I despair of the maleness of the Bible

The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise. Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for too long

O Lord, let me not be overwhelmed.

From without and within I am surrounded.

Mocking men belittle me, they judge me by standards they do not keep.

In their hearts are only lust and vanity.

Day after day I have tried to make peace. I seek no glory for myself; boasting is never on my lips.  

My thoughts swirl around me like a storm, and fear overtakes me.

My hormones crush me to the point of sorrow.

“Your God is good?,” they laugh. “Has he really prospered you?”

Silence them, O God.  

My body is weakened but my hope is in you. Restore my strength, O God.

Have you read this Psalm lately? Me neither. My pastiche may be humble but my point is that anyone reading the Bible is handed a book 100 per cent written by men. Not one single Biblical author is a woman. Not even the books named after women – Esther, Ruth (all two of them).

We know the reasons why: until the last century or so, women were less likely to write anything, or even to be taught to write. And Judeo-Christian traditions are historically built on male priesthoods. Female spiritual writers crop up by the Middle Ages, mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen, St Julian of Norwich, St Bridget of Sweden, later St Teresa of Avila. But they are still a tiny minority.

So what? Because over the centuries Christians have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure that believers can access the Scriptures in their own language, in order to demonstrate that the Messiah is for all and is close to all. And yet sometimes when I open my Bible its maleness sometimes feels like a foreign language to me. The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise.

The Song of Solomon, which includes lines for the female lead (described in the passive as “the Beloved”), was not, as far as we know, written by Solomon and one of his hundreds of wives – nope, it was just by him. Would the “friends” of poor Job have been quite so lacking in empathy if they had been women? Even the Psalms, which I find more accessible than many of the books in the Bible – not a single one is written by a woman, so they all reflect the worldviews or faith-views of men. God is a Father, God is a rock, God is a shield, God is a horn – big, strong things. (They remind me of the imagery plastered all over my toddler son’s clothing: diggers and dinosaurs unlike the fairies and unicorns in the girls’ section.)

A few years ago there was a grave concern in that the charismatics were “feminising” the Church. There was a genre of contemporary song jokingly described as “Jesus is my girlfriend”. I’m not a fan of songs so vacuous that the word “Jesus” can be switched for the word “baby”, and would look at home in the charts. But if you are talking about songs that might speak to over half the congregation (and women usually make up way over half in churches) then why be so dismissive? Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for centuries. Isn’t it time men did the same for a bit, without moaning?

Many people now read their Bible in inclusive language, so the most obvious instances of excluding women have been addressed. But these are small changes that don’t address the substance of what is written. If the Bible more accurately described the faith-experience of women, perhaps there would also be a better understanding of what a woman is. She is not simply a man with different bits. She has her own way of seeing the world and processing it, based on experiences unique to her. Therefore the Church cannot simply put male-written bits of Scripture into her mouth and assume they adequately express how she wants to relate to God.

I am not saying I don’t believe Scripture is divinely inspired. But I do wonder how it would read if those God had inspired had been women rather than men: female Psalmists, female chroniclers, female wisdom, an account by one of the educated women in Jesus’ or Paul’s circle in the first-century Roman Empire? Instead of Psalms to be sung on the eve of battle, how about a Psalm that described the fear around giving birth? That would at once be historically illuminating, spiritually honest, and would right a tragic historical wrong by showing women’s bodies to be incredible but frail, rather than sinful or intimidating and not to be talked about. (Giving birth is, of course, just one experience that’s more about woman than man.)

I would like to hear more from Miriam, Ruth and Esther; from Mary, the mother of Jesus; from Mary and Martha; from Mary Magdalene; from Pilate’s wife (whatever her name is); from Phoebe. It is too late, but let us at least hear from female authors and theologians today imagining what they might have said, or interpreting biblical authors such as David and Paul. A touching example I recall comes from Bridget Plass. In her book Dear Paul, am I the only one? she imagined a social worker of a teenage girl writing to the Apostle. The girl had destroyed effects to do with her birth family on the advice of the enthusiastic church she had joined, that had advised her to “forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead” (Phil 3). I had always found that passage impossible, even irresponsible. Plass imagined Paul replying that he was writing only what he as a man on death row had found helpful.

Such contextualisation I had never heard from a male preacher. Plass’s pastoral touch made Paul more palatable and allowed compassion to be read between the lines. We need more of these voices today.  

What’s missing from the Christian creed

Christmas is behind us and the last leftovers have made their way from fridge to waist. Which means it is another 11 ½ months until we get to hear that festive wonder – of believers, agnostics and atheists belting out Charles Wesley’s exuberant Hark the Herald-Angels Sing: “Hail! the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings…”

Such lines have for me cast a shadow over other familiar words that inhabit our churches – the Creed. Every time I recite it, I feel more frustrated by it.

The Creed is clearly important in marking in stone the edges of Christian belief – what it is, and what it is not. Like a thick wall, it serves to safeguard the flock from non-Christian beliefs and distinguish Christianity from other belief systems.

But in all the times I have listened to Christians explaining their journey to faith, I have never heard anyone say, misty-eyed, they were attracted by Jesus’ being “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”. Instead they often talk about the help, comfort and hope they derive from their relationship with Him.

The Nicene Creed, adopted in the fourth century, or the older Apostles’ Creed, make sense when situated in the bustling marketplace of pagan and polytheistic beliefs of their day, and the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was effectively lesser than God the Father. But after centuries of monotheistic belief, our Western default setting hovers between Christianity and atheism, and the arguments against religion have changed.

As Rupert Shortt points out in his new book Outgrowing Dawkins, “by far the strongest argument against faith in a benign, all-powerful providence [is] the problem of evil and suffering.” Sometimes, underneath sophisticated arguments against the existence of God are highly personal ones about unmet expectations or unanswered prayers, leading to a conclusion that God either does not care or does not exist.

Another recent challenge to the idea of a loving God – possibly also borne out of grievance – has come from fundamentalist Islam. Muslims are the first to say that violent jihadists distort their religion; Christians likewise do well to reiterate that portraying God as murderous and petty is a modern-day heresy.

It is these cris de coeur I wish the Creed would address. My problem isn’t so much with what it contains as what it leaves out. God is creator, we are told, but his character – of mercy and generosity – are not mentioned. Much is implicit in a short phrase such as “for us men, and for our salvation, [He] came down from heaven,” but today that benefits from being unpacked. Could it not spell out that Christ came to bind up the broken-hearted, forgive sins, redeem mankind and destroy evil?

The Creed may have been written to fend off heresies but today its adversaries come in different forms. Maybe a new millennium warrants a revised version. I know we’re 20 years in already, but there are 980 left and these things can take a few centuries to agree. So I argue for a revision that is pastoral and poetic as well as didactic, to inspire and encourage, to engage heart and well as mind. The stone wall, if you like, muralled in enticing full colour interrupted only by a welcoming open door.