It’s church picnic season! The annual church picnic is a wonderful opportunity for fellowship, to spend time outside the church walls, and to get our fill of Miss Mary’s white beans and Sister Johnson’s potato salad.
Full disclosure here: I like going to church picnics because I like listening in on older folks conversations. Something about church picnics brings out the hermeneutical and exegetical frames in everyone. Hermeneutics is an academic term for interpretation; the rules and guidelines by which we parse meaning—particularly in religious texts. If you ever want a crash course in epistemology, the study of how we know things, go to a Black church picnic. There are two ‘debates’ you will hear regularly: the debate about Black Jesus, and the debate about how the Bible was used to justify slavery. These are two religious areas that Black folks have a lot of investment in, and rightly so. The fact that Jesus probably had a lot more color than the actors who have depicted him in films is a topic with a long history of side-eyed consternation. If you go to any random park where a Black church picnic is going on, chances are high you will hear an argument that explains how there was no way a blue-eyed, blonde-haired child could be hidden in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).
Somebody’s deacon who survived Jim Crow and “colored” water fountains will argue that “the man needed God to look like him,” and someone will inevitably raise the problem of the biblical-era movies. In nearly every single decade, films about the life and times of Jesus have rare appearances by actors who actually resemble the people who currently live in the geographic locations these films are set in. You will hear some church mother exclaim that Jesus had hair like lamb’s wool and feet of bronze, and that there was no way Jesus looked like Jeffrey Hunter (King of Kings,1961) or Swedish Max von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965) or the British-accented Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth,1977), Wisconsin-born Willem DaFoe (The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988) or Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, 2004). You might even hear about the “Black Jesus” episode of “Good Times.”
You might also overhear a conversation about how “the man” used the Bible to justify American slavery. A case for this can easily be made considering that the wildly popular yet accuracy-challenged King James Version of the Bible was translated into English in the 1600s, around the height of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
One conversation I can probably guarantee you won’t hear at the church picnic is the matter of inclusive language. When it comes to God-talk, inclusive language attempts to avoid language that excludes people. In other words, inclusive language attempts to avoid the use of masculine terms only when describing or referring to God. It intrigues me that the very same people who recognize the “white-washing” of Jesus and the use of the Bible to justify slavery struggle to see how the portrait of God as exclusively male isn’t equally as problematic. Some of the very same people who will shout you down over White Jesus get real quiet when it comes to referring to God as “She.” To be clear, human adjectives and pronouns are already limiting when it comes to talking about God. If God is everything we profess God to be, the All- Holy, All-Merciful, All-Righteous, All-Wise, Eternal and Everlasting, All-Loving, Our Strength and Our Redeemer, Immanent (inherent in everything), Omnipotent (able to do all things, has unlimited power and influence), Omniscient (knows all), Transcendent (beyond the range of normal or physical human experience, surpasses the ordinary, exists apart from and is not subject to the limitations of the material world, not realizable in experience), Majestic, All-Forgiving, Comforter, Perfecter, The Truth, All-Caring, Supreme Power, Architect of the Universe, Almighty, The Only Entity that can create something out of nothing Creator God, it IS limiting to talk about God as “He” or “She,” even when you capitalize it. But it is even more limiting to speak of God in ONLY masculine terms, especially when the Bible is replete with images of God as feminine. So here is a quick list of some of those areas of the Bible where God is discussed using feminine terminology and imagery. Maybe you can be the one to kick off the conversation about the feminine aspects of God at your own church picnic.
God described as Mother or terms relating to childbirth:
1 JOHN 4:7
God depicted as a Nursing Mother:
1 PETER 2:2-3
God depicted as a Woman in Labor:
God as the Mother of all believers:
God depicted as Female wisdom: