Articles for the Month of March 2011

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: c. Why NOT call God “Mother”?

Previous post in this series: Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction
Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: b. Why Change the Habit of Centuries?

The god Baal about to throw a thunderbolt (from the Louvre photo from Wikipedia)

In view of this pastoral need (see previous post), we may ask why we evangelicals do not talk of God as motherly. Does some clear and strong reason prohibit this? A number of admired evangelical thinkers believe there is. Alongside the feminist argument for equality in God-talk, an opposing literature claims this is unChristian.1 Key figure Elizabeth Achtemeier, a respected evangelical biblical scholar and teacher of preaching, posed a case against speaking of God as mother.2 She claimed, along with others, that the Bible uses “father” not merely as a picture but as a name, so that to speak of God as mother speaks of another God, different from the God of the Bible.

Below, in the section “Yahweh or Baal” in Chapter 5, I argue that her conclusion is precisely the wrong way round. Those who speak of a God who is father rather than mother talk of a different god. Baal the Canaanite god was a male figure, as were half of the gods of the pagans. The biblical God is no more male than “he”3 is female!

  1. Kimel (1992) collected notable examples. []
  2. See Achtemeier (1986, 1987, 1992, 1993) and my critique in “Shall we serve Yahweh or Baal?” []
  3. I will put gender-specific pronouns for God in inverted commas, indicating that, though the use of “he” is traditional for God, this implies nothing about God’s nature. “S/he” and “her/his”, or an impersonal pronoun the worst alternative for the living God seem clumsy. Quotation marks are intrusive, slowing reading, but this lets us examine our unrecognised prejudices. []

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: b. Why Change the Habit of Centuries?

Previous post in this series: Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

View from the rock fortress of Massada (Photo by pboyd04)

In order to avoid some extremes of politically correct Christianity, and because they lack understanding of the historic and biblical background for a theologically sound talk of God as mother, many evangelicals speak of God as male. Yet there are pastoral, theological and cultural reasons to broaden our God-talk.

All talk of God is picture language; it cannot be literal. “No one has seen God,” as the Bible puts it.1 God the maker of universes is so far beyond the capacity of human experience and language that only metaphor and analogy can provide ways of talking about “him”. And yet all pictures have some deficiency. Picture language depends on our experiences, comparing with some aspect of life to give it the power to be useful. But sadly, many people have not had good fathering, and some fathers abuse their children. Children may grow up in one-parent families. Father may be a distant and less loving figure than mother, and some children prefer one parent more than the other! Boys may be closer to mother and girls may prefer father.2 A God who is father, not mother, risks being lopsided, and potentially unavailable to people who most need to experience divine love.

Despite the numerical prevalence of women in most congregations, many women feel on the margins of church life. The amount of male imagery for God is not the only reason for this, but it contributes. The Bible teaches (Genesis 1:27) that God created both men and women in the image of God. Yet using almost exclusively masculine pictures of God may encourage women to feel (or fear) they are less “in God’s image”. Men have sometimes believed this too.

We cannot think or speak of God without using pictures. Even speaking of God as “creator” conjures up images of “forming mountains” or of “the hands that flung stars into space.” Yet there is a danger in picturing God, the risk of half a picture. If we speak of the divine as rock and fortress, excluding personal imagery, we risk relating to God impersonally. If we picture God as father, but not as mother, we risk relating to God asymmetrically.

  1. This is quite striking in John 1:18, even though “God the only son” (Jesus) “has made him known”, it is still true that “no one has ever seen God.” (In Greek as in English “see” is used more widely of understanding and experience and not merely of visual sighting). In other words, even when God was revealed in Christ, eyewitnesses still only knew God through a picture. Even though in this case the picture is God himself in human flesh, they still could not “see God”. []
  2. Could this factor contribute to the 3:2 ratio of women to men in church? []

Promoting a podcast

Podcast bear by blogefl

Promoting a blog is easy, no need to list it in directories, just post a few interesting posts, and as with the most publishable academic articles make sure they “engage” with others (in blogging this may mean being rude, in academia proper fawning admiration is often better) and presto in a few weeks or months you are on your way with a growing readership.

Not so with Podcasts :(

Take Mark Goodacre’s excellent NT Pod. Mark is a fine scholar, teaching at a prestigious University, he’s an all-time nice guy, and famous in Biblical Studies online as the pioneer gateway keeper of the NT Gateway. His podcast is liked by 405 people on Facebook, and Twitted by many, yet it is sitting down in doldrums on Alexa, miles from the top 50. Podcasts are hard to promote…

First Google cannot, yet, index audio, so the “content” that draws the spiders is only that “teaser” you knock off at the last minute as you post the carefully crafted audio. Actually in terms of search engines it would be better to craft the few sentences of the teaser, and let the audio suck, it’s not “content” but text that is king of the search world.

Links, bloggers simply do NOT link to podcasts (unless you prod them really hard, I have not tried bribery, it might work… but is probably unethical) bloggers live in a world of blogs. Therefore they will link to your blog post that itself links to your podcast, but usually will fail to link to the real thing :( The only answer here is shameless self-promotion. So when the entertaining and much-commented How Jim West Really Knows So Much About Hell appeared it at first had a link to an earlier post here, but no link to the real content on 5 Minute Bible: Universalism, or Not? Part One: Jonah but I am determined1 so I posted a comment complaining, and presto a precious link :)

Yes, to promote a podcast you MUST trawl the web for podcast directories and submit your site to them, without that no one will find you except your children and cousins, or if you are a teacher your students ;)

So, this is an appeal to YOU, if you have a blog or other web presence please link to AT LEAST one podcast this week :)

PS: Having mentioned the problems of promoting podcasts, I should do my bit by mentionning other related podcasts here. In particular one I have not linked to before: The [ad hoc] Christianity Podcast a weekly show on theological and ethical issues facing the Christian community “non-obnoxious” and laid back. With Travis Jacobs, Steve Douglas, and Matthew Raymer.

  1. You do know that this is an irregular verb don’t you: I am determined, you are stubborn, s/he is pig-headed! []

Encyclopedia of Hebrew terms for tools

What a great resource, and free online instead of expensive dead trees from Brill :)

The כלי Database: Utensils in the Hebrew Bible from Het Oudtestamentisch Werkgezelschap (the Dutch and Flemish society of Old Testament scholars) looks really excellent a great source of information on all those awkward terms that refer to various sorts of tool or implement. Unfortunately the first term I looked up מִזְרָק from Am 6:6 does not appear to have been entered yet :( but the list is already impressively long.

The format is a series of PDF files, which allows the appearance to be controlled, but makes usage somewhat less easy and reuse much less easy compared to XML and CSS, but it will have made production easier :) It is sad that there are few or no illustrations. At a time when images are getting easier to find and permission to use more likely to be freely given. However, entries have a section pointing readers to illustrations in reference works in their library.

In short this seems a really useful tool, and one we can be grateful they are publishing in such an open fashion. It also offers an interesting set of compromises between traditional forms and the new medium. It will be fascinating to see over coming decades how many and which such compromises continue to be made, representing what is culturally important about print. For example in this case the physical layout of print with page and line breaks was deemed significant.

HT: Jim West

Responding to Jim (or at least continuing a conversation :)

our house was burgled, another reason for slow posting here recently :)

A couple of days ago Jim West posted Why Tim Bulkeley and the Rest are So Hell Bent on Defending Rob Bell’s Hell-Lessness1

I had a dreadful week last week. Among other things we were burgled and Barbara’s mum’s jewelery was taken, her main remaining physical reminder of her mum. So I could not continue the conversation quickly.

But now I am doing a couple of podcasts that between them provide (I hope) the positive counterbalance to my post here OK, till now I’ve held my peace, and avoided discussing that Bell fella and universalism. But… which basically only told you what I affirm that I do NOT know. The two podcasts affirm what I think I DO know. Jim won’t like the first ;) but perhaps the second may cause him to rethink…

The first podcast is up already Universalism, or Not? Part One: Jonah the next should appear tomorrow (if all goes well).

  1. BTW Jim, when I refer to your posts I provide a link, please could you do the kindness of the same kindness to your readers? []

Not Only a Father: 1. Talking Pictures: a. Introduction

Lion by Leszek.Leszczynski

The central task of theology, talking about God and discussing the nature of true talk about God, is difficult. How can one express the ineffable? One cannot hold the infinite within human language. Theologians and Pastors have used a number of approaches to their impossible task.

One approach, the Via Negativa, proceeds by saying what God is not, which can only ever be part of an answer, because God is obviously more than not-something. This argument says that since human language fails, let us not have pictures of God based on what humans are like. Much classical theology did this, stripping away what is inadequate before true talk of God can begin. The method that interests us here, by contrast, is analogy. An analogy says that the thing we do not understand is like something we do understand. In theology it takes things in creation as pictures that illustrate aspects of the creator. The Bible and our worship songs are full of such picture language. 

As well as lords and masters, lions, lambs and rocks, father is a popular picture; Jesus used this picture often. It also answers deep needs within the human psyche. Most of us comfortably call on our father, though the words do have problems. A human father may wound his son or daughter’s capacity to use this language. He may have abused, been absent for work, or separated from the child’s mother. The idea of authoritarian fathers, which lingers in our culture, also limits ways people can relate to God. Some fathers are distant in manner and yet stern in disciplining their children. These fathers present a poor picture of God’s tender and intimate love.
If father is part of normal human experience, understanding the meaning of “mother” is an even more universal for humans. Yet few of us are familiar and comfortable with talk of God as our heavenly mother. We are so unfamiliar with the motherly language for God in the Bible or the writings of early theologians, that we often explain it away or deny it. Fifty years ago, Christians rarely talked of God as mother. The great CS Lewis assumed the very idea was shocking, and the mere thought sufficient to demonstrate that women could not be priests (as Anglicans name their pastors), since they could not “represent” a God whose name was “father”.1

Contemporary Christians tend to fall into one of two categories on this question.
The liberal feminist may promote a notion of the “Great Mother, or speak of “Gaia,” a kind of modern Mother Earth. Evangelicals who believe that “father” alone is the biblical usage, deny all possibility of mother language, though of course people vary within these groups. One variety of liberal seeks to avoid the question, while remaining egalitarian and politically correct, by avoiding sexist language. Like the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, they reject all gender specific terms. Going further than the grammar checker, they even exclude father and mother. However, when people pray using this “PC” thinking, the prayers lack warmth and may not sound convincing, for example, God, Godself, is the creator and sustainer of all life. In my view, God does not create such lifeless prayers! 

Some evangelicals note small signs of God being motherly or feminine while seeing both God and Christ as male. This leaves us with a male God, but a somewhat feminized male! I do not find the view satisfying. Others, rightly, preferring to risk the human end of the equation, occasionally hint timidly that God may be like a mother to us as well as our Heavenly Father.
  1. C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper) Undeceptions London: Bles, 1971, 193 (article first published in 1948). []

OK, till now I’ve held my peace, and avoided discussing that Bell fella and universalism. But…

The Triumph of Death c. 1562 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. "The painting shows aspects of everyday European life in the mid-sixteenth century."

Jim West’s post and even more his commenters have driven me to it. They are all so confident. Each of them know the Almighty’s mind so clearly and fully. For some of them it is simple, even [insert name of your most hated murderous and cruelly heartless dictator] must be saved, because God is too nice to condemn them, let alone send them to a pit of eternal fire. For the others it is equally simple, if someone has not expressed faith in Christ (and here there are some slight differences, so except those who have not “heard” the gospel, others somehow make no exceptions) they are condemned to hell.

But I wonder, Scripture (at least if read with an eye even a little attuned to the colourful ways of human speech) is less than clear on the subject, yet they all – on both sides – know.

As for me, unlike my Calvinist friend with whom I discussed these issues in college chapel last year, I believe in the sovereignty of God, so that God is not bound by any simple rule that humans express. And I trust the Almighty to do a better job of peopling and managing the afterlife than I or any of the commenters could.

Yes, it would be comforting to think of some people (Sen. Gen. Than Shwe springs to mind though he’d hardly be alone) “burning in the fires of hell” but if God, who in Christ hung out to die for you and for me, can arrange to save his poor twisted creature, who am I, or who are you, to object!

Passive students or active learning

One video in particular from Michael Wesch’s Visions Of Students Today 2011 project caught my eye. He asked students to make short videos of education from their perspective, and offer them as an open source resource.

This video caught my attention because it highlights the dangers of leaving students passive and the power of active learning:


For more on Michael see these previous posts:

Why do we still teach?

Image by jonathan.d.becker

Brooke at Anuma in VOST2011: The Visions of Students Today asks:

What do students in Higher Education see today? What do they “see” in the sense of, “What are their visions?” And, what do they literally see from the place in which they are expected to learn?

He’s pointing to a new project by Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. The call for submissions asked students to make short (preferably < 2 minutes) videos of education from their perspective, and offer them as an open source resource. The videos are often fascinating (at least for a teacher ;) and sometimes compelling, just think of the talent and effort being expressed here!

Brooke also wrote:

In the professorial circles in which I run, I am probably among those more likely to identify with the students of VOST2011: besides being a “distance pedagogies guy” (in progress), I am after all a Gen-Xer, and until a subject matter grabbed me in my Masters work, felt continually disenchanted with and alienated from the structures of education, while still identifying strongly with other students as a peer group.

Well, it may not surprise you to know that although well past being Gen-X those experiences rign true for me, as do many of the students’ visions. Perhaps they do for others… so, in this over-mediated world where information tends to be free, why do we still teach, instead of facilitating learning?

See these earlier posts among many others for my thoughts:

The Bible’s Buried Secrets: Did God have a wife?

Image from a pot found at Kuntillet Ajrud above the inscription mentioning "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" (from Wikipedia)

I’ve not been posting much here recently because I’m horribly busy, but also because I’ve been podcasting like mad around topics related to the BBC program The Bible’s Buried Secrets well actually we don’t get to see quality programming like that down here, so it was more in response to ideas raised by the Daily Mail puff piece “Why the BBC’s new face of religion believes God had a WIFE

If you are interested inWhy do you read? Or: Was God married? and Are you an idolater? (Not – Was God married? Part Two) I claim Yahweh definitely had a wife indeed the evidence comes mainly from little-read parts of the Old Testament. In this morning’s podcast Was God married? Part two: the death of the goddess I try to begin answering the question left open at the end of Stavrakopoulou Mail piece:

I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like had the goddess remained.

Tomorrow’s podcast promises more on Yahweh as female :) But more about that tomorrow ;)