Cavalier Revision

Well, brothers and sisters, what are we to make of all this? As I read of the new lectionary, a slogan kept coming to mind. It appears under the masthead of Rolling Stone magazine, and it says, “All the news that fits.” Presumably this means that Rolling Stone prints only the news that fits the themes of concern to the magazine. The rest of the news is omitted. The National Council of Churches has done Rolling Stone one better. Since God is referred to in the Bible in almost exclusively masculine terms, and it would not work to eliminate him from the Book altogether, the council, in a brilliant stroke, has just changed his name.

When I was in seminary I was taught to do exegesis and to avoid eisegesis. Exegesis is the science of reading out of the Bible its meaning; eisegesis is the practice of reading into the Bible our own meanings. The new lectionary has now introduced metagesis. If the text or term simply will not allow us to read into it our foregone conclusions, then change it! If the Bible is “patriarchal to the core,” as some of the more radical religious feminists insist, then let us change the Bible, by all means.

When a person does something I deeply disagree with, it may win from me a kind of perverse admiration because of its sheer audacity. It has chutzpah: a characteristic a child would display if he murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan. My hat is off to you this time, National Council of Churches! You have pulled off a real coup.

We Become Like Our God

My perverse admiration aside, let’s get back to the issue. It is not just the National Council’s cavalier revision of the Bible that should grieve us. It is what their revision has done to God. I realize, of course, that we mere mortals can do nothing to God. Thanks be to him, he will survive even our most monumental foul-ups. But when we distort what he has revealed to us about himself, we do great damage to ourselves. The God we believe in will determine the people we become.

What kind of God do we get when we change the terms in which he has chosen to reveal himself? To begin, we obviously get a god other than the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The real question is not whether the Bible is sexist, but whether Jesus was sexist. He is Lord and Savior. Our Lord and Savior has revealed God decisively and definitively as Father, not Father and Mother. The National Council of Churches officially confesses Christ as Savior and Lord. How does it reconcile its actions with that confession? Could it be that it uses the terms “Lord” and “Savior” as historic orthodoxy always has, but with a different dictionary? It has been accused of such, and its most recent publishing venture has done little to answer that accusation, and much to confirm it.

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It will simply not do to explain Jesus’ reference to God as Father by saying it is an accommodation to his culture. This view claims he was forced to speak of God’s sovereignty in terms of “king” and “father” because his culture was patriarchal and would understand and respond to no alternative terms. Yet the pagan cultures surrounding Israel abounded in female deities. The head of the Canaanite pantheon, Baal, had his consort Astarte. The male and female were fully represented in the deities of paganism, and in cultures that made Israel’s patriarchalism pale by comparison. Jesus had that option, but he refused it. The scribes and Pharisees took up rocks to stone him because he placed himself on equal footing with God. They would have done the same if he had spoken of God as “Father and Mother,” and they would have been justified if they had. The new lectionary may not, as they say, play well in Peoria, but it would have done even worse in first-century Jerusalem.

But Jesus did not call God “Father and Mother” for fear of being stoned. He called God “Father” because it said it best about who God is toward us. It preserves the truth that God is over and above us in a way that maternal designations cannot. Karl Barth and Hendrikus Berkhof and Donald Bloesch have argued effectively that the word “Father” contends for the transcendence and spirituality of God over against a god of the fertility cults and Earth Mother, or a creative process within history. Bloesch says that when God is “Mother,” the tendency has been irresistible “to look for God within the depths of the soul or of nature rather than in the particular events in history where God in his sovereign freedom has chosen to reveal himself.”

We agree that God has maternal, nurturing qualities. We know it because Scripture says so. The point of “Father” is that toward us he is Father, and we are his children. He is Husband and we are his wife. This is not to say that because God is masculine, therefore being a male human is to be more godlike. The Bible teaches that all of us, male and female, comprise one humanity that is both male and female, and that that humanity is to be related to God as female to his male, wife to his husband, and child to his father.

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God? No! Man? Maybe

Let the new lectionary restrict its revisionism to humans. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with doing away with the generic “mankind” in favor of the generic “humankind.” As for the personal pronoun, there is nothing wrong with making changes there too, I guess. I sometimes wonder, though, if there is all that much right in doing so. Will feminism do away with the personal pronoun altogether? Or will it introduce new words into our language? Will he or she and him or her become he/she, him/her and finally “heshe” and “him’er”?

I know language has its political dimension and can be pervasive in its influence on how we think. But does the use of personal pronouns have all that much influence on how we think about male and female roles and power? I have been impressed how concern over their use can trivialize great passages of Scripture and liturgy. I have seen persons in my congregation all but miss the beauty and truth of something said or read or sung in worship because the use of personal pronouns did not pay proper homage to their feminist convictions.

Martin Luther said the world’s reforms are like trying to get a drunk peasant on a mule. Push him up one side and he falls off the other side. In that sense, the National Council of Churches’ new lectionary is the worldliest of reforms. Whatever abuses it has set out to correct have been totally outweighed by the new abuses it has introduced. To borrow from one of our Lord’s parables, the council may have driven out one demon, but it has made room for ten more.

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