes we  inadvertently perpetuate celebrity culture by railing so loudly against it, by feeding into the caricatures with our derision. 

As much as I find Mark Driscoll’s “brand” highly distasteful and seriously problematic, I don’t know the man, so I have no business hating him. And as much as you may love or hate the RHE brand, most of you don’t really know the girl behind it, no matter how candid I am with you, no matter how hard I try to be real. 

The truth is, that dude whose blog posts totally rub you the wrong way may be the best person in the world with which to watch a football game or talk theology over beer. That acquaintance on Facebook whose pictures make her life seem perfect may struggle with self-doubt, depression, and fear. That stuffy Calvinist you love to hate may melt into a goofy, delightful playmate when he’s tickling his kids on the living room floor. The feminist you always imagine shouting other people down may have an unbelievably tender heart.  The pastor you think is always wrong probably gets a few things right. And the pastor you think is always right definitely gets some stuff wrong.

Perhaps the most radical thing we followers of Jesus can do in the information age is treat each other like humans—not heroes, not villains, not avatars, not statuses, not Republicans, not Democrats, not Calvinists, not Emergents—just humans. This wouldn't mean we would stop disagreeing, but I think it would mean we would disagree well.

It’s hard acknowledging the limits of a medium through which my own writing career has flourished, but I want you to know:  The conversations we have here—as encouraging, informative, and life-changing as they can often be—are meant to be brought to dinner tables, coffee shops, AA meetings, parks, church fellowship halls, long car rides, dorm rooms, and diners, among people who (whether they agree or disagree) can look you in the eye and take you in, not as a brand but as a human being.  It’s riskier, I know, but it’s truer. It’s better.  And I think it’s what good writing is intended to accomplish—to connect us to the truth in one another, our world, and the divine...in real life, not just our heads. 

Growing Pains 

As if this post wasn’t self-indulgent enough, I should confess I’ve been experiencing some growing pains. I love that the blog is growing and that more people are reading my articles and books, but I’m in that awkward teenage stage when your arms and legs are suddenly longer so you’re knocking stuff over and running into doors. I’m upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements about views I didn’t even know existed. I feel a little in over my head, to be honest.  

[Let’s get real. When all you’ve got is an English Literature degree and they’re asking you to comment on substitutionary atonement at Christian colleges and church trends on CNN, something’s gone amiss.]

So I’m recalibrating a bit, figuring out what it means to steward whatever influence I have in ways that are both creative and sustainable, and that perhaps give some other folks the chance to step up to the mic. I’m also pouring the best of myself into a new book, which means posts may be a bit spottier… and weirder, as they will likely have been written after 1 a.m. 

Thanks for your patience, wisdom, support, and willingness to call me on my crap. You’ve helped me grow my brand, yes, but you’ve also made me a better person.  I hope we get the chance to really know one another someday. 

***

So, have you ever felt you’ve been treated like a brand— a simplified rendering of your actual hopes, dreams, and ideas? Where does this happen – on the internet, in church, at your work? Who in your life actually knows you?  And what can we do to avoid making caricatures of one another? 

 

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I don’t write for an audience of One

At a conference for creatives not too long ago, I was asked by a college student if I write for myself, for others, or for God.

“All of the above,” I said. “I write for myself because I’ve loved the craft since I was a kid, because it’s how I process the world and make sense of things, and because I kinda suck at everything else so my professional options are limited.  I write for others because as a human being created in the image of a relational God I long to connect with and communicate to the people around me and find great joy and meaning in that process. And I write for God in the sense that I hope my work glorifies God, delights God, and is a part of my most important calling to love God and my neighbors well.”

“So you’re saying you don’t write for an audience of One?” he prodded playfully.

“Well I guess not.”

I’ve had several conversations like these through the years. Among people of faith who create—who write books, make music, lead worship, speak, design, perform, blog, etc.—there is this myth that we create/perform for an audience of One. We create/perform for God alone.

Now, I understand and affirm the sentiment. Obviously, as Christians we are called to work in such a way that the praise of others does not bring us too high, nor the discouragement of others bring us too low, always keeping in mind that what matters most is the integrity with which we do our work, even when no one is watching.

But I don’t buy the idea that our motivation to create or perform should rest exclusively in the desire to please God.

God created us to be communicative creatures, relational creatures. So it is natural—perhaps even holy—to want to be heard, to be understood, to feel less alone. God created us to connect with one another over good food, good art, good music, good company. God created us to delight in these things and the people who nurture them in the world.

I love the feeling of looking out into an audience to whom I am speaking to see a man with tears streaming down his face, nodding in recognition. I love getting an email from a woman who, because of something I wrote, decided that maybe it wasn’t a waste of time to go to seminary after all. I love writing a blog post only to discover the real jewels in the comment section, among your thoughts and ideas, critiques and questions. I love hugging person after person in the book signing line, as we say to one another over and over and over again, so we never forget: “Me too. Me too. Me too.” 

It is this connection to our fellow human beings that we long for most when we communicate. And so it is perfectly natural to feel joy when that connection happens, discouragement when it doesn’t, and frustration and elation and doubt along the way.

I’ve known many bloggers who approach me with questions about how to generate more readers only to follow up with a hasty, “Not that it matters if anyone reads my work.” And I’ve known many worship leaders who refuse to take a compliment on their mad piano, guitar, or singing skills because they are afraid of deflecting any praise or appreciation away from God.

I confess I kinda want to shake these people and say: “Don’t you see! You were made to want others to read your work! Don’t you see! Your talent DOES bring glory to the God who created you!”

Again, this doesn’t mean we have to have a massive audience to enjoy our creative work.  As Eric Liddell so beautifully put it, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” There is joy in creative expression with or without an audience of other people.

But the desire to share these thoughts and experiences—to be heard, to be understood, to be recognized, to be affirmed—is not inherently selfish.  It’s good. It’s holy. It’s challenging. It’s fun.

How easy it is to forget that we are the result of the collaborative work of a relational Being who in the beginning said, “Let Us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,” and who looked upon that creation and called it good.

Even God did not create for an audience of One.

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Update: Lifeway won’t carry “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”

*See update below*

Since a lot of you have asked, (and in the spirit of Banned Books Week,) I thought I’d let you know that I recently received word that Lifeway has decided not to carry A Year of Biblical Womanhood in stores, presumably in the wake of the “vagina” controversy over the summer.

In case you’re not up to speed on the backstory, here’s what happened: 

  • In March, I mentioned in a blog post that my editor had suggested I remove the word “vagina” from my manuscript in deference to the standards of Christian bookstores. While I was prepared to make the edit, you guys encouraged me to keep “vagina” in. You started an Amazon petition. You contacted my publisher. You made t-shirts. You coined the term “vaginagate.” And I ended up engaged in some of the strangest conversations of my writing career.  

  • In the wake of Lifeway’s highly-publicized ban of the movie “The Blind Side,” and after speaking with some industry insiders, I wrote a blog post in July about Lifeway’s influence on the Christian publishing industry, explaining how its standards not only affect the highly sanitized inventory we find on Christian bookstore shelves, but also which books are contracted by publishers, what content gets edited in the writing and editing process, and the degree of freedom authors feel they have to speak through their own platforms. 

  • Update: I've heard from an unofficial source at Lifeway that it might have been something other than the word "vagina" that resulted in the book not being carried in stores. Lifeway will not be officially weighing in, from what I understand, but I thought I'd pass this information along because I don't want to leave everyone with the impression that we know exactly why the book will not be carried when we don't. All I know to do is to share my experience and the events as they unfolded from my perspective as an author. (As you can see from this article, mine is a common experience for authors in the Christian publishing industry. ) I mentioned in a previous post that it appears Lifeway allows some uses of the word "vagina" by some authors in some contexts. (Mark Driscoll's Real Marriage is an example.) However, I took out every other word or content issue that was challenged as problematic for Christian bookstores by my editor, so I am unclear as to what else might have led to the decision. 

The good news is that every other major Christian bookstore plans to carry the book. Come October 30, you will be able to find A Year of Biblical Womanhood just about everywhere books are sold.  If you aren’t sure if your favorite bookstore will carry the book, be sure to check with your local retailer. (In fact, actually walking into a bookstore and requesting a book makes a big difference in initial sales, so if you want to support the book—or a Christian bookstore that’s willing to carry it—that’s a great way to do it.)

I’m disappointed, of course, and not just because I’ll take a hit in sales. While Lifeway certainly has every right to choose its own inventory, I think the notion that Christians should dance carefully around reality, that we should speak in euphemisms and only tell comfortable, sanitized stories, is a destructive one that has profoundly affected the evangelical culture as a whole.

I hope that by being honest about this journey through the publishing process, we can start engaging in conversations that will bring about change. 

Thanks so much for your support and encouragement! It means the world to me. 

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Is ambition a sin?

'Woman working on an airplane motor at North American Aviation, Inc., plant in Calif. (LOC)' photo (c) 1939, The Library of Congress - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

It started with a list. 

Last week, Kent Shaffer at Church Relevance released his list of Top 200 Church Blogs, igniting multiple conversations across the faith-based blogosphere about why 93 percent of the bloggers listed were white men, and why prominent, high-traffic bloggers like Ann Voskamp and Jen Hatmaker somehow didn’t make the cut. 

I was happy to see fellow bloggers raise some good questions: Was this list simply a manifestation of inequities inherent to American church culture, or did it fail to reflect the very real influence women and minorities have, both online and in the everyday life of the church? Was it strictly scientific, or were the creators influenced by their own biases regarding what church leadership should look like? 

I weighed in a few times myself, thinking that, as one of just three women who made it to the Top 100, no one could accuse me of sour grapes. I even offered some tips regarding search engine optimization, design, posting schedule, and so on, hoping they might help some women whose content is great, but whose blogs might be blipping just under the radar. If we don’t like the list, I reasoned, let’s work to change it! 

After a few Twitter conversations, however, I was disappointed to see how many hardworking and talented bloggers, particularly women bloggers, were quick to resign themselves to not being included, or even considered, for such a list.  “Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway,” many of them said. “We write for an audience of One. It’s wrong to ask for anything more.”  

While I certainly agree that as Christians we ultimately work to please and glorify God, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. (This may be because I am apparently a textbook example of Enneagram Type 1. I have to judge and reform and nitpick and stuff. Sorry. Richard Rohr says I can’t help it.) 

Anyway, the plot thickened when, in response to some of the criticism his list was receiving, Shaffer responded with “An Open Letter to Christian Women Blogs.” On Twitter, he included me in a list of women for whom he said he wrote it. 

I think he meant well, but little good ever comes from an “open letter,” especially one that responds to reasonable critiques from women with a reminder that “it must be hard being a woman” since “women are wired to be more emotional than men.” Emotions, according to Shaffer, “are an incredible strength that society usually touts as a weakness. Yet well-harnessed emotions are what nurtures humanity to be more civilized. At the same time, emotions can sometimes be an Achille’s heel [sic] for the feeler causing self-doubt, depression, or unnecessary frustration at what sometimes are mere assumptions.”

[I get this reaction to my work a lot. It’s like every time I issue what I think is a thoughtfully-worded critique of the complementarian tendency to impose of modern, Western familial constructs onto Peter and Paul’s Greco-Roman household codes in the New Testament, I get called “shrill” and asked if I’m on my period. Dianna Anderson has offered a fuller examination of “gaslighting” here; it’s worth a read.]

But what really struck me about Shaffer’s letter was the conclusion, in which he reminded Christian women to keep their ambitions in check:  

“…Your worth is not in man-made metrics. The most valuable things in God’s Kingdom often defy these and confound the wise (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Focus on your identity in Christ. Focus on obedience to God’s leading because an obedient blog that reaches 3 people is far better than a million follower blog that is out of God’s will….I feel frustrated at hints of jealousy I hear from bloggers that didn’t make the list. This is collateral damage from the list. It can be difficult, but I encourage you to celebrate the success that your brothers and sisters in Christ are having in writing about ministry. Please fight hard against bitter jealousy because it is divisive and demonic (James 3:13-18)..I feel angry at the thought of a blogger’s ego and self-centeredness growing because of the list…Don’t arrogantly boast or pridefully assume tomorrow lest God resists you (James 4:1-16 & Proverbs 16:18-19). Please fight hard against selfish ambition because it is divisive and demonic (James 3:13-18)... If God gives you a burden to blog, blog. If God tells you not to blog, don’t blog. If you enjoy blogging for the sake of blogging, blog. If blogging is an unstoppable stumbling block of pride, jealously, and/or selfish ambition for you, don’t blog.”

While I didn’t disagree with the general sentiments—of course jealously and selfishness are wrong! of course we should find our identity in Christ!—something about that little lecture at the end of Shaffer’s letter bothered me profoundly. 

Suddenly, it all clicked. 

Christians, particularly Christian women, have been trained to identify ambition as a sin. 

Perhaps Shaffer did not intend to communicate this, but his letter makes it sounds as though a woman who wants to see her blog grow and thrive is simply being selfish. A woman who wonders why her blog was not considered for the list when her numbers are comparable to blogs at the top must be operating out of bitterness and jealousy. A woman who, like me, is motivated by a little competition and who likes to keep an eye on her stats and sales numbers must be prideful, arrogant, and selfish. 

(I must say, all of these warnings against boasting sound a little disingenuous coming from the guy who, at the end of his list, included an embed code for a “Top 200 Church Blogs” badge so listed bloggers can announce it on their sites.) 

But the very fact that this list exists, and that bloggers are writing about it, reveals something about the strange relationship Christians have with ambition…particularly when it comes to ministry and art. 

Is it wrong to promote your work when you write or sing or speak about faith? Is it wrong to make goals and decisions based on numbers? Is it wrong to be discouraged when you don’t get the results you wanted, or frustrated when you feel like your accomplishments go unrecognized because of your gender? Is it wrong to want to succeed? 

I am speaking generally, of course, but I think Christian women wrestle with these questions most of all, perhaps because in a religious culture that often puts forth narrow and contested definitions of womanhood, young women whose interests and personalities might lead them away from the list of acceptable rules and roles are subtly punished for not exhibiting a more “gentle and quiet spirit,” for not reigning in some of that ambition and drive. (Also, several studies suggest that personality traits that are often admired in men—like ambition and drive—are perceived as negatives when applied to women.)  

When I’m discussing writing and blogging, Christian women are by far the hardest to convince that they may want to think about promotion and branding. I receive far more requests for help with promotion (book endorsements, reviews, etc.) from men than women, and I routinely encounter women who are absolutely convinced that any sort of self-promotion or metrics-based goal-setting is categorically wrong. One woman recently balked at me for including my own book in a list of upcoming fall releases I wanted my readers to know about. (Why wouldn’t I? I worked hard on that thing and I wrote it specifically for my readers!

I’m still working all this out in my head, but as a woman who has grown to accept her ambitious spirit rather than resist it (perhaps because of my upbringing, perhaps because of Dan’s influence and support, perhaps because of that whole Enneagram Type 1 thing), I offer just a few observations that I hope we can discuss further in the comment section: 

1. As Christians, we are not called to succeed or to fail, but rather to keep success and failure in perspective.  

On the one hand, you will hear some Christians say that it is imperative that followers of Jesus succeed—that they prosper, that they make the best art, that they impress the world with their accomplishments for the sake of the kingdom, that they name it and claim it.  On the other hand, you will hear some Christians say that it is imperative that followers of Jesus fail—that they sacrifice all for the sake of “ministry,” that they think nothing of their own desires or talents, that they avoiding looking to any “earthly” metrics of success. 

But the reality is, for most of us, both success and failure are a part of life. And it is for life that Jesus has equipped us.  So he has prepared us to see success for what it is—sometimes the result of faithfulness and hard work, sometimes not, sometimes used rightly to glorify God and care for his creation, sometimes used wrongly to glorify ourselves, never an entitlement, often a stumbling block, and always fleeting. It is a tool we can use wisely or foolishly. The same goes for “failure.” As Christians who worship a crucified and risen Lord, we, of all people should know that failure too can be gift, a refining fire, a creative catalyst, a way to focus on what really matters and to identify with Jesus. God causes rain to fall on both the evil and the good, and so we are all bound succeed and fail at some point in our lives.  We need not apologize for either. 

2. Most of us don’t work, or write, for an audience of One.  And that’s okay! 

Yes, it is true that we are ultimately called to glorify God with our work, regardless of whether other people notice or care. But it is also true that we were created to be in community with one another, to express ourselves to one another, to listen and learn from one another.  As creatives, we often feel compelled to share our work with other people, and that’s okay! There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to do good work, to share it, and to be recognized for it. This is true for artists, for ministers, for bricklayers, for parents, for caretakers, and for bloggers. 

3. Entitlement is wrong; speaking against inequity is not. 

Sometimes I get left off of lists. Sometimes I don’t get invited to conferences. And sometimes I get all entitled and whiny about it. When I do, I take a deep breath and remind myself that life is a gift, that I am not as important as I think, and that, in the words of Mark Twain, “the world doesn’t owe me anything; it was here first.” 

But I’m familiar enough with my own sense of entitlement to know the difference between it and the desire to see a more equitable and just world. Women should not be shamed for raising a few questions about an all-male speaker lineup at a conference or a list of top bloggers that is 93 percent white male.  These are reasonable, worthy concerns that we should be able to articulate with civility and boldness without fear of being judged as entitled, emotional, or selfish.  I believe with all of my heart that the world, and the Church, benefit from diversity, and there is nothing wrong or selfish about advocating for that. 

4. Let’s be honest. 

One way that religious folks avoid uncomfortable conversations about ambition is they cloak them with religious language. I was once told by a writer that she didn’t need a publicist because God was her publicist and prayer was her marketing plan.  (Let’s just hope God wasn’t also her editor!) While it is vital that Christians hold one another accountable for working for the glory of God, we should be careful of using God’s name carelessly or in vain in order to cover for our reluctance to promote our work…. especially when using such language discounts the very real and very hard work of the editors, publicists, marketing reps, sales reps, publishers, agents, and editors that make publishing (or whatever your field) possible. I’ve found that my readers are much more receptive to honest and straightforward explanations of where I am in the publishing/blogging process (sins, doubts, joys, hopes, and all!) than platitudes about how I’m too spiritual to consult my marketing team or celebrate a big accomplishment. 

5. It’s okay to work for success as long as you don’t root your identity in it. 

Want to be happy? Find your identity in something other than money, success, blog stats, and power. 

Want to increase your blog traffic because you like what you do and want to get better at it?  Watch what other successful bloggers do. Learn how to improve your search engine optimization. Write consistently.  Keep a predictable posting schedule. Stay engaged with your readers.  Be yourself. Be honest. Link to other blogs and contribute guest posts. Update the look of your blog. Avoid flowers and butterflies if you want to attract both male and female readers. Utilize social media. Admit when you make mistakes. Practice. Get better at titling. If it motivates you, be a little competitive and check on those other bloggers’ numbers now and then. Check your stats regularly, but no every day. Do more “list” posts. Do more “how to” posts. Do not write posts as long as Rachel Held Evans’; she needs an intervention.  Submit your blog for consideration for The Top 200 Church Blogs. Write the sort of posts that people want to share. And for the love, please don’t play music automatically!

It's okay to care when you struggle to grow your readership, and it's okay to care when you start to see results. If you don't care about connecting with your readers, you're not doing it right.

Christians are not called to be immune to the emotions that correspond with success, failure, and the expansive in-between. We are called to live fully, abundantly, and honestly in this world...where joy and frustration and ambition and disappointment are all part of what it means to be alive. 

***

So what do you think? Do Christians have an uncomfortable, and perhaps unhealthy, relationship with ambition? Are women in particular discouraged from exhibiting drive and ambition in the church? Do you ever struggle with issues related to promotion and marketing? Discuss! 

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