Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Inclusive Language & the Church: Fishers of Men?

 (4th in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.) 

"I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.
If you follow me, if you follow me (glory hallelujah),
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me."

This little Sunday School song, attributed to Harry D. Clarke in 1927, was especially popular during the evangelistic eras of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham crusades.

Many children's church songs of that period--"Deep and Wide," "If You're Happy and You Know It," "Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain," "Do Lord," "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam"--were replete with nebulous lyrics. But "Fishers of Men" at least had a solid scriptural foundation: Matthew 4:19.

I doubt this Scripture would be nearly as memorable except for the popularity of the "Fishers of Men" song. I grew up singing it, and still can't read that passage without hearing the tune in my head.

Unfortunately, the song text quotes the KJV, which is known for its gender-exclusive language. The text and tune of this song are so wedded, it's impossible to substitute gender-inclusive language as a correction of the lyrics and still have a decently crafted song.

Whenever I think of this song nowadays, I remember one amusing incident from several summers ago:

Lisa, my friend and ministry colleague, took a group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders to join other Kentucky church groups for a week of camp at a nearby Baptist college. Thursday afternoon of that week I visited the camp, hanging out with our group as they went about their activities. 

After supper, everyone came together in the chapel for a lively joint "worship" service (actually, more of a "God-themed pep rally"). Then each church group gathered in separate rooms to wrap-up some of the concepts introduced during the worship service.

Lisa first helped the children write thank-you notes to various supporters back home. Then she asked them to sit in a semi-circle in front of her on the floor.

After a few minutes of listening to the children relate what they had learned that day, she began a discussion about using our spiritual gifts to further God's kingdom--one of the themes from the earlier service.

Now, Lisa is an excellent preacher. She preaches at our church several times a year, utilizing her well-prepared manuscripts. She is ordained, uses gender-inclusive language and Scripture translations regularly, and is at ease with extemporaneous speaking and facilitating theological discussions.

However, speaking without a manuscript always carries the risk of having to "think on one's feet." and when one has memorized KJV Scripture and sung gender-exclusive songs throughout one's childhood, these are the words that come to mind when speaking extemporaneously about Godly matters. Old habits die hard.

Anyway, back to the story...  As Lisa and the children were well into their discussion about using spiritual gifts, she said to the children: "The Bible says we are to be 'fishers of men.' Now, in order to be 'fishers of men,' what kind of bait should we use?"

One sixth-grade boy immediately raised his hand. “Women!” he blurted, not quite innocently, as his friends giggled.

Caught off guard, suddenly realizing how her inadvertent use of gender-exclusive language had prompted his answer, Lisa threw her head back and belly-laughed at his response.

It is so important that gender-inclusive language be used around children. Children are concrete thinkers, and more often than not they understand words and phrases literally.

Since even "inclusive" Scripture translations use only masculine pronouns for God, it's not surprising that children (and adults) think of God as male.

And since patriarchal grammar rules obscure female gender by absorbing them in terms such as "man," "men," "he," "his," "him," it's not surprising that children (and adults) think that males have priority status over females in both theological and practical matters.

I love the story of the little girl whose bedtime prayers included asking God to bless every family member, friend and pet (current and past) by name. At some point she began to add "and all girls" at the end of her nightly prayers.

Eventually, her father's curiosity finally got the best of him. He asked, "Why do you always add the part about all girls?" She responded, "Because everybody always finishes their prayers by saying, "all men!" Even at her tender age she understood the unfairness of females being left out. 

Adults have the power and the responsibility for helping shape the words and thinking of children—concepts that will follow them throughout their lives. What one learns during childhood "comes naturally" later.

Being intentional about using inclusive language will require diligent editing of our words, but it's important and gets easier with practice. And some songs like "Fishers of Men" just need to bite the dust.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Inclusive Language & the Church: A Male God?

 (3rd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.) 

Much has been written in recent years about the negative effects of using masculine imagery and pronouns when referring to God.

The Scriptures tell us that God is neither male nor female, that God's nature encompasses both male and female characteristics. God is Spirit, indescribable.

Yet when it comes to choosing words that speak of God, we are deeply rooted in patriarchal tradition. World-wide language for God has for centuries been overwhelmingly masculine in biblical translations, liturgies, sermons, hymns/songs and everyday speech.

It has never occurred to some people that the pervasive use of masculine terminology and metaphors to speak of God might result in a skewed conceptualization of God as "masculine."

Author and hymnist Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) writes: “To say that language choice is ‘mere metaphor’ or ‘only a matter of words’ is, however, unconvincing if the usage in question is persistent and widespread.

It is a fair assumption that persistent and systematic uses of language express what the speakers really think and match how they behave…[and] that the way we speak of God shapes and slants our understanding of God.”    

Our basic concept of God is formed at a very early age. There is some evidence that very young children may be more aware of God's presence than adults, though they are less able to articulate what they experience.

As an adult, I intentionally try to conceptualize God in broader, non-gender-related terms. But despite my best efforts, I still cannot entirely shake my childhood visualization of God as a blurry, light-skinned, grandfatherly figure with an inviting demeanor, a very large lap and long arms that reach out to embrace me as a child, along with lots of other children.

This imagery probably says as much about my psyche as it does my faith, but I am convinced that my religious upbringing--through books and Bible stories, worship language and song--had a lot to do with my early visioning of a masculine God.

Divinity professor Sheri Adams, ("God and Gender: Is God Male or Female? Both or Neither?"*) writes: “This powerful conditioning starts early and is very pervasive... I have asked many, many people what image they had of God when they were children. Almost to a person, people have responded that they thought of God in male terms.

...Most of the people…have sat through countless worship services in which every reference to God…was in male terms: he, him, his, Father, King, Lord. Every statement we make about God, every picture we produce of God, is an interpretation of God... From our interpretations come our theology and from our theology comes our guidelines for the Christian life.”

We think of God as having human-like qualities because that's what we know best. That's how we relate to others, and we want to have a close, personal relationship with God.

But we must remember that both males and females are "created in God's image." When we use only masculine imagery and pronouns to refer to God, we omit the balance of God's feminine nature.

We're so conditioned to speaking of God in masculine terms, it is often jarring to hear someone use "Mother God" or "She" to speak of God.

[If feminine imagery/pronouns were employed as frequently as masculine imagery/pronouns, there would not be as much activism against gender-exclusive language. But patriarchy reigns supreme, so we press on against the status quo.]

Several years ago I read Wm. Paul Young's wonderful religious novel, The Shack. Young has been criticized for imaging the Trinity as three completely separate human characters. But my favorite part was when he introduced the God-figure, an African-American female cook named Papa. (Talk about scrambling stereotypes!)

Actually, we have a bigger problem than using masculine references for God, or even substituting feminine references. When we think of God only in terms of human-like qualities, we limit our understanding of God's complex nature. God's character encompasses so much more than personhood.

To broaden our understanding of God, we might intentionally lay aside for a while any human-like references:

            · He, Him, His, Himself, Father, Lord, Master, King,
               or even She, Her, Mother, Parent, Ruler

[Note: Laying aside masculine pronouns will be the most difficult part of this exercise. With practice it gets easier. I've been able to avoid referring to God as "He" or "Him" when writing articles, litanies, lyrics, & prayers now for years--it's become second nature.]

Instead, we might speak of God using terms that highlight other aspects of God's character:

            · Names: God, Yahweh, Jehovah, I AM,
                              Divine Spirit, Maker, Godself 

            · Adjectives: Holy, Creator, Loving, Heavenly,
                                  Mighty, Good, Great, Worthy,
                                  Defending, Deliverer, Redeeming,
                                  Perfect, All-Wise, All-Knowing, Cosmic

Ultimately, changing our verbiage will change our thinking and living. Remember, there are "a thousand names for God," and we need to use them all. 

*from Putting Women in Their Place: Moving Beyond Gender Stereotypes in Church and Home, Joe & Audra Trull, authors