How God Made Beth Moore a Feminist (Kind Of)
Beth Moore speaks at the Dove Nominee Luncheon at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 6, 2014. Credit - Terry Wyatt—Dove Awards/Getty Images
Not too many contemporary writers can begin the acknowledgements section of a memoir with words as folksy as “Lord-a-mercy this would go a heap faster if I could just mention the people I don’t need to thank” and get away with it. This is doubly true for a book that is unexpectedly grim—with revelations of parental sexual abuse, spousal PTSD and bipolar disorder, and the loss of faith in a church, if not a God—and at the same time unexpectedly funny.
But Beth Moore, despite her best efforts (or so she insists), is not someone who is given to coloring within the lines. Her memoir, All My Knotted Up Life, out now, a sort of The Glass Castle for people of faith, details the difficult upbringing and successful ministry of one of the most popular Bible teachers of the current era. It also deals with her gradual feminist awakening—though that is a term she would never use.
What makes All My Knotted Up Life more fun than it sounds is also what makes Moore’s teaching so popular: a sharp and compassionate eye for human frailty. Moore’s faith is profound, and has obviously sustained her; but her sense of humor has, too. She makes fun of herself, her parents, the Christian cultural norms of the day. At one sleep-away camp, she taught sixth graders about God—and hot rollers. “They couldn’t get that from just anybody,” she writes. “It takes considerable hair.”
Moore, 65, is famous in certain circles for her well-loved Bible studies used generally by women, particularly conservative women in the Southern Baptist Church. In the mid 2000s, she filled 10,000-strong arenas with people coming to hear her Bible talks (not sermons, as she subscribed to the view that women don’t preach). In 2016, her company, Living Proof Ministries, declared assets of just under $15 million.
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Moore’s fame spread beyond those circles when her public dismay at her fellow evangelicals’ promotion of then-candidate Donald Trump led to a vicious backlash among some Christians, which set in train a series of events that culminated in her leaving her longtime publisher, her church, and ultimately the Baptist denomination. She’s one of several high-profile Christian women, including Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans, who moved away, or were pushed, from the evangelical wing of the church at around the same time.
From the outside, Moore’s actions looked like the brave stance of a modern woman against the patriarchy. But All My Knotted Up Life reveals something a little more complicated: a damaged but determined woman who, after being adopted into and nourished by a community, realized that the same network of threads that supported her through tough times was now strangling her.
Moore was raised in Arkansas and Texas in one of those childhoods populated by elderly relatives with such old-timey attributes as an eye lost to lye soap, or a spit jar for chewing tobacco, or a willingness to walk a cow 33 miles to a new home. She was one of five siblings in a tight family “zipped up inside the unknown together” that looked like it was doing better than it was. Her father sexually abused her and cheated in a way that drove her mother into mental illness and to the brink of suicide, yet her parents remained married until her mother died.
Moore told her father she forgave him at his deathbed, but his behavior had already had ripple effects throughout her life, including a period of depression in her 30s. These were complicated by the fact that, as she reveals in the book, her husband Keith Moore, who survived a horrible childhood accident that killed his brother, has PTSD and bipolar disorder. She suggests that living with Keith’s illness was made more difficult by her belief that a husband is head of the family and a wife should not be the one making decisions.
In Moore’s telling, she never set out to be a prominent Christian teacher, nor a feminist champion. She writes of a numinous experience at 18, alone at the sink of a camp bathroom, which led her to believe she had some kind of calling, but it was unclear to what. For five years, it was leading aerobics to Christian worship music and occasionally talking about “making fitness count for Christ.” Eventually, the talking overtook the working out. Married by the age of 21, she had two daughters in quick succession and as they grew so did the number of invitations to teach. By her mid-40s she had a string of successful books to her name, a lot of fans, and a lot of critics.
More than just a memoir, Moore’s book is a snapshot of what a particular moment in American religious history—the rise of Trump and his weaponization of the pro-life issue—looked like from the inside. Evangelicals, having amassed considerable political and cultural power, harnessed it to advance a candidate whose character profoundly dismayed many adherents, especially the women. This began to create fragmentation within churches, families, and different wings of the movement.
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For Moore, the church’s shrugging off of then-Presidential candidate Trump’s taped boast that he couldn’t help kissing beautiful women and that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. You can grab them by the p-ssy,” was the warning indicator of the soon-to-be revealed history of the Southern Baptist Church’s tolerance of sexual abuse and other injustices. “It has been my observation,” she writes, “that racism and sexism have an uncanny way of showing up together, like two fists on one body.”
Moore writes about her upbringing in the church the way people write about their racist elderly relatives, acknowledging both the pain their attitudes caused, but also the love of which they were capable. “The Baptist church had been my safe place. My sanctuary. These were my people. I loved them. But something was happening to us,” she says. She acknowledges the possibility of her own complicity. “Maybe it had been happening all along and I was too blind to see it. Too busy in my own world. Too privileged. Too partial. Too immersed.”
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Those looking for a feminist revolution in Moore’s writing will not find much inspiration, and neither will those who hope for status quo. She settles some scores with her critics, but is careful to save her harshest words for the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church, whom she paints as much more invested in keeping women from the sin of teaching men than they are in keeping men from the sin of abusing women.
At the outset of the the book, Moore writes that she has always wanted heroes and villains: “All my knotted up life I’ve longed for the sanity and simplicity of knowing who’s good and who’s bad.” The memoir provides no clear answers about who they are in Moore’s life, and she’s not the only one who’s not giving out easy answers. “God has remained aloof on this uncomplicated request,” she writes. Moore, however, even in face of considerable complications, has not become aloof to God.