In the last little while, I’ve heard more and more Christian leaders shying away from using gender-specific pronouns for God, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
“God poured God’s self into the world so God could redeem the world,” rather than “God poured Himself into the world so He could redeem the world.”
That sort of thing.
As I’ve confessed/boasted in the past, I’m definitely a word geek. It bugs me enormously when people use the words ‘monkey’ and ‘ape’ interchangeably. I go ape when people refer to spiders as ‘bugs’. I hate it when people mix up terms like ‘biweekly’ and ‘semi-weekly’. And don’t even get me started on its, it’s and its’.
This is how God made me. And as I study the Word, I can’t help but also be affected by the way teachers use words.
Fasten your seatbelts, everyone. This is going to be another one of those posts where Baldy drones on and on about parts of speech and grammar and whatnot.
Yes, but stay with me, reader(s), there might be something here that’s useful for non-word geeks, too.
As any regular Disciplehood readers know, I routinely use male pronouns (He, Him, His, etc.) to refer to God – Father, Son or Spirit, or collectively on second reference. I do this not to actively declare or reinforce the idea that God is male, but because I believe in the value of pronouns to keep trains of thought rolling and avoid repetition. And since the Bible uses male pronouns to refer to God, I default to that approach as well.
So when I first heard people repeatedly using The G-noun to refer to God when a pronoun would have been used in second reference to any other being, it got on my nerves a little.
I think I heard this practice first a couple of years ago from avant-garde, neo-liberal pastors, and it struck me at the time as unnecessary pandering in the name of being inclusive – something in the same ballpark as well-intentioned but pointless and distracting political correctness. But the preaching was always very good, so whenever they sidestepped gender pronouns, I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore it and listen to the rest of the message.
Now, it’s not that I’m not in favor of inclusiveness. I am. What I fear is that our efforts to get the pronouns right can get in the way of the actual message.
St. Monty of Python brilliantly prophesied what I’m talking about in a fantastic scene from the 1979 film, Monty Python and the Life of Brian, more than a decade before political correctness took hold of Western society in the 1990s:
FRANCIS (Michael Palin): Yeah. I think Judith’s point of view is very valid, Reg, provided the Movement never forgets that it is the inalienable right of every man –
STAN (Eric Idle): Or woman.
FRANCIS: Or woman… to rid himself –
STAN: Or herself.
FRANCIS: Or herself.
REG (John Cleese): Agreed.
FRANCIS: Thank you, brother.
STAN: Or sister.
FRANCIS: Or sister. Where was I?
REG: I think you’d finished.
FRANCIS: Oh. Right.
They got so bogged down in making sure the language of their discussion was inclusive that they forgot what they were talking about. And as an easily distractable Christian, I fear that I would end up as lost as poor Francis in this scene, if I focus too much on not assigning a gender to the Almighty.
But lately, my icy heart has begun to melt on this point. I’ve started listening to the Lectiocast – an offshoot of the Homebrewed Christianity podcast series, where scholars/pastors like Daniel Kirk, Bo Sanders and Tripp Fuller regularly sidestep gender-specific pronouns and refer to God only as the noun ‘God’.
And somehow, it doesn’t feel like pandering in the name of political correctness, and it doesn’t feel forced.
Maybe I’ve simply gotten used to it.
Just to be clear, it’s definitely not that I’m just now beginning to connect with the notion that God probably doesn’t have a gender; that the essence of our Creator/Redeemer/Inspirer is far too vast and complex and mysterious and all-encompassing to be contained inside the box that is ‘male’ or ‘female’.
It seems plausible to me that gender may not even exist outside of our material universe. It may be a utilitarian aspect of animal existence that only serves the function of species reproduction, that may be entirely foreign to the spiritual realm.
The answer to the either-or question ‘Is God male or female?’ is probably ‘Yes.’
And I think I connected with this idea long before I became a Christian.
References to a genderless (or at least non-male) God also abound in popular culture. Here are just a few examples:
1. In his 1999 film Dogma, filmmaker/actor Kevin Smith lampooned an assortment of Christian traditions and assumptions, including God’s sex: he cast the profoundly female Alanis Morissette to play the Deity in his film.
2. Similarly, I find it delightfully contradictory that in the 2002 Johnny Cash tune ‘The Man Comes Around‘, the Man in Black talks about the End Times, saying ‘the Father hen will call His chickens home.’ I love that Johnny acknowledges the maternal characteristics of God by calling God a ‘hen’, but can’t bring himself to use the term ‘Mother’.
Mr. Cash, I’m right there with you.
More seriously, I know a few Christians for whom the phrase ‘God the Father’ is difficult. Based on profoundly negative and scarring experiences with their earthly dads, the word ‘father’ carries a negative, ugly connotation for them – even when it’s spelled with a capital F. As my friend Nathan shared in a spiritual discussion last week, how would their experience of, and relationship with, the Divine be different if they prayed, ‘Our Mother, who art in heaven…?’
3. That may have been part of the reason William P. Young made God the Father a woman in his 2007 novel, The Shack. I thought the choice was interesting, but not at all offensive. What was offensive to me was the blasphemously (sez I), presumptuously audacious choice to make God a character in his book at all.
Talk about making God in your own image!
Erm, Baldy, have you heard of the concept of the pot calling the kettle black?
Yes, reader(s). In fact, that’s part of what led me to write this post.
It’s begun to occur to me that when I call God ‘He’, I might inadvertently be making God in the image I have in mind for Him, and thereby limiting who He can be and what He can do in my life.
It’s not that I think God objects to the male pronouns. Otherwise, He probably wouldn’t have inspired/allowed the writers of the Bible to include them. A couple thousand years ago, people needed God to have a gender, and in those patriarchal societies, it made sense that they would gravitate to the masculine. Perhaps God catered to that, revealing Himself as male to the people He interacted with – or maybe He didn’t filter what was presented at all, but people only had eyes to see Him as male.
At some point (probably much earlier than I suppose), people caught on to this idea, but kept using He and Him because it wasn’t a hill worth dying (or killing) on for them.
That’s right where I am.
I use ‘He’ and ‘Him’ to refer to God because it’s simple and convenient. But we’re talking about the Creator of the Universe here. The Alpha and Omega. The Holy One.
If anything about my understanding of – and relationship with – this vast, too-big-to-be-contained-in-the-entire-universe God is simple and convenient, am I doing it wrong, and thereby missing out on something crucial and awesome?
Do I need to choose to be a bad wordsmith in order to be a good theologian?
I think I’m going to find out. As I turn 44 tomorrow, I think I’ll try the anti-pronoun approach out as sort of a New Year’s (for me) resolution. It feels like an important step toward letting God be God.
Take note that I’m not planning to set aside gender-specific nouns that refer to God (Father and Son, most notably), just pronouns. No need to throw Baby Jesus out with the bathwater, as it were.
Let me also declare that I won’t hit the mark 100% of the time, right off the bat. Old habits die hard.
It’s definitely going to be distasteful to forsake these perfectly good pronouns, and I’m sure it will distract me from some of what I want to communicate for a while.
But I wonder if that distraction might not actually be part of the plan.
You see, it’s often when I’m distracted from what I think is most important that I discover what actually is. I rarely hear God speaking to me when I’m trying to actively listen for divine revelation; it’s often when I’m focused on something mundane and trivial that God slips in and reveals God’s will to me.
Is it possible that the distraction of pronoun avoidance might strip away some of my filters, and help me to accidentally see God more clearly?
I’m not sure, but I’m starting to think so. Perhaps I’ll give it a try: there’s no doubt God wants me to get to know God better, after all.
Sigh. This is going to be tough.
Peace be with you.