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Published Date: April 30, 2001

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The Bible in Cross Cultural Perspective

Jacob A. Loewen’s recent book The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective covers a multitude of subjects—heaven, earth, the afterlife, the spirit world, exorcism, among them. Of particular interest to Priscilla Papers readers is chapter 9, “Images of God: Male, Female, or Both” (pp. 109-16). It is packed with wonderful information regarding inclusive language. Here are excerpts:

In the West, one controversial worldview issue concerning the nature of God in the Bible and in Christian faith focuses [on] male and female metaphors for God. When my wife and I became missionaries to the Waunana, we were pleased not only because the people had only one God, but also because he was male, like our own God. Even after I had become a translation consultant . . . I felt that translators should use a masculine name for God. Not until I came into contact with the Peve (Chad, central Africa)—for whom the only deity was a female God, with no alternative—was I forced to rethink my position and study the Scriptures on this issue.

The word for God in Peve literally means “our mother” (Venberg 1971:68-70). If we are to take this name for God seriously, expressions like “our father in heaven” should be translated as “our mother in heaven” in the Peve language. But is this possible?

The missionaries answered “No!” and insisted on using “our father in heaven” in their preaching and in the translation of the Scriptures. To the Peve this was something like having the missionaries insist that they call their own mothers “father,” or their own sisters “brother,” or their own daughters “son.” What kind of foreign nonsense was that? The

Peve refused to accept either the missionaries’ message or the Scriptures. A male God was a foreign deity, and they wanted to have no part of him.

In many Bantu languages a similar kind of linguistic violence has been perpetrated on the Spirit of God….Once the local church became independent, widespread reaction arose against the grotesque distortion which foreigners had imposed on their language.

On the other hand, missionaries have sometimes seemingly succeeded in changing God’s sex. Mawu was a female deity in Ewe and other related languages in Ghana, Togo, and Benin, but under German missionary influence she was converted into a male . . .

As a Bible Society representative, I could not escape the responsibility of knowing for myself what name for God was used in the Scriptures I approved for publication and by what means such a name was selected. Prompted by this cross-cultural dilemma, I was forced to establish my own premises on the basis of which I could decide what the Bible was actually depicting on the subject.

Loewen goes on to discuss cultural and linguistic reasons for the strong images of God as male in the Bible, how metaphors and figures of speech are the product of a cultural milieu, and how grammar and figures of speech serve as a grid that blocks our view of the dimensions of the truth. He concludes:

[M]y present understanding of God is much richer as a result [of my cross-cultural examination of the possibility of female names and images for God in the Bible]. I found that the names and metaphors for God are equally appropriate whether male, female, or both, and as a result my vision of God has deepened. I saw that the metaphors we use to express our dim understanding of deity tend later to be taken literally and become solidified into dogma. But no metaphor can picture all of the reality it represents. As a result of these discoveries, my God is not as small as before.

This is wonderfully affirming, and even more encouraging when you examine Loewen’s notes and bibliography—which don’t include references to known egalitarian authors. That should make it difficult for those opposed to the use of egalitarian or inclusive language to claim that Loewen was unduly influenced in his findings for this book by “feminists.” Rather, the author says he came to his conclusions from his study of Scripture—praise God!