A Bumbling, Stumbling Attempt at a Theology of Gender.

Lots of smart people have said lots of smart things about the ways in which our views of ourselves mirror our views on God.  I am thinking, today, about gender.

My own developing views about God’s gender are not that different from my view of gender in people.  I think I am not alone in this.  And also, I am still figuring it all out.  As I try to explain where I am at, and where I am headed, I am sure I am going to say things in a way that might be offensive or incorrect.  I hope that you, reader, can chalk this up to ignorance on my part, and not malice.  I would very much appreciate corrections, suggestions, and counterpoints in the comments below.

The most literalistic readings of scripture within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are that God is male.  So is the first person he makes.  Femaleness comes next.  It is the single alternative to maleness, a revision on that basic theme.

This parallels the world view I grew up in about gender in general.  Maleness is better.  Femaleness is the alternative.  I am trying to stay away from using the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ because it seems like part of the whole idea was that our physical bodies always mirrored how we identified within.

And this was one of the first ironies I noticed in this whole affair, as I tried to work it out for myself.  The Christian world normally wanted to proclaim the existence of a soul, and the idea that there is more than just materialistic existence.  The non-Christian/secular world was generally more reductionistic-materialistic.  Yet suddenly, the Christians were saying, “No, the physical aspects of the body is all that there is.  If you have a penis you are fully and totally male.  If you have a vagina you are female.  All the way through.”  Meanwhile, the secular world was proclaiming that their is this non-material part of us, that might identify in a way that is not consistent with our biology.

This irony was only the first thing for me.  I think what happened next was the recognition that I and so many others had, as we began to recognize that literalistic understandings fall apart pretty quickly.  God, is of course, not physically male.  God is not embodied.

People can try and suggest that it is not about the physical.  They can try and suggest that there are differences in personality between men and women.  But here we return to the irony listed above.  Because now, the question to be answered becomes, “Well, what happens when that personality doesn’t match up with the biology of a person?”

Just as the first thoughts might seem pretty simple, “God is male.”  The first pages of the bible seem pretty straight forward to.  Because at first, as suggested above, God seems to make Adam first, in his image, and then Eve from Adam’s rib.  But a couple pages in, there is a director’s cut on the creation account.  And it seems that both Adam and Eve are made in God’s image.   God, it seems, has a feminine side.

Countless images in the bible build this case, comparing the creator to all manner of feminine images.  And this only stands to reason.  He is able to be everything good, all at once.   It seems like most people, most of the time, want to find themselves somewhere along the spectrum between 100% masculine and 100% feminine.  Some people move to different places over time.   But maybe this is the fundamental difference between God and humans.  God is everywhere on that spectrum at once.  Us little people, we, at any given time, are only occupying one little spot.



I heard it through the…

Do you remember the California Raisins?  They were these claymated guys that sang all these motown songs.  They were around in the 80’s.   Nobody that I know of ever much contemplated the idea that once they were California Grapes.  Maybe they sang like kid’s lullaby songs or something before they dried out and grew up.

If they had ever made a commercial showing the grapes’ transition to raisins, it could’ve seemed pretty cute.  Big plump grapes all sunning themselves, or something.  Maybe they forget the sunscreen.  Slowly, they get all shriveled and raisinish.

If the destiny of those grapes had been a little different, there’s no way you could make a cute commercial out of them.

Imagine that the California grapes were destined to become wine.  Imagine that they all got smooshed together, bottled, and left to ferment.  It’s not likely they’d be singing too many songs in this scenario.

Wine is something that is important in the teachings of Jesus.  At his first public miracle, he turns water into wine.  I have been suggesting, in these last several posts, that this represents the change he wants to make in our lives.  Jesus is calling us to live more full and complete existences.

A wine-like life is not an easy one.  The process of making wine itself is instructive  in this regard.   There is meaning to the fact that the grapes are squashed, the very deepest parts of the grapes are brought out.  There is meaing to the fact that it is not internal forces alone which make wine, but also an outside, almost magical process.

Jesus was the original grape turned to wine.  And he expects us to follow his example.  More on this coming soon.

Camoflauge or White Wash?

We had the privilige of getting away over Memorial Day.  We stayed at this amazing little place called Big Bear Lodge.  There’s lots of stuff I could write about this little get away.  But the thing that’s on my mind right now is architecture.

I took a little hike early Monday morning.  And I stood at a place that I could see two buildings.  These two buildings stood in contrast to each other.  I looked at them and I thought there was a difference bigger than aesthetics.  If they weren’t represenations of utterly different world views, they were atleast symbolic of different world views.

The first building was this quaint little tourist-town/shopping center thing.  It was a C-shaped two story building.  It was white.  I don’t know exactly what “White Wash” is, but somehow this place brought Tom Sawyer’s White Washing to mind.

Their was this balcony-catwalk kind of thing that ran infront of the buildings on the second floor.  Each of the corners of the place had these spiral stair case which were home to countless orioles and cardinals.  (I think they were orioles and cardinals, any way.  I’m not so great at bird identification.)  There was candy shops and bike rental places, a pizza place around, an ice skating rink, a coffee shop, and most fittingly, a gallery dedicated to the writer/artist of the curious George books.   This was so perfect.  It was exactly the sort-of place that curious George seemed to belong, leaping on the balconies and tormenting the poor guy in the yellow hat.

The whole place overlooked a presumably man made lake.  Of course, paddle boats were available for rent there.

This whole thing was only slightly bigger than the structure which stood perhaps 100 yards away.  This place was solid, rectangular, and closed off.  It was a hotel, I guess.  But it’s intended use wasn’t what made it so different.

This place was painted all the colors of the forest.  Dark greens and browns and greys.  The multi-colored roof shingles blurred together like those high-tech mosiacs; it created a camaflauging effect.  The place was somber, almost castle-like.  It wouldn’t have taken much in the way of alterations to turn it into a good setting for a Gothic novel, home to a brooding, haunted rich dude who just need the new nanny to break through his bestial side.

It occured to me that when we build anything, maybe even when we do anything, we have an important question to answer.  That question is:

“Will I harmonize with what is around me?  Or will I build something which stands wide and apart from the natural order?”

I think formulating the question this way kind-of begs the question.  In fact, in this case, I much preferred the white, unnatural little tourist trap.   There is a different way of asking the same question.  I think it tends to prejudice us in the opposite direction:

“Will I work at being uniquely human?  Or will I accept the premise that we can’t escape the way things have always been?”

This question gets to the heart of so many of our stories, particularly ones out of the Gothic and Romantic traditions.  Beauty and The Beast is a sort-of modernized, dumbed down version… I’m not saying that all this is good, but in some way, it seems like even the modern cheesy romance novels, even Soap Operas, they are still grappling with this question.

The subtext is that men are somehow in the grasp of their animalistic nature.  Men are like the dark, brooding hotel: they are a part of the nature, left to their own devices they can not rise above it.  I don’t know why this is.  Perhaps it’s because we’re seen as more sexualized than women.  Perhaps men have perpetrated the myth because it allows us to justify abusive behavior.  Perhaps women, who have been historically powerless in many ways, grab on to the idea naturally that they have this ultimate power of redemption.

Wherever this idea comes from, over and over again, the motif  of the Belle character (is it an accident that her name means beauty?) comes in to save the man from his own darkness.  This darkness inevitably is the form of being animalistic, wild, natural.  (Is it an accident that his name is The Beast.)

There is danger here.  There is danger in thinking that we can save each other under our own power.  There is danger in thinking we ought to embrace the way things naturally are in this world.  There is danger in thinking that a white coat of paint and an open-air courtyard are enough to overcome the way things naturally are, too.

God is Dead! (?)

I’m a philosophy guy.  I recieved my bachelor’s in philosophy, I got over half way through a master’s degree, I even allude to my philosophical tendencies in this blog title.

My philosophizing predates my following of Christ.  I am much less of a philosopher than I once was.  Occasionally, though, I try to do philosophy in the name and cause of Jesus.  I’ve been pondering a statement lately.

The statement is “God is dead”

Ordinarily, people view this as an atheistic battle cry.  But the statement is much more nuanced than that.  There’s actually numerous ways people can use the term.  I thought I’d explore some of these.

The statement is associated with Frederick Nietzsche.  If he did not originate the phrase Nietzsche certainly is the one who popularized it.  And Nietzsche’s own complex relationship with Christ and Christianity is something of a mirror of the phrase “God is dead.”

Nietzsche is a wierd philosopher.  He’s frustrating and fascinating and incredibly inconsistent.   As his philosophical career drew to a close, he became increasingly difficult to comprehend.  There’s a goodly ammount of research, theorizing, and hypothesizing around the condition of his mental health toward the end of his life.

Therefore, anybody who says “Nietzsche believed X” is either over simplifying, way smarter than me, or simply wrong.  He’s just not the sort of guy who lends himself to blanket statements about him.

Nonetheless, an incredibly brief but relatively accurate statement about Nietzsche is that he hated Christianity and Christians with a fierce passion… but he was fascinated by the person of Jesus. 

This is all a bit of a digression, though.  Back to his famous words: “God is dead.”

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much wiggle room.   It seems to be saying: God used to be around.  Now he’s not.

One of the things that can be meant by the statement “God is dead” is that in one sense, he used to be around.   God was alive in so much as people’s actions were altered by their belief in God.  But then something happened.  A cultural shift.  A scientific discovery.  We realized that there was no God after all.  In this sense, he died.

A slight modification of this meaning is the idea that God is rendered irrelevant to our every day lives.  His centrality, soverienity, etc., has been reduced.  This modification comes in two flavors.

Somebody might say “God is dead” and mean it’s a good thing that we’ve realized that he simply isn’t important. 

Or somebody might lament “God is dead” and she might mean that we have forgotten God.  This person might think that belief in God was a delusion that actually made us better people; or they might believe that our de-emphasis on God is a bad idea; we kill God in so far as we don’t do what we should be doing, we don’t act in the way we should be acting.

I’m not in agreement with any of these, really.  But I do think that there is something very valuable about the phrase “God is dead.”  It’s stated provactively, violently even.  

The bottom line about the usefulness of the phrase is this:

If it can stay dead, it was never God at all.

We have this idea in our heads.  This idea is what we think about God.  If this idea is somehow compatible with the idea of being dead, then the idea is simply not very close to the reality of God.

God is unkillable, undie-able.  Somebody might point out that the cross flies in the face of these claims.  I think this would be a fascinating and huge issue.  For now, I’ll side step that issue by putting it this way:

Really, the idea seems to be that God is still dead.  The idea is that God stays dead.  Saying “God is Dead” is just a short, pithy idea.  But it loses most of it’s punch if we accept the idea that death was a temporary thing for God.

No matter how you look at it, I think the value of the phrase “God is dead” works like this:

If you harbor an idea in your head, and if you think that this idea is God, you should try to imagine this entity dead.  If this idea makes sense, if you can envision your idea dead, then your engaged in idolatry.  Your image is not of God at all.

So here is the rather strange challenge all this implies:

Summon up everything you think you know about God.  Picture Him. 

Could he die?  Could he die and stay dead?

If he could, then it’s probably time to start over, re-discover God.  Because He’s bigger than death.

God does not want you to be a comic book geek.

So I have this confession: I managed a comic book store through most of my adolescence.

It was sort of like the Simpsons.  Or that movie High Fidelity.  (except that was in a record store.)   Folks that were pretty low on the world’s pecking order came in and established a completely different pecking order.  In the outside world, coolness was based on toughness, talent (in something useful), competence, money.  Mostly, the folks who frequented the store  were distinctly lacking in coolness.  They were not tough, talented, competent, or wealthy.   These attributes were so low in most of the customers that they could not be measured by any instruments known to man.  As a result, the pecking order in that place had to be established based on different criteria.  (Because we all know that we need a pecking order… If we stopped trying to figure out who was on top we might actually all start to get along.)

I should say at this point that I manipulated my way out of the pecking order.  I didn’t do the right thing and squash it.  The stereotype holds true: in those sort of specialized mom-and-pop stores, customer service means that you might wait until they left the store to mock them.  My status as the guy running the store established me as some sort of nerd Alpha wolf.

At any rate, I observed the heirarchy that they established.  It was not based on competence or toughness or money.  It was based on treating every ridiculous and insiginificant detail of whatever comic book was cool like it was divinely inspired.  It understates the case to say that the attitude was as if the characters were real.  The real world paled to isignificance when compared to the importance of whatever revelation had just been unvieled in Spiderman, or whatever X-man had just been brought back from the dead, or what new fact about the Sanman’s realm had just been brought to light.

Ignorance was dealt with scorn.  Disagreements that would be seen as insignificant matters of opinion by normal people were treated as objectively verifiable and critically important.  And whoever was wrong had not only missed out on issue blah-blah-blah of title blah-blah-blah.  They were somehow morally deficient.   They were placed at the bottom of the heap by a group of people who normally inhabitted the bottom of the heap.

They had these Comic Book Conventions.  Yes, they are everything you’d imagine them to be.  Put these sad little people in a room with the creaters of the focus of these people lives.  There were basically two different ways I ever saw this go:

Scenario A: The creator was some frustrated art student.  He treated the fans with contempt.  Questions about continuity, trivia, and details were seen as irrelevant.  The fans drank this contempt like a fine wine, and chased after these guys all the more.  They seemed to have this sense that the creator actually possessed all the answers, but just didn’t want to share.  The fans seemed to believe if they were just persistent enough, eventually the artist would give in.  (Anybody seen Misery?)

Scenario B: The creator was basically a grown up fan and seemed to relish the silly-seriousness of it all.  He had answers worked out to the questions and apparent contradictions.  He could quote issue numbers off the top of his head just like a fan.  (Anybody remember Galaxy Quest?)

I got this image in my head today.  It was a dialogue between a creater of some work of art (I don’t care what: an opera, a comic book, a movie, a TV show, a novel) and some over-the-top fan.  (He probably lacked some basic sanitation skills.  This is unfortunately another portion of the stereotype that my experience bore out as true.)

I have this image that the fan might open with some question about characterization.  And the creator might ask “what did you think of it?”

And the fan might express curioisty about how the warp-field-gizmo-whatsit works.  And the creator might ask “But did you like the story?”

And the fan might proudly ask for an explanation to the apparent contradictions that come to light if you watch the directors cut of one thing and contrast it with the Europen pilot episode of the other.   And the creator might ask “But did it move you?  Were you effected?  Inspired by it?  Anything?”

God is of course the creator of everything that there is.  The creator of creators.  The creator of comic books fans.  The creator of comic books.  The creator of stars.  And belly button lint. 

And as I thought about God as the creator, I had this realization: I haven’t really grown out of these ridiculous debates.  I don’t read comics anymore, so I’ve changed the subject matter.  (Actually, if you want to know the deep truth, every now and again, when I think nobody is looking, I’ll open up one of those old comics.)  These days I don’t listen to conversations about who the toughtest Robin was.  I’ve disengaged from conversations about whether Kirk was cooler than Piccard.  I’m no longer interested in what color of Kryptonite gives Superman a wedgie.

These days the conversations I’m involved in are a little more likely to be about predestination or the nature of the trinity.  But the thing is, It’s hard for me to imagine that God views them as much different than I now see those ridiculous conversations in the Comic Book store.

Before the doctrine police prepare there rebuttals, I’d like to say that there are a few– a precious few– of these conversations which might be important.  I am not making the claim that all discussions about doctrine are irrelevant.  But I am willing to be make the claim that almost all of them are.

It’s not that they are not destructive by themselves.  But they are addictive to somebody like me.  And then there is that pecking order… I have to say that the ghost of that old pecking order it comes back, every now and again.  We’re a little more suble and sophisticated.  Most of us are good at hiding it from ourselves when we’re busy dividing the world into the groups of cool kids and un-cool kids.

But I know that I still make judgements.  Focusing on the things that divide us isn’t good because it focuses me on these things, and this is not where my focus is supposed to be.

Someday, I think the creator of the  universe will ask me “What did you think?  Did it inspire you?”

I hope I’ve got a pretty good answer ready.

This post was my entry into Marty Holman’s weekly blog Carnical, Monday Moments.  Click here to check other great posts at the carnival.