Well, they warned me.
It was my first year at my first seminary. I had the honor of being chosen for an “Inter-Seminary Seminar” course in which people from five very different seminaries got together, were given a topic they all disagreed about, and then spent a semester writings papers to and debating with one another.
One of those seminaries was a liberal Lutheran one. I was told ahead of time that the students (usually women) from this school, every year, always made a big, emotional deal about masculine language being used in the papers. And indeed, at the beginning of every single paper discussion, the first comment was always a tear-filled lament over the use of masculine pronouns throughout the paper.
And so, when it was my turn to write a paper, I tried to be sensitive to this. I changed “mankind” to “humanity”, “brothers” to “brothers and sisters”, etc. And yet, when my paper came up for discussion, they opened up once more with an impassioned complaint against the male-centered language. I told them that I had tried to be sensitive to that. They said, “no, the problem was in your use of the masculine pronouns for God!”
I have been surprised about how strongly people have responded to this little series on using feminine language to talk about God. I want to make clear the audience I have in mind. I am talking to people that either haven’t really thought about this before, or feel a little weird about it but don’t have a strong opposition to it. If you believe that this is actually wrong, sinful, and deeply unfaithful to the nature of God, then these posts probably aren’t for you. We’d have to go much deeper into a theology of Scripture, Sexuality, Humanity, and Gender. I may do that another time, but not right now. Today, I want to talk about the way our language about God speaks to gender and some history of how we use gendered language.
Theology of Gender Language
For the longest time, the way I would have defended masculine language for God would be with an appeal to the idea of “headship”. This is the idea that different systems and ways of human relating have people that “head” them–like a “head” of State, for example. And as the “head”, this leader stands as the representative for everyone they lead and care for.
Conservatives on this issue (as I used to be) believe that husbands act as the “head” of their family unit, including their wives. Most of these conservatives would be the first to tell you that this does not mean that women in general should see men as their “heads” in general. And yet, there is still this idea that “maleness” serves as the “head” of “femaleness”. In other words, “maleness” serves as the representation of all humanity, whereas “femaleness” does.
Wow. I’ve actually been surprised at the response to the last post in this little mini-series on using feminine language to talk of God. I thought I was addressing one simple thing in the life of churches, but I misjudged the degree to which people would feel like this touched on everything from their thoughts on the Bible to the nature of Jesus himself. One of the best sets of exchanges was on Facebook in response to yesterday’s post. Below, I’ve reproduced a lightly edited version of the conversation. I hope you find it interesting as well. And let me know what you think!
DEBATER: Your post says, “The model of God as Father may be profound and true; but it is not the only model, and it does not render other models less true or profound.” It’s Jesus’ own self-disclosure and revelation of God. It’s more important than any other ‘model’ and it isn’t really a model. “Father” is not a metaphor. Its a reality for Jesus. And I’m not talking about Jesus’ physicality like his weight or hair color. Jesus revelation is of God as Father. That’s the particularity. He said pray to God as father. And he’s the Son. That’s ontological. The feminine is redeemed in Jesus, but its redeemed not by Jesus taking on the sign of the feminine, but by taking on the sign of the masculine redeemer of the oppressed and abused feminine.
ME: Your last line especially uses terms and ideas entirely foreign to the Scriptures. I’m actually shocked that you saw no issue in writing that. Women need a male redeemer to be redeemed? Even if you point to the ancient cultural idea of the male kinsman-redeemer, surely you aren’t saying that this (clearly) cultural accommodation is some revelation of the essentially gendered nature of God and redemption? The Old Testament also had lambs being sacrificed, and not people. Does that mean that Jesus in some sense had to partly be an “actual” lamb rather than a metaphorical one?
This is for those that follow this blog on a feed reader of some kind. There was an error in yesterday’s post that ended up back-dating it to a few days ago, meaning (I think) it never ended up in your feeds. For you convenience, here is that post:
I have a new post on the blog of Best Seminary. It’s on the heart and soul that one brings into seminary and the hard things one wrestles through when considering it.
My biggest fear going into seminary (and perhaps it’s yours, as well?) is the whole question of whether it is my “False Self” that is called to it and pastoral work, rather than my “True Self”. I have spent much of my life following Spurgeon’s (I think) advice that if you feel called to ministry at all, try to do everything else in your life you possibly could do. If you still end up in ministry, then congratulations, you were called.
Read the full post: “Terrified of Going to Seminary? Join the Club.”
Yesterday, I got to preach the hardest sermon I’ve gotten to preach (so far).
The text is Matthew 25:31-46, what is commonly called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats”. It’s also the one where Jesus shows up as a naked and hungry beggar and prisoner. It’s one of the most difficult, confusing, and doubt-inducing texts in the Gospels. Let me know what you think. Sermon cameos include Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Martin Luther, and homeless Jesus. Here’s the audio:
You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading
Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor it, National Geographic has a powerful photo spread of women from around the world, called “Portraits of Strength”. While looking through some of the comments, I saw this beautiful poem posted by the poet herself. Read the poem, see the pictures, and listen to the stories of a woman today.
I am a tree
Did you think I was a woman?
Oh no, I am a tree
rooted and immovable
impossible to conceive
that I have seen
Now gnarled and warped
weathered and aged
wrinkled and withered
bent to the ends of recognition
too rigid to give in
to the whim of man
I stand true to the tune
of the wind echoing
my own inner rhythm
persistent, consistent, constant
Perhaps every tree
was once a woman –
only a woman could stand so strong
fall so proud
when the axe of age claims her
and earth sets a bed for her
© 10.2006 Helen Bar-Lev
[image credit: “Kalfonarium” by Istvan Sandorfi]
For the site Best Seminary, I recently wrote two pieces about Distance Education. As I begin:
When I originally entered seminary, it was in a pretty traditional setting. A walled-in, ivy-laden campus with bearded men roaming the grounds, coffee-in-hand. We had a set schedule of classes that we dutifully went to, staring at Powerpoint presentations of varying quality, accompanied by live lecture and in-the-moment Q&A. My classmates and I would spend all our free hours together debating, arguing, refining, and sharing all our theological growth and such.
But after one year there, circumstance and convictions led me to leave that school. I worked for several years, but now I’m back in seminary, in a distance program. These two schools have similar doctrinal convictions, professorial pedigree, institutional history, and such. Therefore, I feel that I’ve been able to experience distance seminary education in a way that hopefully can give insight to anyone out there considering what sort of program to enter.
The first post gives “5 Advantages of Distance Seminary Education“:
- You make your own schedule
- You can stay invested in your church community and ministry
- It’s often more thoughtful and grace-filled
- The depth and diversity of community
- It’s Incarnational and humbling
The second is “5 Disadvantages of Distance Seminary Education“:
- You have to create your own structure
- You have less immediate access to the professors—or none at all
- It’s greater temptation to be dishonest
- Reading, reading, and more reading. Oh, and writing
- The experience is less cohesive
Click on those links for more thoughts on each of those points. And don’t forget to leave your own thoughts!
I recently told some friends about this year’s Lent series on “Male Feminist Theology”. One of them looked at me suspiciously and said, “I know what each of those three English words mean by themselves, but I have no idea what they mean together; it sounds like you’re fitting together things that don’t naturally go together”.
People often hear phrases like “Black Theology”, “Liberation Theology”, or “Feminist Theology”, and feel like there is a profound arrogance at play–isn’t simple “Theology” enough? Why must each group have their own pet theological opinions that belong only to them? But this is to profoundly misunderstand these theologies.
Years ago, on my first go-around with seminary, I wrote for a website called Going To Seminary. The site was started by an old campus minister of mine, and it was meant to be a place for wisdom and encouragement in seminary life. Looking back on the posts I wrote then, I still can’t believe how overzealous and eager I was, just six years ago.
Anyway, the last post I ever wrote for them was called “Realizing Seminary’s Not For You“, in which I wrote about my experience of deciding to drop out of school. Many people found this post encouraging, but astonishingly, the post inspired some comments that were some of the harshest I’ve ever received online for something I’ve written. People couldn’t imagine that God could call someone to seminary and then call them out before it was finished. Surely it must be a lack of trust and faith on my part, right?
Well, I still stand by that decision, and one of the main reasons why is that it set me up to now return to seminary with a much more clear, gracious, and (hopefully) mature mindset on the whole enterprise. Since I’ve been going back to seminary, I suppose it’s time for me to go back to writing on Going To Seminary. And so I have. Today marks the return of my writing on that site (I gave y’all a heads up last week).
Appropriately, my first post is an update and follow up to that previous piece. It’s called “Going (Back) to Seminary“.
It goes through each of those reasons why I left seminary and talks about how God worked in me and my life to lead me back, albeit to a different school. I hope each of you are able to be encouraged in your own journeys with God. Also, leave some comments and let us know what you think!
From Lynn Japinga’s excellent Feminism & Christianity: An Essential Guide (p.93):
Artist Edwina Sandys created a sculpture of a female form, arms outstretched as if hanging from a cross. The sculpture, entitled Christa, has created controversy wherever she is displayed. Critics say the statue defies the historical fact that Jesus was a man. Some viewers feel that the symbol of the cross is degraded or even blasphemed by a Christ in female form. Others are disturbed by the sexual overtones of the naked woman. Some people are troubled by yet another violent image of female suffering. A few people see in the sculpture the message that the death of Jesus symbolizes the pain of all human suffering.
The response to [this image] reveals various theological assumptions. Some people dismiss…the sculpture because they are literally false. Jesus was a man. End of discussion. Other people consider these images offensive and uncomfortable. It insults Jesus, and them as well, to think of him as a woman. These imaginative reconstructions of important events in the life of Jesus pose an important theological question: What difference does it make that Jesus was male?
Have at it. What do YOU think about this piece? What’s your first gut reaction? Why? What difference does it make that Jesus was male?
“I want to know if you smile when you see me happy again and if a tear runs down your face when you realize that your people are the reason I’ve never quite healed, that chemistry and not Christianity has been my cure.”
~ Lydia Childress,“They’ve Thrown Us Out of the Church Like Lepers”
That’s the opening quote of this amazing piece, “Jesus is not our Zoloft: Reflections on Mental Health and the Church”, by R.L. Stollar, and I think it captures well the heavy heart with which he writes.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Stollar, what he does or what his experiences in this area are, but this blog post is absolutely stunning. It is a response and critique of a recent Gathering on Mental Health and the Church conference, spearheaded by Rick Warren. He sees many things that encourage him, and some others that further dismay him. And he is spot on.
He points out the ways that the Church has wrongly seen mental health issues and mistreated those with them, and he beautifully charts a way forward.
Please read this. Yes, it’s kind of longer than most blog pieces, and doesn’t lend itself to skimming. But if all church leaders and Christians read this and took it to heart, it could change and help so much. The Church needs to hear this.
Just wanted to drop a quick note about this. I’ve been asked by an old friend and minister of mine if I could share my varied experiences on seminary life and work on a couple of sites. As those writings get posted, I’ll link to them from here. But, if you’re a seminarian, let me encourage you to follow these sites for my ideas and information on how to engage in seminary preparation, study, life, spirituality, and work well. Both of these sites are in the midst of a revitalization process, so expect some cosmetic looks in the weeks and months ahead. Let me know what you think! Here are the sites:
I’ll be honest, one of the reasons why I love Lent and the Church Calendar is because it is a helpful corrective for my own personal lack of personal discipline. I’m not especially skilled at putting together my own structure, and so I really flourish when structure and pattern is placed on me from the outside.
This is especially true with spiritual practices. To engage with a Church season like Lent, I often need to give myself a blog series to keep me thinking on a theme for the season (see above, under “Lent Posts“, and also check out this year’s series). I really do well with reading plans, prayerbooks, music albums, etc. If you find yourself in the same boat, here are some resources for this year’s Lent that some of you may find helpful.