Watch Yo Mouth!: A few thoughts on inclusive language

AND A NEW COMMENTING POLICY

Some Context

That day has come. It has been here for a while, but I have just gotten around to it.  About a month ago, I started receiving hostile comments, e-mails and facebook messages concerning the content of this blog (and the content of my scholarly work as certain persons had interpreted them).  It just seems that recently, my use of language [post editted] but people have started to call into question why half the time I seem to use inclusive language and adhere to post-colonial theory and at the same time, be more willing to use offensive titles for Christ such as Master (since the pre-supposition is that Jesus is more of our companion than our Master and Lord).

Choices on Wordings: 2 Examples

Why do I use Master over LORD or Sovereign for the Greek term kuryios?

Being one who is familiar with the sorrow songs sung by enslaved Africans, I recognize the subversiveness of language.  At the same time, I have witnessed in churches where Jesus is called LORD in one moment, and then in the next, there are contemporary Christian music songs played where he seems much more like a boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other.  In fact, the Lordship of Christ is normative in these church’s doctrines and confessions.  I prefer Master because the Greek rendering is far more political and refers to not only master/slave relationships but also to the authority that the Roman emperor had in his day.  For me, Jesus is the one, true legit Master of the Universe; therefore, I am obligated to submit to no one else other than him.

Why do I use the noun Empire over Kingdom, Kin-dom, reign, rule, or commonwealth for the Greek term basileus?

Perhaps the most controversial translation that others have contended with is my referring to the Empire of God/heaven rather than Kingdom/rule/reign of God/heaven. To put it quite bluntly, I believe that persons living in the Western hemisphere have a fear of the word empire because they do not want it to be referred to their own country, particularly here in the United States of America. We just need to be honest: the USA is an imperial power and has been so under the auspices of different presidencies (Democratic, Republican, Whig, and Federalist) for well over one and a half centuries.  The proper usage and historical reference of the Greek noun basileus is empire and we should not try to sugarcoat it!  Now there has been a criticism that this “Empire of God/heaven” concept portrays a god who imposes literally “his” will on humanity and creation; but that is a complete misunderstanding of this author’s theological perspective.  While the Empire of God/heaven refers to the universal dominion of the Triune God, this is nothing that comes to humanity and creation through acts of violence and coercion; on the contrary, because God is love, and Jesus the Messiah orders us all to love our enemies and our friends alike, the empire of God/heaven arrives to us by nonviolent and peaceful means towards the greatest path of the reconciliation of all things.

On Inclusive Language

In undergrad, when I first read Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God, I thought it was just plain ridiculous to refer to God as she or mother or sister, especially in the Christian tradition since God is revealed as Father alone (is that right, my friends who are subordinationists?).  Gaia was a pagan concept and there needed to be no blending of paganism with Christianity (and I still agree with my assessment back then).  And furthermore, why should gender issues and use of language be upheld as more important than racial issues and language?  It just proved to me that second-wave feminism had a blindspot for racism and issues related to ethnicity.  However, in my studies at Brite Divinity School, the inclusive language rule was enforced grading-wise and I even complained to my mother one particular time; but she told me that God was neither male or female, so I should stop throwing an tantrum.  Then, my friend Stephanie introduced me to Elisabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse and it was the very first time I had heard of the Christian Wisdom tradition.  It opened my eyes to a blindspot that I was previously unaware of.  Being brought up in a conservative Black Baptist tradition where only the last chapter of Proverbs mattered, I did not know that the Patristics, particularly Justin the Martyr and Athanasius referred to Christ as the Sophia in Proverbs 1-8.  All of a sudden, I started to see in the book of Isaiah, especially Third Isaiah, in chapter 66, where God is the mother of Zion.  The Bible did make room for female imagery of God.  Inclusive language, I have concluded is not about being politically correct; it is about making space for the other.  A few weeks ago at a book study I was leading, I was chastised for using inclusive language when I referred to God as God and Godself.  In my mind, God is a personal God and God is a personal pronoun. I have not fully worked out what that means but I hope to some day; that is why I can never become a process theologian.  I doubt that there can ever truly be a gender neutral translation of Scripture, as fellow Brite scholar J.C. Baker suggests and I do not think it is appropriate to change the language of traditional hymns or contemporary songs in the name of inclusive language.  As I stated earlier, inclusive language is about making room for the other.  If a congregation or a denomination desires a hymnal with inclusive language, they should come up with their own original songs rather than commit ontological violence (as my friend Adam names it) against the original authors of these works.

Commenting Policy

I am not a man of many rules. I try to live by as few rules as possible and give people as much freedom and leeway as I can.  Without further ado:

1. Feel free to post wherever, whenever, however, and whatever you want at your own discretion. Blog posts PAST  and PRESENT are open for commenting.

2. I do not mind going off topic; if a blog post of mine brings up more questions and problems than answers, then I see that as a sign that I am following the logic of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  In the blogosphere, I have learned that there is no way I can determine the direction of a conversation, and nor should I try to. I can only make suggestions and propose this and that, and allow the readers’ to determine their own concerns, and then I may respond accordingly.

3.  No personal insults or attacks on the experiences of others will ever be tolerated. It is not helpful in conversation and debate; only criticisms of a person’s ideas and positions will be allowed.

4. Ephesians 5:4 (NRSV)- “Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.”

Truth and Peace,
Rod

0 thoughts on “Watch Yo Mouth!: A few thoughts on inclusive language

  1. T. C.

    It was interesting to me that I, a white yankee, had pushed aside any thought of referring to God as Master due to the historical connotations of slavery it evokes—which I presumed could have no redeeming value. Yet, when I moved to New Orleans and visited several historic black churches, I noticed the ministers frequently referring to God as Master. I learned that it can be a powerfully subversive expression used to emphasize God’s compassion, mercy, and love in contrast to the historical experience of oppression among African Americans. For that reason, I now like Master as a term for God and view it as an assault on the powers that would seek to maintain our fear of directly addressing/confronting the lack of racial justice in America.

    Reply
  2. mike

    rod,

    a couple thoughts,

    1st – sorry to hear folks have been coming down hard on you b/c of your language; my personal opinion is that they are self-defeating in that they themselves are trying to usurp mastery & authority over you & your choice of expression; anyone opposed to “mastery” & such should not assert authority from a master-like stance. besides, i’m not too big on thought-police these days

    2nd – you’ve obviously made a faith decision that Christ is more than your mere companion or personal-life-assistant (although Christ’s presence & love ensures those things as well); designating someone as “master” acknowledges the authority they have, & i sense that you, like myself, view Christ as the one who really has authority in this universe, i.e. its rightful master

    master has a bad connotation b/c earthly masters are merely usurpers, ones who pervert the pure & rightful authority of the Kyrios par excellence

    anywho, i’ll stop typing lest i have to admit the coffee is winning, which would require me to cut back! keep posting away, & don’t be discouraged by the thought police who would “dominate” you for your honest expressions of faith

    mf

    Reply
  3. sela e finau

    rodney,

    i enjoyed reading this blog on inclusive language. here are my thoughts:

    master over lord: thanks for clarifying why you have chosen to use this title. i had been wondering of your reasoning behind it. i completely understand your view.

    empire over kingdom: very appropriate

    wisdom tradition: have recently read more into (read elisabeth schussler fiorenza, jesus, miriam’s child, sophia’s prophet) and i find it fascinating.

    now, as for the pronoun for God, i am a process thinker in this regard, so he/she/it is inadequate.

    lastly, “traditional” anything is not static, it evolves with time and space and must be relevant and adequate for the living, not the dead! tradition on one hand is a good thing; on the other hand, it is like supporting the status quo! we change and interpret things all the time, biblical text being one. once an author is done with a piece of production, they are no longer in control of what comes after. if we’re to keep things in its “traditional” and original sayings, then lets undo everything that we have learned from the english translated bible. as derrida once said, “there is nothing outside of the text.”

    those are my thoughts for the moment, but will continue processing…
    regards. sela

    Reply
  4. Polycarp

    Rod, I do not have much to add to the kinds words already expressed, but it is an excellent post. I am interested myself in the WIsdom Tradition, and it is extensive!

    Reply
  5. Antony Solomon

    As far as Master is concerned, or Lord, I found that Ted Grimsrud also says we should let Jesus define our words, not let our words define Jesus. What content did he put into them. Jesus may have used Lord, Master, Empire, etc., but there was also given an explanation of how we were to not be like the Gentiles. We should examine outselves, to see if we are importing bad code into our doctrines, and work on our presuppositions.

    Inclusive language is difficult because English doesn’t have the options required. ‘Godself’ is so clumsy, and can lead to the idea that God is completely ‘other’ to the human hers and hims out there; we mustn’t lose the humanity of God!
    While God is not gendered, yet God is not gender neutral either, but has been expressed in a flesh and blood man. The NT writers referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘he’, and the church has long felt the need for a female counterpart. This has manifested itself as Mariology/Sophiology in the Roman and Eastern churches. Protestants need to rediscover that whole female aspect, without nervous twitches about Canaanite deities. In my circles, there is no room for that inclusive stuff, unfortunately.
    Perhaps we all need to be not so down on each other, making someone an offender for a word.

    Reply
  6. Jennifer

    “At the same time, I have witnessed in churches where Jesus is called LORD in one moment, and then in the next, there are contemporary Christian music songs played where he seems much more like a boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other.”

    So true. So true.

    Reply
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