Have you ever heard a grown man squeal? That’s precisely what happened when I asked this week’s writer, Francisco Herrera – the blog manager for “We Talk. We Listen” – to write a piece on theological language and gender. Though he mostly writes about race and power in the church, he also has a keen interest in sexuality, gender and power and it shows. And through his humor, he leaves us all with a jolting reminder that, if we don’t open ourselves to myriad ways of talking about God, then we can very well sacrifice others on the idols of our own theological complacency. Take a peek and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
My first serious object lesson in adventurous theological language happened about four years ago when I had to prepare a Bible study for a class. The professor gave us four Biblical excerpts from which to choose – two safe (from John 3 and John 5) and two risky (Ephesians and The Song of Songs) and left it up to us to decide.
The first presenter, who we will name “Emily,” chose the snippet from Song of Songs, and had us start the exercise by reading this juicy bit to ourselves:
Listen! My beloved! Look! Here he comes,leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice. My beloved spoke and said to me,“Arise, my darling,my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.”
(Song of Songs 2 : 8-13)
“When we read Scripture,” she began, “we tend to understand it through three basic hermeneutical lenses.” At this point she started writing on the board. “It is either God speaking to us, Jesus speaking to us, or people speaking to each other.” She paused for effect and then looked calmly but determinedly back at the class. “So my question is this…
“If this excerpt from the Song of Songs is God speaking to us, what does it say about God?”
The responses from the other students were sweet and anodyne. God loves us. God cares for us. God wants to be with us, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Riled up, but leery and afraid to start trouble, I did my best just to sit and keep quiet. Emily wasn’t having it, though. And likely intuiting my impatience, she soon keened her green eyes and elvish grin hard upon me and asked:
“So Francisco…what do you think?”
Duly summoned, and with the knowingest grin easing across my face, I steadied myself and replied:
“God is a woman… who loves us, who desires us, who wants to make love to us, who longs for us in a perfumed garden, eagerly waiting to give herself to us with passion and abandon.”
And as I spoke, seduced by my own imagination, there I was – languishing in some highland orchard, hiding myself among the apple and peach blossoms – oiling my skin, lining my eyes with kohl, waiting for my Lord to come so that that he could delight in me, and I could delight in him.
Though utterly predictable, the group freak-out that ensued was truly one for the books:
“Well, I don’t think it is right for you to sexualize women like that.”
“But I don’t know how you could say that, there aren’t even any masculine pronouns here.”
“But appealing to that base kind of imagery is something completely unbefitting of a pastor.”
And my favorite question/accusation?
“I don’t know how you could have possibly come up an answer like that anyway…”
To which I grinned and, calmly gesturing at Emily, retorted: “Well, I’m simply following her paradigm.” Emily was maybe a bit too discreet to look me in the eye that moment, but I could still plainly see that the ends of her grin were stretched back on her face tight enough to lick her ears. It may have been problematic to think of myself as a highly-aroused, female concubine- but oh my was it ever fun and revealing!
And yes, I was being provocative, at least for this crowd, but I believed my insolence towards the class honest and just. Despite the shocking nature of what I said, in truth, my comment was actually a classic example of biblical literalism. If this excerpt is God speaking to us, well then, God is a woman who wants to have sex with us – apples and turtledoves and young stags and all. No imagination necessary. What’s more, these soon-to-be-pastors’ well worn theological tropes – though socially acceptable – completely drained this holy Scripture of its unquenchable fire and, well, butchered its song. But what really took my breath away was how quickly students moved to hush me – scandalized by the idea that God could possibly be a sexually active woman.
Had I talked about her in more socially acceptable tones – as if God were a woman like a statue of the Virgin Mary: flawless, impassible, and white-washed – I doubt they would’ve protested. Suggesting that God could be like a woman with passions and desires on the other hand, like pretty much all of the women that I have ever known, was just too much.
No one wanted to explore my ideas, extrapolate or even humor me condescendingly. They just blindly contradicted my musings and tried their best to move on. It chilled me to the bone – conscious or no – to realize that my own peers were committing a kind of theological idolatry. Their understanding of the relationship between sex and gender and God was so upset by my insolence that their basic response was to try to shut me up. Looking back in hindsight, feminist liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid would have called my interpretation a classic example of indecent theology; speaking unapologetically about gender, sex, power, and God in such a way that it exposes the hypocritical violence inherent in so much respectable “church talk,” even (and sometimes especially) progressive theological God-Talk.
And at that point I could truly appreciate how shocking and vital it was to speak of God not only as “not male,” but in brave and shocking ways, indecent ways – because doing so exposes the hidden idols in our theology that so often blind us to the pain and suffering and oppression that we initiate and/or perpetuate.
Let’s even do a test here, now, and pay attention to yourself and see how you twitch:
Think about God as: a sexually active woman, as “daddy” (Abba), speak of Christ as “Crista” – a controversial statue depicting Jesus as a nude, crucified woman – a woman in labor, as the plague of the first-born, as a good Samaritan. Even in literature. Think of Shug, from Alice Walker’s epochal the Color Purple, talking about how she felt closer to God while having sex; or Nedjma’s scintillating memoir on Islamic womanhood – The Almond – where she reflects on how God loves us so much that they delight in our delight and “even watches over us while we snore.”
Using such powerfully transgressive language for God often does a fine job of exposing destructive limitations in our theology, limitations that we have been taught, even inherited – and hence makes it easier for us to query them and, as with any idol, to smash them. And if we don’t, we run the risk of sacrificing our friends, loved-ones, colleagues, and parishioners on theologies that serve nothing but our own arrogance, convenience, or own our unholy hungers.
Plus you might even make new friends! – as Emily and I most certainly shared a quiet giggle to ourselves, leaving class together and sporting the same sly, knowing smirk.
We’d broken a few barriers that day, and hopefully, some more imagination would come from it. Some more grace might come from it, too, and maybe – just maybe – even some more love.
Before coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005 He completed his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012 and then began Th.M./Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Fall of 2014 – his emphasis on World Christianity and Global Mission. A polymath and a scatterbrain, when he isn’t preparing for school stuff he blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com and Tweets at @PolyglotEvangel.