There’s a lot of talk now among Christians about the movie, The Shack, and whether it’s all right for Christians to even see it. Some are asking, “Is it okay that God is portrayed as a woman?” and even “Is it okay to call God Mother?” These are good questions at any time.
The usual answer is “No, it is not okay. Father is how God revealed Himself in the Bible. God might be like a mother, but is not a mother.” Let’s look more closely at both axioms.
Only a Masculine God
I remember in 1993 reading OT scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier’s article in Christianity Today, “Why God is Not a Mother.” I was integrating my new-found feminism with my old Christianity, and eager to read anything about the topic. Achtemeier’s thesis was that we should not use feminine language for God because He revealed Himself only in masculine terms.
And, she said we know this because metaphors are stronger than similes. God is a father, but only like a mother. You’ve probably heard the same argument. She writes:
“The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take the form of simile, not metaphor, as literary critic Roland Frye has amply demonstrated. That distinction is instructive. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For example, in Isaiah 42:14, God will ‘cry out like a woman in travail,’ but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In metaphors, on the other hand, the whole of one thing is compared to the whole of another. God is Father or Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Thus the metaphor, as Frye writes, ‘carries a word or phrase far beyond its ordinary lexical meaning so as to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject.’ Language is stretched to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to provide new understanding.”
In my 20s, this argument floored me. And angered me. But I didn’t have a good answer to it. So for years, I resisted calling God Mother to stay true to what I thought was traditional, orthodox Christianity.
I’d like to discuss Dr. Achtemeier’s points from my perspective in 2017, after an M.Div. and two years of The Mother God Experiment.
Leaping from the Limits of Language
Achtemeier argues first that there is something special about “Father” that goes beyond metaphor itself. She says in the Christianity Today article, “‘Father’ is not a metaphor imported by humanity onto the screen of eternity; it is a name and filial term of address revealed by God himself in the person of his Son.” Well, actually, Father is a metaphor that Jesus used to describe His relationship with God, as a human male in a patriarchal culture, and as God’s unique “only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
There are many other titles for God, besides Father, but they, too, are simply attempts to use language to describe the ineffable, beyond-language God. No single for-all-time title for God gets everything about God.
And that’s because not a single word of the Bible can escape culture and language. That’s why scholars spend half their lives working on exegesis and hermeneutics, chipping away at the true meaning of the text via what the text meant to certain people at a certain time and place, and from that point, what it means to us today.
To say that Jesus revealed a title for God that is set apart from its social context, eternally true and “correlative” about God in the term “Father” is just inaccurate. And flirting with heresy. Does God have genitals? Does God have a wife who bore Jesus? Does God have testosterone flowing through his veins? Does God need to eat meat three times a week and have sex every night? (Just kidding. Plenty of men don’t fit that description, but “Father” conveys many physical realities if taken literally).
As OT scholar Tim Bulkeley and Rev. Paul R. Smith both write, “Father” says something not true about God as well as something true in terms of Jesus’ relationship with God as God’s Son. Just like “Warrior” or “Shepherd” or “Rock” or the antiquated but well-loved term “Lord”.
In other words, Father is a metaphor and can be nothing else. It is not “revelation.” And in fact, the early church avoided using Father, as far as recorded prayers go. They preferred Lord and God in prayer, according to Paul Smith’s New Testament research.
And the early church fathers and medieval theologians reached out of their patriarchal cultures to draw from the Old Testament and Paul in using mother and breast-feeding imagery to describe God’s love. They would not have done this so consistently if Father was a sacrosanct, solitary way to think about God that precludes calling God Mother, too.
Changing up the Debate
Elizabeth Achtemeier’s second point still needs an answer, however. Does a metaphor about God convey a stronger, truer truth than a simile?
Whatever we conclude about the emotional, meaning-strength of a metaphor over a simile, the debate assumes that the Old Testament writers only used similes to talk about God as mother. However, a review of the texts reveals that they often used mother as a metaphor for God.
Sometimes the Biblical writer goes to the metaphor with a motherly action of God. Other times, God takes the first person voice through the prophet writing, and speaks as a mother. Yes, She takes on the entire persona of a woman to describe something about Her, in the first person.
Let’s look now for ourselves at the verses for the strength of the comparison between God and being a mother (or a woman). I put in bold the parts where either the writer-in-third-person or God’s own voice identifies God with the woman’s actions or voice:
“As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him; no foreign god was with him. He set him atop the heights of the land, and fed him with produce of the field; he nursed him with honey from the crags, with oil from flinty rock…”–Deuteronomy 32:11-13
This passage starts out with a simile and ends with a metaphor. The pronouns are masculine. Anything else would be wildly out-of-place in a patriarchal religion and culture. However, the clear mother metaphors are so unexpected in such a culture that we should pay attention to them. See the next example for, again, a complete identification with “mother,” just a few verses away from the last example:
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”–Deuteronomy 32:18
There is no simile here at all. There are no masculine pronouns. God is the God who gives birth. That makes God a mother, metaphorically speaking. And here’s more:
“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band. Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?”–Job 38:8-9, 28-29
Again, God is completely identifying with a woman, with a womb, who gives birth. That is a metaphor, not a simile. Let’s keep going:
“I [Wisdom] was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no oceans, I was given birth [by God], when there were no springs abounding with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth.”–Proverbs 8:23-25
In this example, the voice is Wisdom’s, the offspring of God, the Mother, an implied metaphor.
Next, in Isaiah, the prophet gives God the first person voice as a mother who is promising to always be a mother:
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb, even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.”–Isaiah 46:3-4
And in the next passage, God again speaks in the first person, as both a mother and Someone like a mother:
“When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me….Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them….My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”–Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9
Other verses do use only similes, such as the following, but the comparison with a mother is a strong complement to the above metaphors:
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul within me is like a weaned child.”–Psalm 131:2
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”–Isaiah 49:15
“For thus says the Lord:…As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”–Isaiah 66:12-13
New Testament Mother Metaphors for God
We have heard the phrase “born again” so often that we forget the Mother who is needed for the metaphor to work. Jesus clearly describes God the Spirit as a spiritual mother. There is no simile.
“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.'”–John 3:5, 6
And in the next example, the simile is for us, who are like God’s babies, but the metaphor is for God and God’s milk:
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”–I Peter 2:2-3
What’s a Meta Phor?
I hope this will help those of you who, like me, get taken by arguments that seem to make perfect sense but actually have inaccurate assumptions based on false evidence. The Old and New Testament have all the metaphors you will ever need to show that God identifies Herself as a mother, and not only a father.
As Professor Bulkeley says, it is the god Baal who is male, not Yahweh, the invisible God in whose image She made both men and women. He writes, “Paradoxically, if Achtemeier and [C. S.] Lewis, great defenders of orthodox Christian belief, win this battle, and we accept that God is in some sense male-not-female, then Baal wins the battle lost on Mt. Carmel in about 850 BC! Those who defend the notion that talk of God as mother should be similar to talk of God as father are not the dangerous heretics. They are rather, like Elijah, defenders of the true God against human idolatry. The idolaters are those who would make God male or father alone!”
It is god with a small “g” who can only be Father, only be King, only be Lord or any other exclusively masculine metaphor. A movie like The Shack is a prophetic push for more balance in our word pictures for God, whether intended or not.
In summary, calling or praying to God as Mother makes you more Biblical than using Father only. And you have the metaphors to prove it.
Experiment: If you’re used to listening to God’s voice, ask Her what She thinks about being called Mother. Or ask Him what He thinks about being called Mother, whatever you’re now comfortable with. Listen for God’s answer. And if you hear that God takes offense at being called Mother, ask God why.