Friday, October 26, 2007


One of the things that has really changed inside of me in Seminary is my feeling about words. When I came to seminary, I was a somewhat reluctant convert to gender inclusive language about just general things like "firefighters" "mailperson" etc. I always argued that these words IMPLIED inclusion, by usage, and therefore, why did we need to change the way things always were. I most emphatically did not want to change the way I spoke about God. Even though my papers risked being downgraded for doing so, I stubbornly refused to speak of God as other than "He."

Then, last year, I had the honor of taking Dr. Klein's Pentateuch class. Dr. Klein doesn't lecture about using gender inclusive langauge, he models it. After hearing Klein use "God" and sometimes (even) "She" to refer to God, I started to let down my defenses. After a while, I realized that speaking of God as "God" for lack of an appropriate pronoun was okay. I even began to think about the negative consequences of holding to the past and calling God "he" exclusively. In my systematics class, Vitor Westelle spoke about the way language about God can become an idol. We get so engrossed in our ways of speaking and thinking about God that we begin to prescribe God rather than describe God.

And I believed.

So I started to model using gender inclusive language about God. Now, more and more, I am insisting upon it from my colleagues as I see that perhaps the rest of the world isn't quite as rosy as I had believed it was. I am beginning to see that there are still places in our society where people don't realize that women and men are ontologically equal in the eyes of God, not to mention equal in society.

What had really changed in me was my belief about the power of words. I believe that words can shape the way we think, can affect us subtly in ways that we are not even aware, can seep into our thought patterns and the way our brain shapes its perceptions of the world around us. So it became very important for me to use gender inclusive language everywhere.

BUT, like most revelations of this sort, the implications went farther than just the way I speak about God. I've begun to think more and more about language now that I believe the people who have always told me that language affects the way we think. I have started to wonder whether the way we talk about other things might affect the way we think. And what keeps standing out in my mind is the way we talk about violence, about sex, and about the combination of the two.

I have always been one of those girls who blushes and gets a little nervous when people start making sexual innuendos. I don't know why that is, but it is true. I have gotten "better" in recent years and have even "learned" to make a few myself. Society has taught me that making sexual innuendos is a way of bonding with other people, that it is "funny" to talk about sex in an informal and often flippant way. It still bothers me, but I have "learned" that this is a problem with me, not with society.

Lately I have become more aware of the pervasiveness of sexual comments around me. Some of the comments have been made by men and women that I really respect. (I unfortunately am prone to unreasonable respect that doesn't allow the recipient to be human, and I am working on that problem.) I wondered whether I was just a prude who wanted to revert to the Victorian era when society had a very unhealthy relationship about sex because people were not allowed to talk about it. (I began thinking of how in that time period it was perfectly acceptable to talk about money and God, but not about money or sex. I wondered whether the shift of being able to talk in the general population about sex, but not God and money, simply meant I was born in the wrong generation. I wonder what it means about our society?)

So to get back from my digression, I began to wonder whether I was just an unhealthy prude in my conversation. I observed the language that bothered me. I can't repeat any of it because I will blush too much. Mostly it was graphic. Some of it involved violence. It came from both men and women. Almost exclusively it involved sex acts between people who were not married or even dating or even "hooking up" but sexual acts which aren't about lust or love, but about power, or violence or vaguely about making someone else feel bad by saying "that's not what your mom said last night when I was. . ." The comments that didn't really bother me were those which were accidental plays on words. Those comments when someone looks at you in a strange way to make you realize you've said something that could be taken the wrong way didn't really bother me. I began to wonder about the difference. And the difference was the way in which both people and sex were being objectified.

I am a prude, and I need to get over the way my Puritanical roots prevent me from being entirely comfortable talking about consensual sex between loving partners. BUT I don't think I am a prude because I do not like to laugh about sexual acts or implied sexual acts that are violent or are intended to make sex into an act of power or even those which are competitively intended to mean nothing other than the fact that you are better at coming up with creative ways of implying that you had sex with someone's mom. EVEN IN JEST. It isn't okay to degrade people of other cultures, etc. in jest, and it isn't okay to degrade sex in jest. Why? Because language matters, because language affects the way we think, because it seeps into the way our brain shapes its perceptions of the world around us. WE ARE OVERWHELMED by negative images of sex. As believers in God's promised kingdom, we are called to model that kingdom when possible. Violent sexual comments is just right out. Even in private. Even in jest.

Jesus obviously thought a lot about keeping sex a good and sacred thing by suggesting that lust was committing adultery in the heart. We can think about the cultural differences and the implications of paternity in a day before DNA testing and how that might have affected ways that sex was talked about in the Bible, but it doesn't change the fact that sex is something which was taken seriously by Jesus. I cannot imagine that, faced with Jesus, anyone would make a "your mom" joke. And I believe in a pretty human Jesus that would find some things pretty funny, who might have engaged in good natured joking with the disciples, who might have misworded some things at times and had to deal with Peter snickering in the corner. But I cannot imagine a Jesus who would say to Andrew something that would be the first-century equivalent of "who would you rather do-- Mary Magdalene or Martha?" It simply isn't consistent with the teachings of respect in the gospels.

Simply put (after all this space I just took up) I think we need to be careful about how we speak about sex and about people. Having competitions to think of the most creative ways to make demeaning comments only trains our brains to think of those comments. And it desensitizes the people around us. Just as I don't think it is appropriate to call God "He" in a group of all men, so also I think it is inappropriate to make objectifying comments about men in a group of all women, even a group of close friends. Does that mean I am never guilty of doing this? Of course not. One of the actors on the new Battlestar Gallactica has been the subject of my objectification. But he won't ever hear about it. Does it hurt anything?

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