Changing Church: Mark Mattison, General Editor of the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament

 

Mark Mattison (photo by Gabe Mattison)

 Matthew 6: 1“Be careful not to publicize your pursuit of justice to be noticed, or you will have no reward from your Mother who is in heaven. 2So don’t blow your own horn when you make donations, like the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that people might praise them. Believe me when I say that they have already received their reward. 3But when you make donations, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your donations may be made secretly; then your Mother who sees in secret will reward you. 9This is how you should pray:

‘Our Mother in heaven,

we honor your holy name.

10Let your Reign come.

Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

11Give us our daily bread today.

12Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

13Do not put us in harm’s way,

but rescue us from evil.

[Yours is the Reign, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.]'”

This passage is from the Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament, one of the ambitious initiatives of the Christian Godde Project. Mark Mattison is a General Editor of this new translation, and one of the founders of the Christian Godde Project: “the work of women and men who are called by the Holy Spirit to help restore gender equity in churches by exploring the Divine Feminine within the Christian Godde.”

Mark explains that they use the word “Godde” instead of “God” in an attempt to combine the words “God” and “Goddess.” They understand that the word “God,” because of its long history of association with an exclusively masculine image of the Divine, implies to many people a masculine way of conceiving the Christian “God,” and that “Goddess” is a word that Christians have not traditionally embraced. “The term, ‘Godde,’ seeks the middle ground between ‘God’ and ‘Goddess,’ combining a feminine-type ending with the traditionally masculine-type word,” Mark writes. “It’s intended as a more gender-inclusive term, something broader than both ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’ and yet transcending both as a term that points beyond itself to a divine reality that we can grasp only by metaphor. Some pronounce the term with two syllables, like ‘Goddess’ without the ‘ss,’ whereas others pronounce it with only one syllable, like ‘God.’ Even if pronounced with only one syllable, it nevertheless serves as a constant reminder that the Godde of whom we speak is not the ancient man with the white beard so quickly recognizable as a traditional Christian stereotype.”

The theological foundation of the Christian Godde Project is stated on the weblog: “We believe that since women as well as men are created in Godde’s image (cf. Gen. 1:27), Godde is revealed in Scripture using feminine as well as masculine imagery (cf. Isa. 66:13). In addition, we believe that Divine Wisdom reveals the Divine Feminine in all three “persons” of the Trinity: as a feminine personification of Godde in the Jewish Wisdom literature, Divine Wisdom reveals Godde as Mother (cf. Prov. 8:1-9:6); as the incarnation of Godde in the New Testament, Jesus is identified with Divine Wisdom (cf. Matt. 11:19; 1 Cor. 1:24,30); and as the Holy Spirit, Divine Wisdom is revealed as Godde in action (cf. Wis. 7:22ff).”

The Christian Godde Project includes a collection of essays exploring the Divine Feminine within Godde and the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament that is gender-inclusive in reference to humanity and feminine in reference to Godde. In an essay entitled “The Divine Feminine Trinity,” Mark explains: “We believe that recognition of the Divine Feminine in Godde not only signals a willingness to consider seriously the criticism that churches have historically suppressed women, but goes a long way to help restore the rightful place of women as equal partners with men in the task of building up the Church.”

Mark believes that a biblical translation that gives precedence to the Divine Feminine is needed as a balance to all the translations with mostly masculine language for the Divine. He tells about meeting a New Testament professor for breakfast: “When I told him about the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament he seemed, well, unenthusiastic. He asked me what I thought of the idea of a Divine Masculine New Testament. I think he expected me to respond on a gut level and balk at the idea. What I told him at the time was that I didn’t have a problem with masculine language for Godde; I just wanted to see feminine language used as well. Looking back on that conversation, I wish I had pointed out that nearly every other Bible version is already a Divine Masculine Version!”

There are, Mark acknowledges, two gender-neutral translations of the Bible on the market: The Inclusive Bible, a translation by the Priests for Equality; and An Inclusive Version, a modification of the New Revised Standard Version. “Both are very good,” Mark says. “However, in relying so heavily on gender-neutral language for Godde, they offer only a partial concession to those of us who long for a recovery of the Divine Feminine within the Christian tradition. They don’t distract us by using masculine terms, but they don’t nourish us by using feminine terms either, nor do they challenge those who repudiate the Divine Feminine entirely. There are as yet no Divine Feminine Bibles on offer. It seems to me that’s such an important piece. With so many translations of the Bible, it seems inconceivable to me that there is no Divine Feminine Bible.”

For this reason Mark is working with others to develop a Divine Feminine translation of the New Testament. So far, completed translations of five New Testament books are available free of charge on the weblog. “My hope and prayer is that this effort will supplement the critical work that so many are already engaged in,” he says.

Mark Mattison grew up as a “pastor’s kid” in the Church of God General Conference, a conservative, premillennial branch of the Adventist movement, but not part of Seventh-Day Adventism. Because his father moved around to pastor various churches, Mark lived in Illinois, Michigan, Texas, and Louisiana as he was growing up. Mark was a fifth-generation member of the Church of God General Conference. This denomination is distinguished by its rejection of Trinitarianism. Mark says that feminist theology not only gave him a way to speak of Godde in feminine terms, but also provided an ecumenical bridge for him into historic Trinitarianism by giving him the “biblical theological tools to describe the pre-existence of Christ as Lady Wisdom.”

Mark first heard about the Divine Feminine not from feminist theologians but from a chapel preacher at a conservative Bible college! While attending Oregon Bible College (now Atlanta Bible College), Mark first learned about the Divine Feminine in Christianity. “A guest preacher spoke in our chapel once, and I talked with her about theology afterward,” Mark recalls. “She was very concerned about women’s ordination, which I didn’t have an opinion about at the time. She also told me about the Holy Spirit as the Divine Feminine. That was something I had never heard of before. I filed it away in the back of my mind, where the idea lay dormant for many years. The first seed had been planted, but the conditions weren’t yet ripe for it to take root. Though I had a strong sense of morality at that time, I had not yet developed a meaningful consciousness of social justice. The seed needed time to germinate.”

More than ten years later, Mark encountered the Divine Feminine again while he was driving with two other members of the Michigan Peace Team to Terre Haute, Indiana, to work with capital punishment abolitionists. “One of the people I was driving with was a womanist named Melody,” Mark recalls. “She described the need for a new ecumenical council to establish the Divine Feminine in the form of the Holy Spirit. This time the idea took root; I was intrigued.”

Mark began extensive research on the Divine Feminine in Christianity, reading dozens of feminist articles and books. Elizabeth Johnson’s classic work, She Who Is, had the greatest influence on him. “That book is just about the most profound work of Christian theology I’ve ever encountered,” he says. “I was completely and overwhelmingly convinced, and have been deeply indebted to the spiritual wisdom of Christian feminist scholars ever since.”

Around the time Mark embraced feminist theology, he and his wife, Rebecca, and son, Gabe, joined a Disciples of Christ congregation. They appreciated being part of a denomination that didn’t subscribe to any creeds and that had co-pastors, husband and wife, who avoided using masculine pronouns for Godde.

After the co-pastors left, the congregation hired an evangelical Reformed Church pastor. “I didn’t really agree with his theology or his approach to the Bible,” Mark says. “And he used divine masculine pronouns all the time. I remember counting how many times I heard words like ‘he,’ ‘him,’ and ‘his’ in reference to Godde. I never heard ‘she,’ ‘her,’ or ‘hers.’ That’s about the time I became interested in a Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament. At the same time, the youth group was dwindling, and younger people were leaving the church. When our son found that his spiritual needs weren’t being met either, we left.” Since then they have remained in the mainline Protestant tradition, currently attending Trinity Lutheran ELCA in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they reside.

Mark would like to see more churches include Divine Feminine names and images in worship. When he has “occasionally” seen the Divine Feminine in worship, he says the experience has been profound. “At a local ELCA church the associate pastor, who’s a woman, enacted a sermon illustration by inviting a mother to bring her infant in front of the congregation, and she talked about how this mother’s love for her child illustrates Godde’s love for us. What a powerful image!”

In trying to change the church through theology inclusive of the Divine Feminine, Mark finds that being a layperson has disadvantages and advantages. Although he tries to talk to pastors about inclusive Godde-language, he feels his influence is limited because he’s a layperson and not a worship leader. On the other hand, the risks of advocating for the inclusion of the Divine Feminine are minimal for him because his livelihood isn’t tied to a religious organization. “So I don’t have to walk that tightrope that a lot of others do,” he says. “No one is going to threaten to cut off my funding or deprive me of a job based on my religious convictions.”

Mark describes himself as a “writer and independent scholar.” He currently makes a living as an administrator with Farmers Insurance. Working in the insurance business and with Ministry School Publications, Mark has had extensive experience in designing, writing, editing, proofreading, and publishing books, newsletters, journals, websites, announcements, and other documents.

Because of his strong belief in the power of inclusive language and leadership in the church, Mark works many hours as a volunteer on the Christian Godde Project. “The leadership of the body of Christ has to be as diverse as the body of which it’s a part,” he says. “Otherwise the body just isn’t healthy. Strictly male images of Godde, conveyed through a strictly male leadership, distort the reality of Godde and undervalue the sense of identity of those who don’t fit the supposedly ideal mold which is set before them. I believe that’s why so many churches are anemic! I’m honestly disheartened by how many churches seem to devalue peace and social justice, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that often these are churches that don’t celebrate diversity.”

Mark’s story affirms the vital connection between work for diversity in church leadership and language and work for social justice and peace. For the Michigan Peace Team, Mark has facilitated training in nonviolence, communication skills, and conflict resolution. Mark has also served as a founding member of the West Michigan Justice and Peace Coalition and as communications specialist for the United Nations Association of the USA.

Also, like others who are changing church, Mark believes in a collaborative style of leadership. Those involved in the Christian Godde Project work as a team. “The collaborative model is intrinsically part and parcel of the Divine Feminine experience,” Mark says. “The process is as important as the project; it’s one and the same!”

Resistance to inclusion of feminine divine names and images, Mark believes, stems from “overly literal approaches to the Bible,” especially in interpreting the New Testament’s use of the word “Father” to describe Godde. Mark suggests asking what the Bible is trying to communicate with this “familial description.” He wonders, however, whether or not critics are ultimately motivated by fidelity to the biblical text. “The fact that their reaction is so strong suggests to me that there’s more to their resistance than that, something on a gut level. The Divine Masculine image of Godde is just so ingrained; it seems like it’s not easy to dislodge.”

In his efforts to overcome this resistance, Mark points out biblical feminine images of Godde that need to be reclaimed. “The Divine Feminine has a long and venerable history within the Christian tradition, all the way back to the beginning. Biblical images of Godde as a nurturing mother, or a woman (Wisdom) calling people to follow her, or a Spirit groaning in the pains of childbirth, are all over the place. These images and others need to be reclaimed in order to bring spiritual healing to the church.”

Mark works diligently on the Christian Godde Project team to bring healing change to the church through reclaiming the Divine Feminine in a new translation of the Bible, generously made available free of charge on the weblog. He has a big vision for this Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament. “I’d love to see quotations from this Bible version popping up across the web and in publications, and to see commentaries and devotionals using this version as their text. I’d love to see congregations using this text in their liturgies. My hope and prayer is that this translation will provide a much-needed tool to integrate the Divine Feminine within the church.”

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  • By “Changing Church” Interview by Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton « The Christian Godde Project on December 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    […] book Changing Church: Stories of Liberating Minsters, Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton has published an article about our project. Other editors of the Divine Feminine Version will be featured in future […]

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