Feminine Metaphors, The Bible, God, and The Shack

Friends,

This post attempts to dismiss the angst many have over so-called ‘feminine’ theology. Much of the angst comes from those who are simply afraid that God might not fit into their pre-conceived ideas. Of special concern is the angst many have over The Shack’s presentation of God as a fat, African-American woman. (I suspect much of it comes, too, because people haven’t actually read The Shack.)–jerry

I read this:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

Then I read this:

After looking at an increasingly androgynous Rob Bell in this video, I’d say Bell doesn’t seem limited to a gender either. Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind. After all, the thinking goes, if man is made in God’s image, why would he/she be limited to a gender either, right? The goddess, feminine theology, introduced here by Bell and also by the recent Shack novel, will go a long way to push this thinking forward.

Then I thought, “Hmm….I’m an educated man (did very well in college thank you very much). I read a lot. I read The Shack. Strange that when I finished reading it I didn’t come away with even the foggiest notion of goddess worship. Strange that when I finished reading the book I came away with a profound sense that perhaps, yes, God is still very real even when stories don’t have happy endings. Strange that while I was reading the book I had a profound sense of humility that more often than not I have tried to create God in my image instead of allowing the Scripture to control my imagination and, thus, allowing God to be God in his own image. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack, I didn’t feel inclined to worship Aphrodite or Diana or even my wife. However, it was equally strange that I didn’t feel like worshiping an old man with a long white beard, or Zeus, or even myself.

“Strange that I, an educated man who reads, writes, and preaches for a living was not at all uncomfortable with idea that God might look more like Aunt Jemima than Arnold S, more like The Oracle (from the Matrix) than Charlton Heston. Strange that someone might think God purposely goes further out of his way to avoid our stereotypes and pigeonholes than we give him credit for. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack I suddenly believed that God was more powerful, more compassionate, more wise than even I had imagined. Strange, this God who delights in ambiguity and mystery.”

Then I remembered:

“I guess here is my real question in all this…why couldn’t you have made things clear? People go to the Bible and find all these ways to disagree with each other, even or especially theologians. Everybody seems to want to acquire their little piece of doctrinal territory and put fences around it so only those with the secret handshake can get in. Some find support for Universal Reconciliation; some find proofs for eternal torment in hell, and some find it just easier to annihilate everyone who doesn’t make it.” Now I am ranting, but can’t seem to help myself. “The Calvinists find all their verses to debate the Armenians, who find their list. Then there are the ones who believe in eternal security fighting with the ones that don’t.  Every silly idea of eschatology finds its own proof texts and in the middle of all these debates it seems that love is all that gets left behind. We even find ways to fight about grace and love. Couldn’t you have just made it simple and clear; unambiguous?”

I look up and Papa has a big grin on her face, but I don’t return the smile. Without really understanding why, this question is suddenly important to me and I can sense that it has threads connecting many of my internal conflicts.

Papa simply let me tread water in my rant for a while, until some of the emotional residue subsides. “Do you think that all this has surprised me?” she asks gently? “Do you think that I thought, ‘There, they now have the scriptures; they will totally get this’?   Human beings are very creative. They have an incredible facility to take some of the simplest and most obvious truths and make them ambiguous. If I didn’t know better, it would surprise even me.”

“But,” I am struggling to keep my question from becoming an accusation, “Why couldn’t you have made it clearer? How hard would it have been to just have one of the writers put truth down in such a way that there would be no confusion?”

I look up and she is still grinning, obviously enjoying the conversation more than I am. “Like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at the back of the Bible?” I roll my eyes, even though part of me thinks that might have been a good idea. Papa pauses to take another sip of her steaming whatever. “Have you ever thought that ambiguity, that mystery, might have purpose?” she posed.

The question actually surprises me and I begin to feel the uneasiness that usually precedes my paradigms being challenged. “Nope. I’ve never thought about that at all. I’ve spent most of my life so focused on certainty, that ambiguity and mystery have always been, sort of…the enemy. Are you telling me that ambiguity is a good thing?”

I think the reason some are afraid of a ‘feminine’ [and there’s a big difference between saying ‘feminine God’ and ‘female God’] God is because we haven’t been properly instructed in Scripture. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a man have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a woman have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who cannot imagine God as either, both, and neither have a woefully inadequate picture of the Holy God who will not be limited by the imagination that he built within us in the beginning. Why is this so hard to understand?

I suppose those who think God is one or the other are perfectly satisfied with their understanding of God and, thus, have nothing more to search for, nothing more to seek, no more reason to open their bibles, no more reason to pray, no more reason to even hope. Those who reject ‘feminine’ metaphors have no need for a mother; those who reject ‘masculine’ metaphors have no need for a father. But is aren’t we incomplete without both? Can we even exist if one is absent? I don’t want a god who is limited by my ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’. I don’t even want a god who is limited by my ideas of mere ‘god’ and ‘goddess.’ I want a God who is strong and sensitive, masculine and feminine, burly and beautiful, willing and wonderful, purposeful and passionate. I want a God who is perfectly masculine and perfectly feminine and creates both to His own glory. I want the God of the Scripture who is perfectly shown us in Jesus.

Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming content in our misconceptions. Ambiguity is good because it keeps us from becoming careless with our caricatures. Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming conceited about our wisdom. Ambiguity is good because it chops us down to size, turns us all around, and makes us rely on grace all over again. I reject out of hand the idea that we will be saved because we have all the right answers to all the wrong questions. Ambiguity is good because it strips us of pride and causes us to cry out all over again, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Ahh, grace.

Then it all came together:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Now I understand why God gave me a mother and a father. There is a subtle ambiguity in this verse if both man and woman can be created in the image of the same God. Thus, this sentence is just wrong: “Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind.” Wrong! That sentence is so wrong it could not be more wrong. It is beyond wrong. It is abysmally wrong. When both sides of the coin are presented, when they are held in tension, when the ambiguity is unresolved, we have a complete picture of God in whose image man and woman were created. I reject the idea that because both ’sides’ of God are present that a teaching about homosexuality is, and must necessarily be, close behind. Rather it seems to me that when one side is neglected, and only one side is presented, then will homosexuality follow behind closely. I wonder how many male homosexuals didn’t have a father? I wonder how many female homosexuals didn’t have a mother? Not all, mind you; but I wonder how many. In other words it is the absence of correct theology of the ‘feminine’ side of God that creates the problems for the church, not its presence.

I’m troubled by all this talk not because I feel a personal need to defend The Shack (although I do) or because I think there is a glaring omission of ‘feminine’ theology in the church (although there is). I’m troubled because in all our talk about God we are missing the greater point: The only real image of God we have is Jesus. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus said (John14:9).

And Jesus wasn’t afraid of feminine metaphors or masculine metaphors as images of God. Jesus was perfectly content, it seems to me, to allow that God would be the perfect standard of righteousness for both men and women. If God’s image is the image in which men and women are created, and God’s righteousness is the perfect standard for masculinity and femininity in the church (unless there is more than one God!), then it seems to me that exploring both ’sides’ should not only be encouraged, but it is also quite necessary for our understanding of ourselves and God. He gave us one image by which to explore ‘both sides’: Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Originally posted at CRN.info

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