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What you need to know about Beth Moore is that she is human
And she reminds us that we are too
I read Beth Moore’s All My Knotted-Up Life the week it came out. I can’t remember another book that made me laugh as much as this one did. There were also a few places where I had to fight to hold back tears.
There is so much that I could say about Beth Moore and the book, and much of that will have to wait for my book Live Laugh Love, because Beth is part of that story. This reflection is something different.
I won’t summarize the book, but know that it contains many things. Poignant stories of her abuse at the hands of her own father, delicately shared. Painful glimpses into the difficulties she’s faced in her marriage. Stark recognitions of the racism that permeated her upbringing and the lives of the people she loves. An account of the shock and disorientation she experienced watching her fellow evangelicals line up to back Donald Trump and then turn on her when she called them back to their moral values. A hilarious and heart-warming account of her first Anglican worship service.
No single storyline sums up the book. No single issue defines who Beth Moore is. And that, to me, is the key takeaway here. Beth Moore is human.
By this I don’t primarily mean that she is flawed, although Beth would probably elbow every single critic of hers out of the way to get to the front of the line to insist that yes, she is flawed, the most flawed, and it’s only God’s grace that has gotten her this far and only God’s grace will get her home.
But that’s not what I mean by human.
Let me tell you a story. I first knew of Beth Moore before I knew Beth Moore. As a scholar writing on evangelicalism, I’d been keeping my eye on her for quite some time. Long before I decided to write Jesus and John Wayne, I made a hobby of watching the evangelical world out of scholarly curiosity with no inkling that I’d eventually end up writing a book on the subject. Beth Moore was right at the center of that world.
At the time, however, most scholars of evangelicalism were ignoring her and what she represented. I get it. She’s blond, petite, speaks with a heavy Arkansas drawl, and she started off as an aerobics instructor/Bible study teacher in Texas, for goodness’ sake. Scholars studying evangelicalism had more important places to look: Fuller Seminary, SBTS, Christianity Today, and the like.
As a historian of women and religion, however, this didn’t sit well with me. I remember one time, sitting around a table with a room full of male scholars at a seminar on American evangelicalism, when I started talking about the world of evangelical women—about bloggers and influencers, about popular evangelicalism and what it meant for the larger movement. At a certain point I paused, realizing that I was talking at a room full of blank faces. “You do know what I’m talking about, right?”
They did not. Except for a very small number of female graduate students in the room, who were nodding their heads emphatically. And one male grad student, who piped up to say yes, he knew exactly what I was talking about, because it was his wife’s world and he was paying attention to it. At that point, I reminded those gathered that, demographically if not institutionally speaking, women occupied the center of American evangelicalism, and that if we wanted to understand evangelicalism today, we needed to center women. I doubt that I convinced anyone around that table who wasn’t already convinced.
A few years later, people did start paying attention to Beth Moore. Two things happened. The first was Twitter. Who knew that this queen of aerobics and Bible studies and women’s conferences would become the queen of Twitter? Beth Moore hadn’t changed, but her audience had. She was saying the same things she had written in her books and shared onstage at Christian conferences, but now men were in the room. And women who hadn’t thought she was their type.
And then the second thing happened: Donald Trump.
When Beth Moore felt compelled to speak out against Trump in response to the Access Hollywood tapes, she not only received swift and brutal pushback from evangelicals themselves, but she also received significant media attention. It was at this point that I was first asked by the national media to weigh in on Beth Moore. She was now part of the national conversation, and she was articulating the question so many Americans were asking: How could family-values evangelicals support a man like Donald Trump?
How should we understand what was happening? Was she a bellwether? Would she remind the moral majority who they really were? What was going to happen next?
One of the questions I was asked at that time was whether I thought she would switch from complementarianism to egalitarianism—from promoting male authority and female submission as the will of God to interpreting the scriptures in a way that undercut gender hierarchies. Will she or won’t she?
Now, as a historian I’m always reluctant to offer predictions. If history shows us anything, it’s that we have no idea what’s just around the corner. But I refrained from offering a prediction on whether Beth Moore would abandon complementarianism, for a couple of reasons. First, my sense of Beth already then was that she would do whatever she felt convicted to do. Whatever, in her mind, the Spirit convicted her to do. At the very least, I was pretty sure her actions would not be dictated by expediency or institutional loyalty, and I couldn’t predict where this would take her in the short term or the long term. But I also found myself pushing back against the question itself. On the one hand, I understood. In the world of evangelicalism, complementarian vs. egalitarianism is a primary dividing line. Or at least it’s set up to be one. But knowing what I did about Beth Moore, her life, her ministry, and her recent foray into politics, I didn’t think that who she was and what she was doing could be adequately captured in terms of which side of the line she ended up on.
This isn’t just because of who Beth is, but it’s also because these divisions—these lines that evangelicals themselves love to draw—are largely imagined ones. Which is not to say they don’t matter.
To be sure, where you fall along these lines can matter a lot. It can matter for women in profound ways. For women as well as men, it may well matter for your job. It may determine whether you are considered orthodox or a false teacher, whether your book will be published or read and by whom, and whether you are considered friend or foe. But scratch beneath the surface of this stark division and you’ll find that there are no neat categories, that “complementarian” and “egalitarian” mean all sorts of different things, that they encompass a wide and even overlapping spectrum of interpretations and lived experiences. Yet the complexity and nuance and pain and mystery and devout intentions and, yes, occasional power grabs, are all collapsed into flat theological constructs that are more artificial than real.
Keeping these lines sharply drawn is important for certain religious leaders and seminary professors and people whose jobs depend on enforcing these distinctions. But I think that many if not most evangelicals live in a different world. A world where they may pay lip service to complementarian teachings and attend a conservative church but whose own marriages flourish (or don’t) in ways that align with egalitarian teachings. A world where the marriages of many self-professed “egalitarians” look no different from those of “complementarians.” A world where women’s authority is quietly circumscribed in “egalitarian” churches and organizations despite what they claim to be true. And world where complementarian women can exert significant authority while also always circumscribed.
This is true of other stark dividing lines as well, far more than religious gatekeepers will have you think. The distance between stated belief and lived reality can be significant on issues such as LGBTQ inclusion, theories of atonement, baptism, end-times theologies, and countless other doctrinal standards and litmus tests. A conservative Christian might condemn homosexuality as wholly incompatible with Christianity, no exceptions, and work to actively exclude not only Christians in same-sex relationships but also any Christians unwilling to exclude such believers from fellowship…until their own child comes out to them, and they find that in the end what they want most of all for their child is for them to still find a place in a Christian church. I know this because these parents come to me, their anguish palpable but also their relief to know there is still a place where their children can be welcomed to participate in the word and sacrament. There are Christians, too, who believe that publicly confessing Christ in this life determines one’s eternal fate in the world to come, but who sit by the bedside of a non-Christian family member and, as their loved one takes their final breaths, hope and pray and even believe that God will have mercy on their soul despite all of the things they have professed to be true.
This is not hypocrisy, this is what it means to be human. To be human is to live in the midst of brokenness. This is a fundamental teaching of Christian theology. To be human is to be fallen, to be caught up in sin and to live among sinners, to be broken among the broken, and to seek truth and beauty and restoration in the midst of this.
Instead, too many conservative Christians have defined Christianity in terms of checking the right boxes. To be Christian in this box-checking sense is not to love and to fail and to place one’s hope in the one who is love and who cannot fail, but rather to get everything right. To ascribe to all of the correct doctrines. To say the approved words about concepts that are ultimately beyond human comprehension. Faith is reduced to verbally place yourself in the correct box. Are you complementarian? Are you affirming? We know what to do with you. But this is not how people live. And despite what Christians may want you to think, this is also not how Christians live.
I was reminded about the preference for labels and categories over lived experience a couple of weeks back when I offhandedly mentioned on Twitter that I was Calvinist. Coming out as a Calvinist is one of the more controversial things I’ve done, but the pushback is usually from those who don’t like Calvinists, not from Calvinists themselves. This time it was different. It all started when I posted about Beth Moore’s talk at Baylor that I attended, and received this response:
To which I responded:
Within minutes, a Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist took issue with this: “Feminism denies essential truths within the Reformed faith.”
To which I replied: “Nah.”
At which point he pulled out a quote from Luther on how women lacked spiritual competence, thus suggesting that I could not be Reformed and feminist.
At which point I assured him that I differ with Luther on a few points, antisemitism being one of them.
At which point he persisted in attempting to write me out of the Reformed faith.
To which I responded: “I hardly need to defend my Calvinist credentials. I’m a lifelong member of the CRC, my most formative course in college was Calvin’s Institutes, and my intro to Calvinism was through the Kuyperian tradition, one that emphasized restoration, Shalom, and human flourishing.”
This he dismissed as an “argument from authority” and assured me that when I “disagree with Calvin and the reformers on fundamental theology about nature and pastoral leadership, you are a far cry from reformed orthodoxy. No disrespect intended.”
I assured him that I wasn’t claiming to be an exemplar of “reformed orthodoxy” or any such thing. In the end, I was a Nicene Christian who happened to be deeply shaped by Reformed conceptions of sin, redemption, and covenantal theology, influenced by Calvin, Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd. “Call me a bad Calvinist but this is what I’ve got.”
It became clear to me that we weren’t just disagreeing on issues, but on the nature of religious faith itself.
Which is to say, you can call me a bad Calvinist and I won’t fight you on this. But my ideas about who God is and who humans are and how to read the Bible and how to study the book of nature and how God’s ways are above our ways and nearly every metaphysical concept I can think of have been deeply shaped by the theology of John Calvin and those who stand in his tradition.
I wasn’t identifying as a Calvinist as a badge of pride. Goodness knows, in the circles I move in, identifying as a Calvinist is more a confession than a bragging right. But if being a Calvinist requires agreeing with everything John Calvin ever uttered, I doubt Calvin himself would qualify.
Religious identity is about doctrine and beliefs but cannot be reduced to a 100% match of every stated doctrine and belief. Religious identity has to do with being profoundly shaped by doctrines and beliefs, and by living in community with others shaped by those same ideas, and by the long practice of seeking truth and meaning imperfectly through those vocabularies, methods, and doctrines. If that’s the case, then Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist is stuck with me as a Calvinist, whether either of us likes it or not. You can try to take the girl out of Calvinism, but you can’t take the Calvinism out of the girl.
In the same way, they may have pushed Beth Moore out of the SBC, but she’s bringing her Baptist self into her Anglican church in ways that are authentic and beautiful and sometimes also really funny.
In my exchange with Husband/Father/Orthodox Presbyterian/Monarchist, I was reminded of Kathryn Lofton’s insights in her essay “Why Religion Is Hard for Historians (and How It Can Be Easier).” Lofton describes how the study of religion is hindered in part by a Protestant insistence on the primacy of belief. Protestants come by this honestly, and Protestants have played an outsized role in writing religious histories, at least in this country. But when it comes to defining and describing religion, Protestants are outliers in the emphasis they place on belief rather than on practice, belonging, and community.
Among evangelicals, I would argue, this is even more the case. But it is clear to those who study religion that religion is about more than mere assertions of belief. As Lofton puts it, “the last decades of critical theorizing in religious studies demonstrate conclusively the theological and historical contingency of belief,” even as “a certain kind of belief-speaking Christian” continues to privilege belief as a universal category, often with the backing of institutional and political power.
Instead, careful historians “know just how richly complicated, contradictory, and varied are the ways human beings understand what they do and what they think.” And this is a primary role that historians of religion can play: “This capacity to complicate our contemporary senses…is where history as a practice thrives.”
Beth Moore is no historian, but her book is a testament to the “richly complicated, contradictory, and varied ways” that Christians understand God, the world, and their place in it.
And here Beth articulates a deeper truth, an unpopular truth among evangelical gatekeepers who have a direct interest in denying this reality, but a truth that resonates powerfully among evangelicals themselves, and among her non-evangelical readers: None of us live our lives inside neat boxes.
They may promise to do so and try to appear to do so, but in the end, life is messy. Not just the “hot mess” kind of messy that can be fixed with the right lipstick, dry shampoo, and a little caffeine, but the deep brokenness kind of messy that results from humanity’s fall into sin as recorded in first book of the Bible. The messiness reflected in Christian anthropology and ontology. Sin has corrupted everything. Our relationships, our behaviors, our identities, and our understanding. We get things wrong, all the time. Maybe we’re especially prone to getting things wrong when we are most certain that we are getting things right.
“Let it be nailed on some sacred door that there is no scrutiny on earth like that which proceedeth from the mouth of a first-year seminary student,” Moore writes in her book, throwing a little shade as only she can do.
But this gets at the heart of her story.
So many of Beth’s critics are so busy building houses of cards to protect their conceptions of truth that they cannot see that they have confused their conceptions of truth for a truth that needs no defending. Placing their trust in their own articulations of their own truths, they have taken upon themselves the ceaseless task of defending every last card they’ve propped up lest a single one be nudged out of place. Enter Beth Moore, whose understanding of her faith rests not on a stack of cards she’s assembled, but rather on her sense of the Spirit of a living God, a Spirit that blows in ways that sooner or later will dismantle every last man-made house of cards.
More fundamental to Beth Moore’s identity than whether she’s egalitarian or complementarian, Baptist or Anglican, progressive or conservative, is that she is Christian, and the kind of Christian who has placed her faith in something beyond her comprehension even as she has dedicated her life to trying to comprehend it.
In short, in this book and in her life, Beth is offering a different way to be Christian. She certainly has beliefs and she holds to them. But her certainty, if I read her right, ultimately rests outside of herself and her own comprehension. Her faith allows for mystery and mistakes, for failures and for grace, for laughter and tears, and for profound humility, hope, and love.
When dominant expressions of Christianity today prioritize drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion and enforcing those with self-righteous certainty—good/bad, black/white, egalitarian/complementarian, conservative/progressive, unrepentant sinner/redeemed saint—it’s no wonder Beth keeps getting herself into so much trouble. She has eyes to see the artificiality of so many of these categories and she refuses to play this game.
Because she understands her own humanity so well, she gives others eyes to see their own as well.
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