The Rev’d Canon Rosie Harper wants to vomit. That’s what she wrote in her article ‘Toxic masculinity: Why we should stop calling God “he”‘. What makes her want to vomit is… well, ‘toxic masculinity’; basically, she says, this “has invaded our families , our workplaces, our schools, our politics and our churches. Patriarchal ideologies are the norm.” And so she wants to vomit. She wants to vomit at Judge Kavanaugh, the Republican Party, the Conservative Christian lobby, at Franklin Graham, at Jerry Falwell, and the extremist Muslim cleric Haritha al Haddad. That’s some segue.
The problem, she avers, emanates from the fact that “God is male”:
At the deepest level we have chosen to create an image of God which colludes with the toxicity of male dominance. So much religious language is violent. It is about heroic leadership, Kingship, subjection, dominance. It’s about who wins and who looses. It’s about punishment and reward. There are wars, physical and spiritual. Every level of oppressive patriarchy is right there in our holy text.
And so she wants to vomit. Wiping the dribbles from her mouth, she continues:
This is about so much more than making a few women bishops. This asks us all if there is a way in which Christianity can be so counter-cultural that inhabits a universe that is free form gender war at every level.
To even begin to make that happen we need to talk about pronouns.
While God goes on being caricatured as ‘he’ the conversation cannot even begin.
Now, nobody can fault the feminism of the Archbishop Cranmer blog. Not only has it long advocated women priests and supported women bishops (to the despair of many readers and communicants), there has even been the occasional exposition of feminist theology. No, not even Canon Rosie Harper could call this blog is a cesspit of toxic masculinity (though she may want vomit at other anti-Christian toxicities, such as its longstanding advocacy for the rights of the unborn, and its sterling defence of the elderly and infirm from ‘assisted dying‘). She is absolutely right to point out the sexism, patriarchy and androcenticism in Scripture (eg Gen 19:8; Judg 11:29-40; 2Sam 13). And she is also wholly justified in joining with the Bishop of Gloucester Rachel Treweek in seeking to highlight the scriptural portrayals of God in a traditionally female role (eg Ps 22:9f).
God is presented as a father, husband, king and warrior, yet He is also a pregnant woman, mother, midwife and mistress. But because biblical and theological scholarship has historically been male-dominated, it has been a little blind to the oppression of women. Only a feminist interpretative model is seen to do justice to the historical reality of women’s leadership in the Early Church. Mary may have been the Theotokos, but God became incarnate as a man, and that man chose all-male disciples. And from that and from long before that, patriarchy has infected the world and the Church, and the plea is for “a universe that is free form gender war at every level”.
So let’s talk about pronouns.
If we should stop calling God ‘he’, could we also stop calling Satan ‘he’?
Isn’t the fact that devils and demons are consistently portrayed as male somewhat exacerbating perceptions of ‘toxic masculinity’? Even the snake in the Garden of Eden is called ‘he’: ‘Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman…‘ (Gen 3:1). Why should it be a male snake that tempted a vulnerable woman and caused the Fall? Satan appears as the prosecutor in the heavenly court (Zech 3:1ff; Job 1:6, 2:7ff); the chief seducer and tempter (1Chron 21:1); and the embodiment of evil (Mk 4:15). In the apocryphal book of Enoch, it is told how Satan rebelled against God and was hurled into the abyss (cf Isa 14:12; Lk 10:18). And throughout, the pronouns are male: Satan is ‘he’; Beelzebub is ‘he’; Belial is ‘he’; Lucifer is ‘he’.
The ‘prince of this world’ (Jn 14:30) is never a princess. The father of lies (8:44) is never a mother. Where is the gender parity? Where is the sex equality? What is this toxic femininity which insists on expressions of the motherhood of God but reserves ‘he’ and ‘him’ for the chief evil spirit of Judaisim and Christianity? The one whose hostility to God is undeniable is undeniably consistently potrayed as male. The enemy of God’s love, beauty, truth and holiness is male. The destroyer and Antichrist is male: it was the sons of God who lusted after the daughters of men (Gen 6:2). Were there no daughters of God lusting after the sons of women? Were there no daughters of God lusting after the daughters of men?
If all that is good must be expressed as both ‘he’ and ‘she’, then all that is evil must be similarly expressed. If the cry is for Christianity to be counter-cultural and inhabit a universe that is free form gender war at every level, we do indeed need to talk about pronouns. Evil can appear as a woman, opposed to God’s kingdom, leading the faithful astray with her lies, deceptions and false doctrines. She is the agent of death into whose gentle hands the spirits of erring Christians are consigned. The princess of the power of the air can appear as a minister of the light of Christ.
While Satan goes on being caricatured as ‘he’, the conversation cannot even begin.