Monday, March 19, 2012

On the Difficulties of Praising God, but not "Him"

For years now, I've kept an informal policy on this blog. When writing about God, I try to avoid using male-specific pronouns such as "he" or "his" in my work. I say that this policy is "informal" not just because I've not made explicit mention of it before now (to the best of my recollection), but because I expect that I slip up every now and again.

I doubt that I'm alone. Last month, when I commented on John Piper's "Masculine Christianity," I suggested that most people—even those who advocate for strict gender roles within Christianity—would not consciously argue for a male God. However, there is little point in denying that if one was asked to draw a picture of God, one would not only draw a male image, but probably one with a flowing white beard. I expect that this is nearly as true for those who are advocates of gender-neutral language as it is for those who see nothing wrong with the usage of "male" terms for God. Although I know that the image of a white-beared male God does not come from the Bible, it is deeply embedded in my understanding of the deity. And if I find it creeping into my consciousness from time to time, it is hardly a surprise that so many others simply take it for granted that God must be male (and certainly not female!), even when and if we know better.

Fuller Theological Seminary has a policy on use of gender-specific language, too. I don't know off-hand when it was adopted, but it was already in place when I first became a student in 1997. Basically, it encourages gender-inclusive language on a horizontal level (that is, when talking about fellow human beings generically, try to avoid "he" unless only males are specifically intended), but makes no such request on a vertical level (using "he" for God is generally acceptable, even though Fuller fully acknowledges that God is not male).

It may come as a surprise to recognize that a similar policy is at play even in most "gender-inclusive" Bible translations, including those that have caused some heated controversy in recent years. While such translations try to avoid "male-specific" language when referring to generic groups of people (especially when both men and women are presumed to be included), even translations like the now-defunct TNIV, which was specifically attacked for being "gender-inclusive," translate Psalm 150 more or less the same in this regard to God:
Praise the LORD.
   Praise God in his sanctuary;
   praise him in his mighty heavens.
2 Praise him for his acts of power;
   praise him for his surpassing greatness.
3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
   praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,
   praise him with the strings and pipe,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
   praise him with resounding cymbals.
 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
   Praise the LORD.
Leaving aside the important question of whether or not "him" most accurately conveys the original language of this Psalm, how would we render such a passage differently if we wanted to remove male-sounding references to God, say for a "Call to Worship" that uses Psalm 150 as a basis? (Even if changing the words of Scripture, per se, is taboo, I find there's usually little controversy about adapting the texts of Scripture in subtle ways for liturgical purposes, but perhaps your tradition is different in this regard) Replacing every instance of "him" with "God" or "the LORD" can get tedious rather rapidly, and in any event would not sound like especially natural English. Although changing the pronouns might accomplish the desired task of removing God's supposed "maleness" from the words of praise, it could arguably draw even more attention to the issue of God being "male" because the clumsiness of the language could distract a parishioner from the attitude of worship the Psalm intends.

This is a challenge for old, familiar, hymns, as well. Even The Presbyterian Hymnal from 1990*, another work assembled with a specific intention of inclusivity, still retains the masculine pronouns throughout the classic "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," and it's difficult to imagine just how one might alter those lyrics while retaining the essence of the song. Perhaps some songs might be altered without difficulty (and some are, although perhaps not even then without controversy, but I'm not getting into that here), but it's not equally viable in all instances.
None of this is to suggest I'm going to change my informal policy regarding gender language for God in the things that I write here on the blog. I am not suddenly starting to think that God may be male, after all. A full read of the Bible seems quite clear on this point (and if you still aren't convinced, perhaps this will help) and as much as possible, I intend not to reinforce the mistaken notion of God as male. But it's a different matter when talking about existing words that have been passed down through the years. I have the luxury of working out my own intentions whenever I write something, but to try to retain the intentions of someone else while changing the language? That's considerably more difficult. Some would argue that's why we shouldn't alter the language of the English translations of Bible or of existing hymns in the first place. That's not my position. For me to take that stand, I'd have to advocate for only reading the Bible in Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic, in a couple of instances). After all, all translation is interpretation....

*The Presbyterian Hymnal is colloquially called "the blue hymnal" by older Presbyterians, who remember the previous "red hymnal" (The Hymnbook) which preceded it, although it's worth noting that the PC(USA) is probably about due to start using a new hymnbook.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...