Growing up in an evangelical church, I heard some about the women of the Bible. Not much. Just enough to tell me that Godde’s will for me was to grow up, get married, and have kids. Whenever I heard about the women in the Bible, they were wives and mothers, taking care of their families. But submission of wives to husbands was not the only thing I learned growing up evangelical. I also learned how important it was to read the Bible and know what the Bible says. The “knowing your Bible” emphasis backfired on the movement with me. Because I started noticing something. I started noticing women didn’t always submit to their husbands. I learned there were single women in the Bible who never married or had children. The women in the Bible I came to know through my own study were totally different women than I grew up with in Sunday Schools and sermons. These were tough women, strong women, and intelligent women. I found out women were judges, prophets, worship leaders, and businesswomen. I found out women were evangelists, preachers, and patrons of the church.
These statements come from Rev. Shawna R. B. Atteberry’s book What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down. (http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/store/) She uses the word “Godde,” a combination of the words “God” and “Goddess,” to show that Godde is both male and female and transcends both genders. She writes, “If we believe Genesis 1:27, which says Godde made both male and female in Godde’s image, then we have to seriously look at the metaphors and language we use for Godde to make sure Godde is imaged as both male and female.”
Rev. Atteberry is working on her second book, Career Women of the Bible, and she writes a blog (http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/) “for women to explore their calling and vocations without antiquated judgments about what a woman’s role should be.” Also, she is associate editor of the Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament, whose goal is to help restore gender equity in churches by including female names, images, and pronouns for Godde. Here is a passage from the first chapter of Colossians:
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not stopped praying and asking Godde to make known to you the knowledge of her will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. Being strengthened with all power, according to the strength of her glory in all perseverance and patience with joy, give thanks to the Mother who enabled us to share the inheritance of the holy ones in light. She rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the reign of the Son of her love, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the image of the invisible Godde, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
When she was growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Sayre, Oklahoma, Shawna felt called to preach and pastor. Knowing that she couldn’t fulfill this call as a Southern Baptist, she joined the Church of the Nazarene because “they had been ordaining women since their inception in 1903 and believed Godde called women into all leadership positions in the church.”
However, Shawna did experience some gender prejudice in the Church of the Nazarene. When she was in seminary, she considered leaving the church.
“I was single and planning on being a church leader,” she says. “But people didn’t seem to care about my calling. They wanted to know if I was going to seminary to be a pastor’s wife. There was also always an assumption that I would abandon Godde’s call on my life if that’s what it took to get married. I found both things to be highly insulting. Godde had called me to be a pastor, and I wasn’t going to marry a man who wasn’t OK with that. I also liked being single. For a long time I didn’t know if I wanted to get married. I didn’t see a place for myself as a single woman leader in the evangelical movement. I was tired of being treated like a kid and not a “real” grown-up because I was single. I wanted to leave the church. Godde and I fought about it for six months.”
Then Shawna took a staff position at Summit View Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City, Missouri, where her marital status wasn’t an issue. “They were all for my being the pastor Godde called me to be. Godde showed me there was a place in the church for me. I just had to wait for a bit to get there.”
In 2006, Rev. Atteberry married and moved to Chicago. In January of 2008, she started a home church. She soon found out that church officials had created a “mother” church for the Chicago area and that her church was to be a “satellite” of this church. She didn’t have any voice in this decision. “I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me to begin with,” she says. Then her husband, Tracy, became very ill, and she contacted her district superintendent and her “mother” church for support, but got no response.
Shawna had become friends with Ted Curtis, the priest at Grace Episcopal Church, and she had attended this church’s Wednesday Bible study and communion service. Grace Episcopal gave her the help and support she needed during Tracy’s illness.
Also, during this time Rev. Atteberry’s theology was expanding to include the Divine Feminine. She joined the Episcopal Church, which, she says, “gave me the theological room I needed for my writing and the different ways I was seeing and knowing Godde.”
Foundational to Rev. Atteberry’s theology is Genesis 1:27, which declares all humankind, male and female, to be created in the divine image. “Although the church gives lip service to both men and women being made in the image of Godde, they treat women like Aristotle’s ‘misbegotten males,’” she comments. “And if the church doesn’t believe women are made in the image of Godde, then does that mean we aren’t quite human? I think Dorothy Sayer’s question still stands: ‘Are women human?’ Because if we are human, if women are created in the image of Godde, then it wouldn’t be such a big deal to image Godde as a woman: as a mother, midwife, nursing mother, giving birth, as a mother hen drawing her chicks to her, Godde as a woman sweeping her house to find the lost coin. When we talk about Godde being Mother, we find out how entrenched misogyny is in the church. The church does not consider women to be made in the image of Godde, or images of Godde as a woman would not be so insulting.”
Rev. Atteberry says that her expansive theology began by asking these questions: “What does it mean for women to be made in the image of Godde? What does that look like? What does that mean for women? What does that mean for Godde? What does really believing women are made in the image of Godde look like? How would the world be different if we really believed that?”
Shawna says that giving up centuries-old images of Godde as a “petty dictator” and a “conquering king” and including Divine Feminine images would make a big difference for all the oppressed. “We can start embracing the Godde who is both father and mother to the homeless, poor, and immigrants. When we realize that Godde is the Godde of the underdog and not just the powerful, then we start working for those who are oppressed because that’s what Godde has always done.”
In spite of all the benefits, there continues to be much resistance to changing years of church tradition. But Rev. Atteberry thinks it is worth the effort. “Two thousand years of church tradition are wrong. We’ve been wrong about the Inquisition, the Crusades, and slavery—all positions based on the Bible and tradition. And all are sin. This is another thing tradition has wrong. We are not going to be the church Godde wants us to be, and we are not going to build Godde’s kindom on earth the way Godde intended until we realize that half of the human race is not substandard “misbegotten males”—mistakes. We are not going to image Godde the way Godde is until women can in all ways image Godde, and we can call Godde ‘Mother,’ and see images of Godde as a woman to balance all the male imagery. We are only showing one side of Godde; it’s an incomplete picture. We need to show the world the whole picture; that’s our calling in the world. To show them what Godde is really like, and that won’t happen until women image Godde as fully as men do.”
For this reason, Rev. Atteberry balances “he” and “she” references to Godde in her sermons. She tries not to “neuter” Godde but to show that Godde includes male and female and transcends gender. Shawna says she’s amazed by people who had rather neuter their “male God” than to use biblical female images of Godde, such as giving birth or nursing or cleaning house.
Rev. Atteberry believes that by including women as ministers and female divine names and images in worship, we expand our concepts of Godde. “I think it makes us see what small boxes we’ve been trying to squeeze Godde into. It makes us see how much bigger Godde is than our idea of Godde. This was brought to force for me last month. Recently a deacon who is an older woman with gray hair started working at our church. Another older, gray-haired woman in the church said, ‘I’m so happy you are here. I love watching you prepare for communion because you’re a silver-haired lady just like me.’ For the first time in her life this woman is seeing Godde imaged just like her in church. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Including women ministers and Divine Feminine images in church, Rev. Atteberry believes, will make a big difference for men and for children as well as for women. “I think it takes a lot of pressure off all of us. Men don’t have to make all the decisions and financially support the family. Women don’t have to be stuck in the home. Kids can see their parents working together to do what is best for the family instead of trying to play roles that don’t fit them. I think it allows women, men, and children to use their gifts and do what they’re interested in instead of trying to conform to gender roles that only hamper and impede them.”
Resistance to inclusive language and leadership in the church comes to Rev. Atteberry mainly through her online blog and the online Christian Godde Project, which is creating the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament. People write comments stating their opinions “that imaging Godde as a woman somehow demeans Godde; that if women are allowed to be full equals, then we’ll make men our slaves; that if women had power, then the end of the world is right around the corner.”
Rev. Atteberry says that she deletes these “hyperbolic” comments and personal attacks. But she welcomes constructive criticism that challenges her theology: “I want to be made to see that Godde is bigger than I think s/he is.”
Also, Shawna draws inspiration from women in the Bible, from women in church history, and from recent Christian feminists. “I get my inspiration from all of the women who’ve come before me. From the Bible: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, and Phoebe. Women from history: Florence Nightingale, Hildegard von Bingen, Brigid of Kildare, Hilda of Whitby, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, Catherine Booth, Corrie ten Boom, and so many others. Then there are the recent ones, the second wave feminists who paved the way for me: Letha Scanzoni, Viriginia Mollenkott, Nancy Hardesty, Catherine Clark Kroeger, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Aida Besançon Spencer, Mary Hunt, and so many others. All paved the way for me and made it easier for me to become the pastor, writer, and theologian Godde called me to be. I definitely get my inspiration from the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me.”
For her prophetic ministry, Rev. Atteberry also receives encouragement from emails and comments left on her website, and from responses to her preaching and teaching. “I love it when someone tells me I have given them hope, and that they are so happy to see someone working on women’s equality and the Divine Feminine. I also love the feedback I receive from my ebook, What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down, that this is a much-needed work to bring women out of the shadows of the Bible. They love to read all of the stories of women leaders, showing that the major biblical witness is of women leading their families, communities and religious groups. I love when I’m preaching, and I look out and see people that are getting what I’m saying. I also love when I’m leading a Bible study, and the participants show me things about women in the Bible that I have never noticed. I’m a big lover of synergy.”
Rev. Shawna Atteberry articulates a hopeful vision for the future of the church. “My vision is that one day it will be just as normal to talk about Godde as Mother as it is now to say Godde is Father. My vision is that one day it will be just as normal for a woman to be a pastor or bishop as it is for a man. My vision is that one day both our sons and daughters will look at us and say: ‘You mean people only used to call Godde “Father” and only men could preach? That’s just crazy. What were you thinking?’”
I highly recommend Rev. Shawna R. B. Atteberry’s book, What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down (http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/store/) , her website (http://www.shawnaatteberry.com/) , and The Christian Godde Project website that includes The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament (http://godde.wordpress.com/the-divine-feminine-version-dfv-of-the-new-testament/).