Monday, January 23, 2012

Wrestling with inclusive God-talk

I struggle with inclusive God-talk.  The word ambivalence describes how I feel. It’s a good word, a word that includes the idea of a dual between values and the resulting confusion. That’s me.  I value knowing that God is not a male, and I value the theologians and seminaries that want to communicate this to the wider body of Christ.  But I also value beauty in language.  My editing hand slashes unmercifully at clunky constructions, in my own work and when I’m editing someone else’s article. As a poet, I know that form has to embrace and embody meaning if a good poem is to result. Both/and, not either/or.

It’s the form part that bothers me when I read something like, “God communicates God’s will in God’s own time to God’s people.”  When I complained that there was just a little too much God in that sentence, a theological friend piously replied, “Can one ever have too much of God?” 

Well, no….I guess not.  But that’s not the point.  It just sounds so awkward—almost ugly—to say it like that.

I remember well when I first became fanatical about applying inclusive language to people. I happened during the sermon one Sunday morning years ago. As usual, my restless spirit seemed to be putting up a block against the barrage of words, my definition of preaching at that time in my life. The pastor was urging us to be “mighty men of God.” I knew he was meaning all of us, men and women alike, and I was trying to mentally accommodate the language.

For some reason, I just stopped trying that morning and began paying attention to the images in my head. As we were encouraged to be men of prayer, the picture in my brain was of a group of white men, dressed in business suits, kneeling in prayer. All the mighty men of God were just that, white men in business suits.  I watched the images come and go through each point of the sermon, and every reference to men carried its corresponding male image.

Realizing that for our pastor, the word “men” was a collective plural noun that automatically included women, I tried putting women into the pictures in my head. It didn’t work. I simply could not force my brain to picture women under the covering label of men. I was nowhere in the images that Sunday morning.

I realized that this was part of my problem with church and sermons, that the intuitive sub-conscious center of my brain, the place where the pictures are born, was not cooperating with my efforts to apply the male words to myself. That’s why church made me so tired and restless (or at least that was one of the reasons; immaturity may also have had something to do with it).

So I applaud efforts to make language about people inclusive, although this becomes awkward at times. I also applaud efforts to be more accurate in our language about God. So why do I struggle so much with inclusive God-talk?

Since the books of the Bible were originally written in patriarchal contexts, it’s not surprising that so much of biblical language portrays God with male images, “Father” and “Son” being primary examples.  But the deeper revelation behind the stories and images whispers the mystery of God who is transcendent and Spirit and so far beyond language that words can only falter and trip.

The book of James marvelously illustrates the gender issues that surround our understanding of God.  In one of my favorite images, James calls God “the Father of lights,” the giver of all good gifts (1:17). A decidedly male image.  But James follows this with a description of what this Father of light does for us.  He gives us birth through the word of truth.  There you have it!  A Father who gives birth!  God our Father/Mother. Creator/birth-giver.  Source of all life.

This doesn’t settle my dis-ease with modern amorphous God-talk, but it does make me smile.  And it reminds me that this mystery runs deeper than words.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On slow learning

by Scott Cairns

If you've ever owned
a tortoise, you know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle--
your tortoise's intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself in his journeys
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly ashamed,
or, looking up with tiny, wet eyes, might offer
an honest shrug. Forgive him.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best books of 2011

One of the best gifts my parents gave me was a love of reading. No matter what else I’m involved in, there’s always a book in the background—not as a means of escape but rather as a way to keep a larger perspective. What I read and how I live go together. The following are the books that most affected me in 2011, no matter when they were published.

Contemporary novels:
Kathryn Stockett, The Help: Compelling treatment of relationships between black maids and white mistresses in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The author uses the technique of deliberate exaggeration (stereotyping) of some of the white women, while, in contrast, developing more fully the characters of the black women. Good on interracial relationships, prejudice, hypocrisy, friendship and the power of the written word. I also enjoyed the movie.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay: Provocative and violent futuristic fantasy books for young people about peace. It was almost impossible to put them down.
Stieg Larson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest:  Well written, if rather violent, murder mysteries with an underlying message about violence against women. I tried but could not watch the corresponding  movies because of the violence.
I love reading stories set other cultures, especially when the authors are from that culture. My favorites in 2011 included Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (set in Ethiopia and India); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria); and Chris Cleave, Little Bee (Nigeria and England).

Old novels: I also re-read several old favorites.
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina: Tolstoy is probably my favorite author.
George MacDonald, Lillith: Every time I re-visit this old friend, I find new treasures. This is my favorite MacDonald book and represents his mature work. A fairy tale for grown-ups, it contains one of the most inspiring visions of heaven I have ever read (an influence on C. S. Lewis, precursor to the scenes in The Last Battle and Perelandra).
Pearl Buck, The Good Earth: The values embodied in this book reflect Buck’s growing up in China and her bi-cultural nature.

Memoirs: This was the year of the memoir, and I read some great ones.
Other memoirs I that impacted me include two books by Iranian author Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Iran and Memories: Things I’ve Been Silent About; Mary Karr, Lit: A Memoir (an unusual conversion story); and Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle (the best insider’s view of poverty in the US I have ever read).

Other non-fiction books I found engaging include the following: Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life; David Allen, Getting Things Done; Pete Grieg, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer; Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully; and Thomas Kelly, The Eternal Promise.

I’ll save poetry for another blog.  I’d love to hear about the books that impacted you.