Wednesday, October 21, 2009

in the image ...

Back in the 90s, the United Church issued its new hymn book, Voices United. As with any change, there was bound to be controversy and resistance, but the most controversial issue with this publication was the use of gender-inclusive language: any reference to “mankind” etc. or to God, were changed to be gender-neutral. And, I have to admit that, at the time, I was one of the people who were against the change. I thought that it was an example of excessive political correctness, and was silly to change well-known songs that were written in a pre-feminist era – I figured I was advanced enough to be able to sing about mankind and know that it included me; and God is bigger than our gender constructs, so if we want to use the masculine pronoun, it’s just about convenience and doesn’t reveal any truth about the nature of God.

I’ve been rethinking this issue recently. I’m reading “All We’re Meant to Be” right now, a book of feminist theology that was written originally in the 1960s, and then updated in the ‘80s. The authors explain that they initially didn’t think that inclusive language was important, but have moved towards it, and changed their references to God throughout the second edition of the book to use non-gendered language. Their argument is that our language shapes the way we think, so that if we refer to God as male, even if it’s just for convenience’s sake, we think in those terms, and we are therefore less likely to truly embrace the fact that women are equally made in God’s image.

So I’ve been thinking about how we talk about God can affect how we view God, and I am going to try an experiment – I am trying to only refer to God in gender-inclusive language, and see if it does change my perception. This is tricky – even in writing this, I have had to stop myself from typing “him” and “he” whenever a pronoun would usually be inserted. I generally don’t think of God as much of a “person” which, on the one hand, means that it might not make much of a difference, but on the other hand is all the more reason to move away from personal pronouns.

Going forward, I am not too worried about the other element of gender-inclusive language: it is generally accepted (at least in the circles I move in) that it’s “humanity”, and not “mankind”. But I still am not sure what I think about changing per-feminist texts to insert inclusive language. On the one hand, how can we move to gender equality in the church if we continue to tell women “oh don’t worry, when it says ‘man’, it really means you too . . .”, but then, this is art that was created in a certain context, and I am a bit uncomfortable with changing art to make it meet our sensibilities (à la fig leaf on David) …. So I don’t know where I will fall on that debate, but (despite reservations about the musical difficulty of a number of the songs . . . a topic for another rant . . .) I definitely now appreciate what the writers of Voices United were trying to do, and why it is important.


Cheyenne said...
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Ryan said...

Yeah, this is a tough one. It's not tough to choose inclusive language. I think it's tough to choose it and not have it sound forced or flaky.

I'm a big fan of Eugene Peterson's "Message" version of the Biblical translation and it has worked very well combined with traditional liturgy (ie responsive psalms). It conveys the message (duh!) while being very faithful to the original text. I also find using "Yahweh" rather than THE LORD is not only more correct, it sounds more mystical and authentic.

There are ways. Yet, the fact is we need poets to find them, not translators or nice middle aged ladies at the United Church printing house.

*ps: sorry about the double post--I was signed in with my wife's account by accident!

Rah said...

I have taken to using "the Divine" more, because when I say just God I still relate to the word as male. I also like to use She and Her as much as He and Him - because it directly counteracts all the years of He and Him exclusively limiting my(our) ideas about God.