“A few weeks ago, a taxi driver told me how much he had enjoyed watching astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 television series, “Cosmos.” “But I can’t believe this universe just happened out of nothing!” he said. “There has to be a Creator! And I’m starting to think it might be a woman.”
Listening to him, it occurred to me that thinking of God beyond the familiar male imagery was gradually seeping into the imaginations of everyday people. Not long ago, serious discussions about God and gender took place almost entirely in feminist religious circles and theological seminaries. Maybe more people are becoming open to such ideas because of books like The Shack, or the writings and media appearances of popular writers like Anne Lamott who frequently speaks of God as “She,” or Bobby McFerrin’s use of female pronouns in singing the 23rd Psalm, or simply the wider social world the Internet has opened up.
Even so, such receptivity to inclusive language and female imagery for the Deity is still the exception, whether among the general public or in houses of worship. We’re far more likely to hear someone on TV talking about “the Man upstairs” than we are to hear a prayer that begins. “our Loving Mother God,” in a Sunday service. In some circles, shock and a kind of emotional vertigo— or even anger and charges of heresy— arise at the thought that God could be referred to in female terms.
The Writings of Jann Aldredge-Clanton
This is where Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton steps in to calm fears, enlarge our vision, and show the richness of expanding the way we think, sing, and speak about the Divine. Her latest book, She Lives! (the exclamation point is part of the title), helps us move beyond the limited gender binary to see God as both male and female, yet strictly speaking, neither male nor female, and at the same time inclusive of all gender identities.
Jann’s ministries include enlarging our vision by writing new words to hymn tunes and by telling us stories of real people who are traveling a journey much like her own, one in which she has experienced “the sacredness of all and of the dynamic nature of this Divinity—ever living, ever moving, ever growing” (p. x). To tell these stories, Jann has been interviewing a diverse group of people in recent years and writing profiles of them, first for her previous book, Changing Church, and others of them for her weekly blog. Forty profiles, drawn from all of these interviews, are included in this new book.
Among the profiled women and men are nine members of EEWC-Christian Feminism Today: Kendra Weddle Irons, Mark Mattison, Melanie Springer Mock, Mary E. Hunt, Gail Anderson Ricciuti, Rebecca Kiser, Judith Liro, Marg Herder, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Poems and a sermon excerpt written by another member, Shawna R. B. Atteberry, are also included. Jann Aldredge-Clanton herself is a member and serves on the EEWC-CFT Executive Council.
Twelve of the forty persons profiled here were also included in Changing Church.
The Many Ways Sophia Wisdom Works
Jann explains that the subtitle of She Lives!, “Sophia Wisdom Works in the World,” refers to one of her favorite female names for the Deity—Wisdom. “Wisdom is Hokmah in the Hebrew Bible and Sophia in the Greek language of the Christian Scriptures,” she says. “I continually see Wisdom working in our world and the great need for more of Her works” (p.x).
She has organized the sections of her book around eleven of these “works of Wisdom,” with each person’s story placed in the category where Jann felt it would fit best.
With so many outstanding spiritual leaders profiled in the chapters that comprise each section, I found it difficult to choose just a few representative stories. They are all so interesting, and I don’t want to leave anyone out! In some ways, this is many books in one. So I’ve decided to extract a central idea from each of the forty persons profiled to give you a tiny sample from each (and hopefully to entice you to read the book).
Think of each section of the book—each “work of Wisdom”—as a mini-conference where you are hearing several outstanding speakers talk about a specific theme. Or imagine eleven tables set up in a large room, each with a group of wonderful people conversing about an interesting topic and inviting you to pull up a chair and join in. . . .
Some Concluding Thoughts of My Own
I realize that by providing such an extensive overview, I’m risking the possibility that some readers will conclude there’s now no need to read the book for themselves. But that would be like deciding to skip a movie because you’ve seen the trailer and thus assume you already know everything about it! Each of the forty persons profiled here has so much to share through Jann’s telling of their lives, works, and words that the best I could do was offer a tiny glimpse or central idea from each one, hoping you’ll then want to read that person’s chapter in its entirety.
One thing I liked especially about this book is Jann’s awareness that although it’s important to expand our image of the Divine, there is no strict orthodoxy about exactly what that entails. There is no insistence that our journeys be the same in how we come to embrace and express the vision of a “gender-full God”— no strict rules or imposed uniformity.
In the book’s introduction, Jann points out variations in the approaches represented among the persons she has profiled. Some like to use the word “Godde” as a combination of God and Goddess to show the Divine is beyond the gender binary; others might chose some other combination (an example would be Rosemary Ruether’s introduction of the word “God/ess” in some of her writings). At least two of those Jann interviewed had no problem with simply using the word “Goddess” as another name for the Divine. Jann points out that some people “favor abstract over anthropomorphic names for Deity and suggest genderless designations like ‘Friend,’ ‘Spirit,’ and ‘Force.’” For some, this may serve as a first step in moving away from exclusively male terminology for God, even if they don’t feel comfortable using female pronouns. Others believe such a gender neutral approach doesn’t go far enough.
Some, such as Virginia Ramey Mollenkott suggest that combining the word “God” (which in many people’s minds suggests male) with “She” (when a pronoun is necessary) can jolt people into seeing that God’s image embraces all genders and therefore includes transgender persons. Some people like to use the term “Divine Feminine,” whereas others, such as Mary E. Hunt, may say, “I do not use ‘feminine’ anything as it seems to play into the sexist trap of dividing people into masculine and feminine.” Masculine and feminine are cultural constructs and can lead to thinking in terms of gender stereotypes. Jann Aldredge-Clanton herself has begun using the term, “Female Divine,” although she has been conscientious in recording the preferred terminology of each individual whose story she tells, with many using “Divine Feminine” or “Feminine Divine.”
I am glad that Jann has included this discussion, because we humans can so easily convince ourselves there is only one right way to view or express something— and that “right way” can too often be defined as “the way I see it (or speak it),” thereby stifling others’ expressions of their views. I’ve not seen such a succinct discussion on the variations in inclusive language for God in quite this way elsewhere, and I commend Jann for including it in this book. . . . ”
See Letha’s full review essay, originally published on Christian Feminism Today: http://www.eewc.com/BookReviews/sh-lives-book-jann-aldredge-clanton. Excerpts reposted with permission.