By Loren Seibold  |  2 April 2019  |  

When in March I Cantori, a choir at Walla Walla University, sang the Bobby McFerrin setting of the 23rd Psalm, the indignation meter among a certain set in the Seventh-day Adventist Church kicked way over into the red zone. The presenting cause is that the song makes the listener picture the psalm’s shepherd as female rather than male.

This particular incident was elevated to crisis level by Janet Lundeen Neumann, one of a group of the local righteously indignant who a few years ago tarred Walla Walla University pastor Alex Bryan with vague accusations of spiritualism, which some believed in spite of their being ridiculous.

Let’s start with the song, which you can hear on youTube (though not performed by I Cantori). How bad is it, really? The concerns seem to fall into three categories.

Changing scripture

There is a belief among certain Adventists that Scripture isn’t at all difficult to interpret. It is simple and straightforward, and since I know what it means, anyone who doesn’t see it as I do it is intentionally twisting God’s word.

In fact, both the meaning and the words of Scripture have forever been in flux. Much of the Bible started out orally, as stories, sermons, or songs. It was written down, it was edited, it was added to, it was translated—and all of this represents an evolution of the Bible’s message. We don’t have scholars who can read the original languages and choose among the many manuscript variations just because it’s interesting stuff. The Bible you have on your bedside table is the product of a long chain of interpreters, and the number of interpreters that led to what you consider orthodoxy and orthopraxy even greater. That’s not to say that it is any less God’s word, but neither Adventists nor other Christians have ever believed that the Bible was written by God and dropped from heaven complete, with no ambiguities.

Songs are one place where inventiveness with Scripture has been permitted. Compare Psalm 90 with Isaac Watts’ “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” You’ll see lines that echo the psalm, but there is interpretation in almost every stanza. Whole themes are omitted, and new metaphors (such as “under the shadow of thy throne”) added. And indeed, this was highly controversial in its time. One quote from an English churchman: “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired Psalms and taken in Watts’ flights of fancy.” In 1789, the Rev. Adam Rankin told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, meeting in Philadelphia: “I have ridden horseback all the way from my home in Kentucky to ask this body to refuse the great and pernicious error of adopting the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in public worship in preference to the Psalms of David.”

Today we sing hymn 103 with little comprehension that we are singing a man’s interpretation of a Bible passage. Similarly, we have settings of the 23rd Psalm in our hymnal, none of which follow the psalm very closely, beyond the basic notion that a shepherd keeping sheep is a metaphor for God’s watching over us.

Which means that changing the words of scripture for use in a song isn’t the central concern of the critics of the McFerrin 23rd Psalm—unless they’re also calling for the abolition of our hymnal. The main thing that bothers them is the use of the pronoun “she” to describe the shepherd.

The Gender of God

I would ask those who assert the maleness of God how certain they are of this, for biblically it’s not at all clear.

When God (elohim) first makes human beings, God makes them in God’s own image, and is careful to specify that this means male and female (Genesis 1:27).

That inclusiveness gets buried, at least partially because events in Genesis 3 don’t reflect well on Eve. Men henceforth emerge as the priests and representatives of God. And though in subsequent eras men had no compunctions about throwing off the curse of farming (3:17-19), they’ve insisted on keeping the curse of female subservience (3:16).

The other problem is the use of the male pronoun in any situation where gender is uncertain. No one questions that Jesus of Nazareth was a boy baby who grew into a male human. Yet it is hard to shake the suspicion that God’s ending up a gigantic grandpa in the sky is at least partially a result of language. We use “she” only to indicate a creature with breasts and ovaries, “he” for people with a male genitalia and beards, but “he” also as a general catch-all for anyone, male or female, whose gender isn’t specified—like God.

But what of God as our Father? I would argue that this, along with many other pictures of God, are metaphors. What made God a father? Does he have male genitalia? Male Pattern Baldness? Did he have a wedding ceremony with Mary, followed by actual sex with her? Did he stick around to take Jesus to the temple and teach him a vocation? No, Joseph did these things. It seems pretty clear that “father” is a convenient metaphor for the relationship between God and Jesus (and God and us) that we human beings can understand.

For that matter, the Bible uses female metaphors for God too. God is a mistress to whom a maid attends (Psalm 123:2-3), the one who gave birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:18), a comforting, faithful mother (Isaiah 66:13, 49:15), and a woman suffering in childbirth (Isaiah 42:14). Is God any more a male shepherd walking in a pasture with a shepherd’s staff, leading his sheep to water, than God is a hen protecting her chicks (Matthew 23:37)? Are we, for that matter, literal sheep or chickens? Of course not. These are all just metaphors.

Though Jesus calls God his Father, when a Samaritan woman asks if God lives in Jerusalem or at Mt. Gerizim, Jesus tells her that God doesn’t have a location, because “God is spirit” (John 4:24), which is interpreted by every theologian I’ve ever read as meaning that God hasn’t a physical body as we understand it. And without a body, God is outside of the gender binary.

(Please keep in mind that a god having a literal sex is characteristic of polytheistic religions. Israel’s God was different precisely because this God wasn’t one of a family of male and female semi-human deities—think of Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Persephone—but a single transcendent Deity.)

Though the early church fathers probably won’t convince any of these particular critics, it remains that Clement of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory of Nyssa all spoke of God as having equal feminine and masculine aspects. Wrote Gregory, “The divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”

The Mary Problem

Another complaint is that there is crypto-Catholicism here. The song contains “a portion of the Catholic rosary prayer” complains Janet Lundeen Neumann, “the ‘Our Father.’” Here, she errs by a rather embarrassing margin. First, the “Our Father” is the Lord’s Prayer, and it is not quoted in this song. Second, the lines she seems to be referring to are not from a Catholic rosary prayer, but an ancient doxology known as the gloria patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.” It is number 660 in the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, and is assembled of Bible texts: Ephesians 1:3, Romans 11:36, Matthew 28:19, and Ephesians 3:21. You’d have a hard time asserting Roman Catholicism from this passage.

One commenter on the piece wrote, “If the inspired writers referred to God as He, and the Son of God was also a man, then the woman mentioned could be none other than Mary.” I’m having a hard time imagining anyone in that audience missing the point as much as this commenter did, and thinking, “We Adventists are worshiping Mary now!” I Cantori wasn’t singing about Mary. No one thought it was, not even the person who wrote the above comment. Seventh-day Adventists never have, and never will, worship Mary. But I’m always surprised by people who despise Mary enough to tell lies like this, as though Scripture never says of her “Blessed art thou among women.”

Your Male God Is Too Small

But you have figured out by now that this isn’t about truthful analysis. It is about fear-mongering the most unlikely possibilities.

This hymn, and the choir’s performance of it, was meant to help people understand that there’s more to God than a big old bearded Caucasian gentleman looking down from the sky. Would this bunch have been equally upset if God had been pictured as a black man with a big ‘fro, or a Chinese man with a Victorian-era queue down his back? Given what we know about our non-human, bodiless God, these are all equally valid pictures.

Are we permitted to describe a God who has no body in ways that help people relate to God more intimately? A friend who has spent most of his life in a wheelchair once said to me that when Isaiah says, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted,” he imagines that God, through Jesus, had suffered in some sense his chair sores and colostomy bag. Would you take that away from him?

When I first saw Edwina Sandys’ sculpture Christa, an emaciated naked female body on a cross, I was young and thought it was weird and possibly sacrilegious. My wife, though, had a different reaction. It reminded her that the Incarnation is not limited by gender, that it fully included her. She knew, of course, that historically Jesus was a man. But it graphically demonstrated that when Paul wrote “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20) it means women, too.

In the write-up about the I Cantori incident that went viral, Janet Lundeen Neumann spit the word “feminism” out there as though it is something smarmy, filthy. Whatever she thinks about the traditional role of women in Christian culture (such as women not instructing men, as she does in her writing and speaking), I wish she could try to understand how different pictures of God can make God someone who can relate to every human being everywhere, including the female half of the human race.

Which is why as one who was during my Walla Walla College years a member of Schola Cantorum (I Cantori’s predecessor) I was happy that the choir performed this song, and saddened by the reaction to it.

Why It Shouldn’t Have Happened, and Won’t Happen Again

Yet in the end I concede that Janet Lundeen Neumann was right. I Cantori should not have performed the song, and should never do it again. It is not because it was wrong, or expresses an erroneous idea. It’s because Seventh-day Adventists can’t be trusted to receive an unfamiliar idea with grace. We have a long history of not happily listening to our progressive thinkers and artists, but readily rolling over and showing our throats to the weaker brothers or weaker sisters.

As did Walla Walla University. Rather than explaining the song and the reason for it, someone from the school released a statement apologizing for a performance that challenged the Seventh-day Adventist church to think, and promised not to do it again.

Here’s how a church like ours works. We have a minority of people who find something—normally something they don’t understand—to criticize. That minority, if resisted, will create so much chaos that they can wound the whole institution. And they are quite willing to. Some years ago Elder Jere Patzer worked hard to destroy Walla Walla University’s reputation—of which school he was the board chair. Elder Ted Wilson has voiced that he’s willing to let those who don’t agree with him to be shaken out of the church; someone has quoted him as saying privately that 2-3 million or so would be an acceptable loss.

Righteous indignation is an absolute endorphin high for Seventh-day Adventists, and people who wouldn’t dream of taking a toke or a shot of whiskey will rush to get buzzed on it. An added advantage: it’s a contact high. You don’t have to experience it yourself to vicariously participate in the trippy thrill. Just read about it, feel your temperature rise, pass it along, and all those who get high off of it will pass it along in turn. Self-righteousness addicts are unselfish that way.

Janet Lundeen Neumann doesn’t need to be a very smart or very accurate commentator, because she’s mastered the most important thing: to say just enough but not too much, so as to imply that this is only the tip of the iceberg, leaving the readers to imagine that what they don’t know must be far more sinister. Which readers were more than happy to do. You don’t even need to tell the truth to get high off of self-righteousness. Innuendo is preferable, as long as it gets others pointing fingers and clicking tongues. It works more often than not, and once you set an accusation loose in the Adventist-o-sphere, it becomes self-sustaining.

Such people want the church in their own image. And so they shouldn’t be surprised when others walk away and let them have it. As a psalmist quotes God, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” Psalm (81:12). Think of this, Janet and friends, when you wonder why so many young people are gone, why our children don’t love our message, why our colleges are fading away. It isn’t because I Cantori sang the wrong song. It’s because of the ungracious, sensationalist way you responded to it. 

This isn’t about theology. It’s not about the church growing or the church surviving. It’s not about keeping our schools orthodox. It’s not about what makes God happy.

It’s about how thrilling it is to watch a whole institution bow to you. To one set of folks in the church, it’s their favorite entertainment.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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