How Do Femmevangelicals Talk About God?

Femmevangelicalizing the “God-talk” challenge.

A couple days ago, Tony Jones challenged progressive writers to write a post about God, citing a sweeping “God-talk problem” that leaves us stuck on “social issues, the church, culture and society.”

If it is a safe assumption that the Bible is widely accepted and taught as the Word of God by most Christians, and said Word of God forms the general basis for Christians to formulate “what we think about God” and “who God is, what God does, etc.” then we are all stuck with a voice of God that is also stuck on social issues, the state of religious institutions, culture and society. It’s really all “God” talks about. So we progressives could be said to be onto something. By talking about God in the way that God talks about what’s supposedly going on in God’s own head, we employ the most authentic framework for God-talk possible.

But if we are talking about a PR problem (as Jones calls it) and the question of articulating “who God is” in one breath, I should say the biblical God of our commentary also has a PR problem, which makes our own a little more complex. I would have to write a whole other blog about the schizophrenia of the biblical and theological God who, as you know, is by turns violent yet gentle, genocidal yet welcoming, destructive yet loyal, retaliatory yet forgiving, misogynistic yet … I don’t really know where to go with that one. So I’ve often wondered how these people to whom Jones refers as examples in his challenge decide “who God is and what God does.” How do they take a sure stance without residually advocating some iteration of ancient ritual or first-century Greco-Roman ethics, or choosing which characteristics and statements “sound most like their God” while ignoring the diffiult ones? Oh wait, many of them do.

Alas, if I am challenged to put forth a specifically definitive blog about God (which seems to be the crux of the challenge), with the unavoidable assumption that scripture and academic theological works form the basis of my knowledge of who God is and what God does, then I can only write in terms of what I know about God’s manifestations, permutations, pontifications and contra-indications as painfully bent through the lens of ancient, culturally-ensconced patriarchs and biblical scribes, or alternately any range of modern-day religious and/or academic interpreters and an often conflicting stream of well-intentioned hermeneutics. They all have PR problems of their own, too.

Which brings me to say this: just because we observe that conservative evangelicals and a podcasting theological nerd “repeatedly and forcefully [say] things about who God is and how God acts” doesn’t mean it is a helpful thing – or the right thing – to do. There is a crucial personal reason that I have traveled so far from my “fundamentalist” upbringing to a “progressive” worldview, and that is because I hit a dangerous dead-end anytime I tied to be repeated and forceful about anything about God. I also think that practice is at the heart of why organized religion itself has such a nasty PR problem. So, respectfully, I find this to be the wrong challenge to bolster the progressive message.

And then I land here in my God-talk: it can never be sure or definitive A) lest I pretend to know the mind of God (I’d hate to get struck by the proverbial lightening) and B) lest the multitude of God-talkers talk God out of the purview of others…others who can’t or don’t or don’t want to fit in to whatever character we presume. As a woman and feminist, a lot of God-talk about this uber-masculine, prowling God who rips off and pulls skirts up over our heads and only deems men good enough to compile his thoughts into the Bible makes God inaccessible to me. Likewise, my version of a creative, kick-ass but fair female God who wants to protect the earth and not kill bugs, much less whole races, won’t resonate with others. So I move my God-talk from the realm of defining to the realm of seeking, which can be inclusive of everyone.

Seeking by nature is experiential. But it works best with all concerns about having a competitive corner on the God market aside. God-talk as non-judgmental reflection and interrogation of our experiences can help us peel through the information we glean from stories of the Bible and the agendas of theologians to a deeper layer of who God is and what God does. This can get tricky; the lack of control over other people’s experiences of God is why so many religious traditions give it no room. But that’s also why it’s the foundation of Femmevangelicalism. For women, desperately trying to understand our everyday experiences is at the heart of even beginning to try and understand who God is. It has to be, because so much of women’s daily experience around the globe – street harassment, sex trafficking, domestic violence, genital mutilation, child marriages, pornification and commodification of our bodies, poverty, lack of government influence, general media mysogyny and disrespect — feels like hell.

One thing I can say about God is that I no longer believe God is in some other “high in the sky bye and bye” realm, but rather the point of God is being in our human experience (it’s what the Bible indicates if you boil it down and let the ancient cultural soup evaporate). By adding experience to study and discussion, the description of God becomes a journey of the mind and heart – and holistic communites – that helps us center and balance the ethos our greater world claims. God-talk becomes an actual living, breathing thing, contracting and expanding with missteps and triumphs, uprisings and peace, judgments and clarity, doing and being (again, arguably the original premise of the Bible, before people starting taking it literally as a rule book about God’s opinions and definitive actions).

A true seeker – whether conservative or progressive – doesn’t seek to define, but rather seeks to experience God. These very different intentions have very different outcomes, because the latter resists assuming we can ever stop the living process long enough to make God static or set in stone. We start to see such forceful, unapologetic declarations alluded to as enviable in Jones’ blog as therefore describing a “dead God”, which is why so many progressives, in my opinion, rightly avoid it. The living God may be said to never change, but we, the God-talkers, most certainly do (if you don’t, you’re dead). This means we will always look back and be slightly embarrassed at our naiveté in what we wrote or said even just yesterday, because God is continually unfolding before us, even as history unfolds. And that is where I believe the right challenge and exploration of knowing who God is begins.

The God you can feel in your bones as an experiential answer, what Femmevangelicals may call our God-given intuition, may not be deemed “reliable” by organized religion (although oddly, all those unknown guys who patched together the Bible stories hundreds of years ago were apparently reliable). But seekers who stick with it through the ins and outs, ups and downs, the “I know it all about God” moments and the “I don’t think God even exists” moments know a more valuable reality. As we seek, God’s character shows up in the realness, beauty, passion, frustration, intelligence, anger, complexity, sorrow, generosity and compassion we see in other human beings. God appears in the gifts and challenges we give and receive between one another. God becomes interconnected relationship. God becomes love. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.

Back to the PR problem at hand. Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood was a limited-time secret weapon in the world of spin, but a God worth knowing transcends the tail-chasing fodder known as the “PR problem”. Christians of all stripes have already seen that the definitive, repeated, forceful brand of God-talk may lead to oft-regurgitated sound bites (great for PR), but not necessarily to any real knowledge of God. It produces vacuous Christians fighting over who is right or wrong about God, while people, especially younger generations, leave churches in droves. We should be concerned about helping others to feel God in their bones through our experiences of and with one another.

And, Tony Jones’ challenge is a great lead-in to next week’s Femmevangelical blog, which will talk about whether God is male or female, and who we picture that we are talking to when we pray.

About Jennifer D. Crumpton

Jennifer Danielle Crumpton spent 13 years as a corporate advertising executive for major global brands before graduating with a Master of Divinity in 2011 from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. There she immersed into inter-faith dialogue and faith-based social justice, feminist theology, and Christian social and structural ethics. An author and public speaker, Jennifer has also previously worked as a playwright, and a theater, commercial and indie film actress. She is a contributing author to the recent book A New Evangelical Manifesto and hosts a monthly Femmevangelical radio segment on Fairness Radio, the first Tuesdays of each month at 2:30 ET.
Jennifer resides in New York City and is the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships for the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C. ICRD utlizes religious reconcilation in international diplomatic efforts to prevent and resolve identity-based conflict. Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Jennifer is a Pastoral Associate of Park Avenue Christian Church in Manhattan.

  • http://cosmicplainspeak.blogspot.com Kristen

    This. All of this. yes.
    You pretty much hit on all of my thoughts when I read the ‘challenge’ but in a much more articulated way. We don’t need more people saying “this is who God is”. I’ve grown up with that. It doesn’t resonate and it doesn’t transform. It’s misguided at best and idolatrous at worst. We need leaders to stop speaking for God and start helping others experience God.
    And I tend to roll my eyes whenever a challenge is born out of a “PR problem.”

    • Jennifer D. Crumpton

      Thanks for responding, Kristen. I’m glad it resonated with you. I’m with you, girl.

  • http://yahoo dennis

    What does Jesus mean for you in this journey…and what is your experience of Jesus…

  • http://yahoo.com dennis

    What Jesus mean for you in your journey….and how have you and also now experience Jesus

  • Pia

    I concur wholeheartedly!! Unless there is experience, it doesn’t take in the same way. With experience, being ‘right’ is far less important because seeking God rather than defining God, as you write, becomes much more compelling, alluring, and fulfilling–not to mention life-transforming and life-giving.

  • Jennifer Crumpton

    Hi Dennis,
    Thanks for your question! Tony Jones’ challenge specifically was NOT to talk about Jesus, but only to talk about God in this response post. I write a lot about Jesus, please check out my first post on the Femmevangelical blog, and do please keep coming back for more about the role of Jesus. Thanks again!
    Jennifer

  • http://prismatictheology.com carol wimmer

    Wow! I so appreciated Tony’s challenge! Millions of people are coming to the Progressive voice from the outside looking in. They are trying to figure it out. Tony wasn’t asking for a “progressive” definition of God. He was asking for a progressive dialogue/persepctive ABOUT God. Big difference! All I can say after reading this response is, I’m exhausted. ‘Twas not helpful at all. Sorry :-(

    • Jennifer Crumpton

      Don’t be sorry, Carol! That’s exactly the point of a community like this — diversity and dialogue — the only way any of us learn anything. What is helpful to one is not to another, and that’s why every voice counts. Thanks for reading and commenting! Jennifer

  • http://PrairietableMinistries.blogspot.com Scott Frederickson

    As I gave thought to responding to Tony Jones, I arrived where you seem to have landed. That is, that progressives often do not talk about “God,” per se, because they often are (or became) progressive without “God-talk.” Since God-talk is not then a defining aspect of your definition of God, it becomes a challenge in its simplest term, downright paradoxical most every other way. But when God-talk is an important aspect of your definition of God (which I assume it is for people such as Mr. Jones) what are you to say? I would suspect that the challenge will be answered best by people for whom talk about God matters, rather than people such as me (possibly yourself?) for whom the matters of God’s concern deserve the talking. Thank you for saving me from having to write a 1000 word post.

    • Jennifer Crumpton

      I like the term “paradoxical” as you use it here, Scott. Thanks for your thoughts. I feel that talking about God matters, but God-talk bothers me. Talking about God seems to leave room for all the aspects God could have, all the ways and things God could be. God-talk seems to say we know everything about God, putting God into a box influenced by very limited notions. “God is this but not that.” My argument tries to point out that when we do the this-not-that God talk, we are relying too much on human definitions based on largely old/past/ancient concepts, instead of allowing God to reveal…a living God would surely still speak today. Thanks for your response and for all the work you contribute here at Patheos!

  • http://dearheartists.com robyn blaikie collins

    sending you my new song : Experience You.
    it’s clearly about experiencing God… and the ways we do that.

    • Jennifer D. Crumpton

      Thanks Robyn!

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    I hate to be that dude who quotes a bunch of old, dubious, dead Jewish guys, but my question is what do you do with what the author of Hebrews says, that, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power ” (1:1-3)? Apparently, the idea is that God has spoken, and he’s done so authoritatively both in the scriptures, his prophets, and finally and definitively in His Son, the eternal Word. (John 1) One of the main themes in the scriptures is that God defines himself for us in his word and his works. There is a place for our groping, fumbling, confused knowledge of God in our experience, but apart from the revelation of the Son in the Gospel (and I would argue in the history of Israel that lays the background for our understanding of God’s work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ), our knowledge of God is obscure and distorted because of our sinful tendency to squish God down to size and make him palatable, controllable, malleable in our hands much in the same way the Israelites did when they made the golden calf. (Ex. 32) I know that we inevitably bring our experiences to the table when interpreting the Scriptures, and speaking of God, but the approach you’re outlining seems to make our experiences normative in a way that threatens to dominate God’s speech about himself in an unhelpful fashion. It ensconces a system of Feuerbachian projection that is a recipe for creating God in our own image, whether machista or feminist.

    I just worry about the concept of God that makes our own experience the main determinant of who God is, because that will inevitably restrict God to our experience, whereas the God of the Bible must speak and act forcefully over and over again to remind us that our experience (or cultural judgments) are not determinative for who God is; only his own revelations can give us sure knowledge of his character.

    I also worry about a crypto-Marcionite disparagement of the Old Testament depictions of the Lord, with the talk of “boiling away the ancient cultural soup” and a dash of what C.S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” I admit, much of what we’re dealing with in an ancient text must be approached with care, much of which is foreign, and initially troubling. I get that the Bible has “problems.” I’m just wondering what alternative you’re really advocating (a modern elevation of human reason and experience in a feminist key?) and is it really anything that hasn’t proven to be more problematic than classical approaches to God and revelation in its own right in the modern period?

    • Jennifer Crumpton

      Derek, thank you so much for these very thoughtful comments! I hear what you are saying, and I do understand your concerns. There are so many great questions in here, questions I’ve also asked at some point or another along the years, especially at seminary, when my worldview was challenged and expanded in so many ways.

      As for the Hebrews 1:1-3 description of how God speaks, I’d start by noting interest in your personal addition of “then finally and definitely” in Jesus, even though the text itself does not say anything about being final and definitive, per se. That may be your own theological addition? And conflating the purposes of the author of John 1, a “Gospel” story text (who is noted as strikingly different than other Gospel scribes, for his pushing of a “divinity” agenda for Jesus) with the statement of the author of Hebrews (not a “Gospel” text) probably doesn’t logistically work for trying to create one cohesive assumption from the mixing of texts and genres with very different basis points. I would argue that experience was the foundation of the biblical texts themselves… mens’ experience of God and their interpretations of that experience told in stories of various characters carried down from oral traditions: Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Jesus, the disciples, etc. The Bible is, if nothing else, the report of various experiences, and that’s part of why so many of the texts, including the Gospels, conflict in and among one another.

      Why do we revere those experiences, and not experiences today? I would have to go into a different argument here about the politics of the early church, how texts got canonized, and the control exerted by the powerful, patriarchal church over masses of people throughout history.

      But going back and looking again at the text of the Hebrew passage, the author also seemed to think the days of Jesus were the “last days”, which of course, we know now they were not. The author was speaking from a perspective of cultural interpretation that no longer holds true. What do you do with that? And if we do take Hebrews 1:1-3 literally, and this is the way it was and still is, how do we deal with the fact that God has apparently been silent now for a thousand years? If God, as you say, defines Godself in “his words and his works”, then how do we decide what those have been over the course of history that has unfolded over all those centuries?

      Feuerbachian projection is a danger to be sure, but in our modern context, especially within the U.S. ethos of pioneering individualism and the obsession with the American Dream, it is an old way of worrying about creating God in our own image. We have more modern versions of that to contend with. Again, another whole blog. And C.S. Lewis spoke from an intellectual and social privilege that while valuable and valid, doesn’t extend necessarily to the perspective and knowledge of oppression and restriction that women around the world and over the centuries approach faith from. This is the point where my blog generates a discussion, so old male theologians can’t always speak to the nuance.

      To cut to the chase. Re: your question about what alternative I’m really advocating. I’m advocating that if biblical texts and theological/scholarly text (whether they claim to speak for God or not) can’t speak to our circumstances today, then what is their value? (I’m not saying they don’t have value, I’m saying their immediate value is contained and based on individual experience of the reader in whatever connection we are able to make with their assumptions). If they do not address what we are dealing with in 2012, in reality in the here and now, in figuring out how to deal with realities that weren’t addressed in the 1st century or even in 1950, then we can only utilize them interpretively. That’s just a fact of the time/space continuum and physics in general.

      I’m also writing from a female bent, where we must extinguish the dangers of the texts if we are to survive. This is important. Therefore, I’m advocating a mix of “experience, study and discussion” as stated in my blog that keeps women alive. I’m advocating seeking a living God with all things considered, that speaks to women’s realities in the here and now, which is the only time and place and circumstance and voice of God we can possibly know.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

        Thanks for your thoughtful and thorough response! I have just a couple of quick push-backs. The first is that yes, the “final and definitive” is mine, but I think it’s a statement that is a warranted exposition of the general thrust of both the author of Hebrews who is trying to speak to the finality and supremacy of the person and work of Christ, the Son, as well as the NT as a whole. Second, yes, the authors were all men, but I think there are various points in the canon where we see these men interacting with and learning from women which shaped their experience. Also, I believe they were inspired by the Spirit who is beyond gender in such a way that these texts can speak to those in Christ whether they are male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free. The Spirit has sanctified and appropriated these texts and experiences, and inspired these interpretations of said experiences in such as way as to make them definitively revelatory for us. This does not mean that God does not continue to speak. It does mean that he has given us a norm by which to discern what he might be currently saying. I don’t say that he’s been silent for thousands of years. I think the Spirit has been inspiring the preaching of God’s true Word throughout the world, and, if anything, has been speaking more than he ever did before. The point I’m more concerned to make is that what he is speaking what he said uniquely in the incarnation of the Word. No other revelation can be normative or stand over this one and the Scriptures are our primary access point, the chosen medium by which the Spirit chooses to reveal Son who shows us the Father. Third, for too long scholarship has misunderstood “the last days” language as having a strictly literal reference in the sense that the authors were expecting an imminent parousia. This is eschatologically-charged language that is referring to the turning of the ages that has occurred in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection which puts us in the “last days” just as much as it did the first generation of Christians. (I’m an amillenialist.) N.T. Wright is very helpful at this point. Finally, none of this denies that the text needs to be appropriated, interpreted, and prayerfully applied to our current situation. In many ways, we do live in a unique historical moment with particular challenges. Women do have particular, unique experiences that must be addressed by the Gospel in a way that should be given special care and attention to in a way that wasn’t in the past. At the same time, the eschatological point made above means that, in a certain way, we live in exactly the same place that the earliest Christians did: between the comings, in the now and not-yet, in the “last days”, and so the word that was preached then, still speaks authoritatively now as it is taken up by the Spirit, both for women and for men.
        Thanks again for your time.

        • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

          Ps. I just noticed the grammatical errors in my response. Please forgive me. I swear, I’m not illiterate, just hasty.

  • Kevin Fusher

    You think you have problems! I am a middle aged former neo pentecostal/evangelical who by Gods grace has, along with my wife spent 3 years de-constructing 30 odd years of – this is the biblical blue print for church/your life/your children’s lives. when it does not pan out I have been -
    not in faith
    rebellious
    demonised
    cursed in my family line (once down my mothers and a couple of times down my fathers side)
    I like most people take responsibility for my errors and sins so I am not blaming church, but, I came to realise that there are no certainties in life. That the bible is inspired by God but written and copied by flawed people from the late bronze to early iron age and is not to be taken literally. what I mean by that is God the Father reveals His true nature about Himself and Jesus through the gentle indwelling Divine Feminine Holy Spirit as we meditate and contemplate on the stories in the bible this leads us to find God and we fare led into Truth not dogma, doctrine and the horrific things such as apartheid. When Paul said ‘There is no Jew Greek slave or free, man or woman’ that was a prophetic statement that still has to be fulfilled. If you are not doing it already can I suggest Moltmann and Newbiggin as good companions on a more rounded theological journey and Ignatius Loyolla for an intro into the wonderful world of contemplation. there was a time when I would have thought all three beyond the pale as a man of sound doctrine! Keep up the journey to no longer male or female!

    • Wabbit Hunter

      I hope one day you realize the dangerous ideological error in saying the Bible is, ANY WHERE, ERRED, even if you blame said errs on man’s mistakes? If, this is true, and I don’t believe for a nanosecond it is, than you might as well toss the whole book.
      The fact we now have, “democrat” churches, teaching that, Jesus and John, King David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, are all homosexuals, (and I’ve been told ‘harvard type theologians’ are working on twisting out more via “historically mistranslated ‘texts’”) than you have to know, “churches of men” as we have them, are wholly corrupt and according to the Word of our GOD, should have been PUBLICLY, EXPRESSLY REBUKED, DISOWNED and disconnected from all fellowship of Christ.
      Instead, they’re called “brothers and sisters in the Holy BODY of Christ?” Which is absurdly impossible.
      And their common claim that, my type thinking is “traditional” or radical or whatever they want to label it, is even more flawed. Without “traditional” belief in God, you automatically sentence every real and past Christian to hell, and you ought naught ever forget that. Good ol’ wholesome Grandma and Grandpa, who knew full well, unrepentant sinners were on their way to hell are themselves, going to hell for believing that which comes directly from the Word, which today, is now false?
      I couldn’t even imagine attempting to believe Heaven awaits me via my faith in Christ, or even that Christ’s Promise was real at all! – for anyone, if I also believed as democrat churches do, that this or that in the Bible “shouldn’t be taken literally, or isn’t “really the way things were/are?” How can you possibly believe the most fantastic and radical story and promise ever made to mankind is true, even though it comes from a book you believe was, falsely, mistakenly interpreted etc.?
      The whole idea of success of “faith” in your life, is one hundred percent dependent on your faith in the ONLY “book” we have. “Faith” that the bible is written/translated etc., correctly, is different than the gift of Faith from God of His covenant for you via Christ. If God had instead left one sentence carved on a rock, and someone convinced you the rock was fake, how could you go on believing the sentence?
      If you won’t even believe the book that that covenant is written in – is true – then how can you believe the covenant at all?
      And just think about it folks. If the democrat’s churches were right, in their newly interpreted versions of the Word, well than, there is physically NO ONE in Heaven from era’s, roughly, pre-1960′s. Because according to them and their strange churches, those people are all haters, hypocrites etc.. e.g. Jesus’ biggest adversaries.
      The whole idea is crazy, and you can’t then get around that by saying, (again) “well, God isn’t going to let all those BILLIONS of people from centuries past, be judged and sentenced to hell, just because the theological professors from Harvard and the like weren’t around then to teach them these new interpretations?
      Or maybe we should just get down to the real puddin’ of the democrat’s churches fruit? Which is to say, they really don’t even believe in God, and at best, believe the lie that everyone is going to Heaven. In which case brings the must needs be question: why did He do anything at all? He might as well let us all be the pervs our flesh want us to be and then wrap His arms around us when our time is up.
      Well, the sooner you concern yourself with ONLY your faith first, the sooner you’ll realize how much these people are WRONG, the sooner you can do your duty and make sure your own kids are on the right track before you go, where ever it is you think you’re going.
      And you know, the bottom line is, What the heck is wrong with wanting to live in a moral society? Holy crap people, is that really the terrible condition democrats claim it to be?

    • Jennifer Crumpton

      Kevin, thanks so much for sharing your insights and experience. Blessing to you on the journey, as well!

  • Kevin Fusher

    Hi wabbit hunter. Jesus is the incarnate son of God, I have faith in Him 100% I do not have 100% faith in leaders declarations of this is the only way etc. I actually believe in word and the Spirit but not solascriptura. equally I don’t buy into all the liberal theology that’s out there. whats good at this moment in time is you and I can disagree but neither of us will be burnt at the stake. I think as a Brit as opposed to an American British christians are not going down a fundamentalist/republican v democrat/liberal thing. I reckon both you and want the same thing to see Jesus glorified and people saved. God bless and speak to you again maybe


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