Sunday, January 03, 2010

Deconstructing our Visions of a Male Jesus


I have been reflecting on the implications of our typical images of Jesus, which have been highly influenced by Western European conceptions.  Curtiss DeYoung has helpfully offered us a look at the consequences of absolutizing a white Jesus.  Curtiss writes about the issue of culture, but, perhaps ethnicity isn't the only issue to be considered.  Indeed, I have been challenged by a reader to consider the danger of absolutizing the maleness of Jesus.

I think it's important to start with history and the particularity of the incarnation.   As DeYoung writes:

Jesus entered history in the first century as an Afro-Asiatic Jewish male from Galilee.  He came into the world at a time when ethnic tensions were simmering just below the surface and communities were isolated from each other.  Jesus of Nazareth came with a prophetic word, calling for a just society based on individuals and institutions reconciling themselves with God and each other. (Coming Together in the 21st Century, p. 72). 
DeYoung points out the importance of an inclusive vision of Jesus, but for us to understand this fully, we need to recognize that the all-inclusive God includes women as well as males.  There is historical particularity at work here, but the person and message of Jesus surely transcends this particularity.

As I wrestle with this question I'm in the process of reading Ron Allen's new book on preaching and postmodernism -- Preaching and the Other (Chalice, 2009).   I will write more shortly on the book, but the chapter I'm currently reading speaks of deconstruction and preaching.  In postmodern analysis deconstruction uncovers the power dynamics present in society and in texts.  So, when we're dealing with matters of ethnicity and gender we're dealing with matters of power. 

Dealing specifically with gender, he writes: 

With respect to matters of gender, a preacher needs to cast an insightful eye.  Texts are sometimes quite direct in enforcing the power of males, as when the writer of Colossians says succinctly, "Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (Col. 3:18).  The passage presumes a social  hierarchy assumed inmost of the records that survive from antiquity that placed males at the top followed by women and then children.  Assuming this social pyramid, the elevation of men sometimes occurs more subtly.  For example, the us of the designation "Father" for God invokes this hierarchy and hence, male privilege.  Furthermore, the superior social status of the male is sometimes indicated by the absence of women from important positions of leadership.  For example, women are not included in the twelve apostles.  (Allen, p. 59).

Although he doesn't deal specifically with the gender of Jesus, he reminds us that we must be careful in how we use gender in our interpretations -- thus, don't absolutize the gender of Jesus!  Thus, just because the historical Jesus was male or the Apostles were male, does not mean that this is the divinely chosen pattern for church leadership. 

Finally, if God is beyond gender, and if Jesus incarnates this God, then can we absolutize Jesus' maleness?   Or, to put it another way, how inclusive are we willing our Jesus to be?


Note -- the picture is of a statue of the female Christ crucified at Emmanuel College, Toronto (picture taken in August 2009).


19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Repeat. No goofy comments this time! Sorry John..;) David Mc

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Jesus and the Scandal of Particularity

Anonymous said...

You lost me on this one... scripture says Jesus was a man, history says Jesus is a man, pretty much everything every written, thought about, drawn about, etc.. says Jesus was a man. Why are we so smart now to say he isn't? Wouldn't it be a little creepy if he was female yet surrounded by 12 men his whole preaching career?
I think this is a fun topic to ponder for a postmodern and can be viewed as a "look how sophisticated and deep I am to wonder this possibility". This is a slippery slope! You have to rest in Jesus presenting himself to women as a witness as a validation of the woman's importance. At the time, for a woman to be a witness for such a monumental moment in history would have been laughable. Jesus lifts up their role to incredibly new levels by revealing to them first!
Chuck

Anonymous said...

Hey, here's an easier one Chuck- Was Jesus was born of a virgin father? David Mc

Anonymous said...

How would answer that question David?
Chuck

Anonymous said...

I'd say it was doubtful if it meant he never procreated before. It's a big universe. Why would he keep all his "eggs" in one basket? And I promised no goofy comments. Sorry about that. David Mc

Anonymous said...

Sort of off-topic, but do you think Jesus ever got a spanking?

Fresh off the wire from Michigan research. Driving nanny states crazy- David Mc

http://topics.dallasnews.com/article/01Dea7ebeeeEP?q=Michigan

Anonymous said...

Research into the effects of smacking was previously hampered by the inability to find enough children who had never been smacked

John said...

I think that we cannot ignore or gloss over the fact that the Incarnation was Jewish male, born in the First Century to a poor family in Palestine.

I am not denying that there can be positive values communicated through re-imaging the Incarnation as female. But as a normative understanding, I think it important to keep in mind that God, as redeemer, elected to appear when he did, where he did, and how he did. We ignore the particularities at the risk of losing the messages contained in them.

I am vitally aware of some of Jesus' teachings on gender. How he sent the woman at the well into her village to evangelize, how he accepted instruction from his mother and from the woman who spoke of crumbs for the dogs, of how Mary, Lazarus' sister, was one of the first to recognize that he was the Messiah, of how Mary Magdalene was the first to see the Risen Lord and the first to bring the message of the Resurrection to the world.

In these events I see Jesus inviting women into roles of power. If the same invitations had come from a woman, in that time and place, or in this one (both societies being decidedly patriarchal), it would not carry the same weight - it would have been one woman inviting another. How much more powerful for the invitation to come from a man-God to a woman!

There are a myriad of sound reasons which could be proffered for why Jesus came as a man. When we strip gender from him, we risk re-making the Incarnation into something different than what God purposed, we risk overlooking the messages implied by the decision by God to be incarnated as a man.

I am not objecting to feminist interpretations, only suggesting that perhaps there is more grist for the feminist's mill in interpreting the Incarnation as it happened.

Perhaps the implicit message of Jesus' male gender is simply that western society is not mature enough to accept a feminine God?

Perhaps Jesus' messages of peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love would have more likely met with dismissal as soft and feminine in a patriarchal society if it were to come from the lips of a woman. That too is an indictment of patriarchy.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I am well aware that Jesus was a male. In what John says, I would concur.

I wrote this piece, in large part to a nudge from one who is a liberal Catholic -- one who understands that in that tradition the reason women are not allowed to be priests is simplly that Jesus and his Apostles were all males. In fact, the point is clear, because Jesus is male, those who represent him at the table must be male. If we can deconstruct the maleness of Jesus, that is, recognize that it is not his maleness that defines him as the one who incarnated God -- that is, God could have done it differently -- then perhaps the power dynamics that keep men in control of the church might be challenged.

John said...

I wish that women were included in the original 12 - but perhaps maleness was a social necessity for the initial success of original Jewish evangelists.

I think that the male dominated institutional church, while aware of the inclusiveness of Jesus' Gospel, was too bound by its own cultural limitations to grasp the radical breadth of Jesus' inclusiveness.

Paul seems to weave back and forth from embracing women as co-workers to calling for their exclusion from positions of authority. While this may be due in part to his cultural limitations and in part to the influence of redactors and Paul's literary successors, even Paul's appearance of ambivalence on gender inclusivity stands apart from the patriarchy of Jewish/Hellenic/Roman society.

Another perspective to consider is that Jesus message points the way to what is possible in bringing the Good News to the marginalized. It was never intended to place limits on the Gospel. The grace of the Kingdom has no limits. One need only consider the Magnificat and the Sermon on the Mount to glimpse just how radical Jesus' message was. And consider the Song of Hannah in First Samuel to see that this message of radical inclusion was not a new one for God, but was expressed from the very earliest of times.

John

Anonymous said...

Anyway, Thank God the ladies have at least one example that there is hope for males! If Jesus was a female that might give them one more reason to stamp us out! David Mc

Anonymous said...

I feel like I have been "bait and switched" here..lol.
If the conversation is around women priests, well that is incredibly different that Jesus as a female. I am also pretty dense and may have missed the whole conversation. Sorry guys.. and ladies.

Being the token conservative, I will of course be the one to say that I "prefer" men to be priests/pastors. That will of course cause great shoutings by David, and John's deep responses in disagreement. (just kidding guys) I honestly enjoy the dialogue and it causes me to think.. thus why I keep coming back. Hopefully I do the same.

If thats the conversation, happy to expand more, but I do apologize if I sidetracked us.

Chuck

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Chuck,

Thanks for pushing the conversation. As noted, the issue isn't whether Jesus was male, the question is -- was this, to use a philosophical term, ontologically necessary. Could have God chosen to be incarnated as a woman? Now, you could argue that considering the time and place, this wasn't likely. But that's not the question, could it have been different?

The issue regarding clergy is important, because at least some opponents of women's ordination use the gender of Jesus as the definitive reason why only men can be priests/pastors. Now, most conservative evanglical churches don't use this argument -- they simply turn to texts like 1 Corinithins 14 or 1 Timothy 2. That is, of course, a different conversation.

John said...

Bob said:
Could have God chosen to be incarnated as a woman? Now, you could argue that considering the time and place, this wasn't likely. But that's not the question, could it have been different?

Or put differently: Was Jesus' gender an indispensable part of His message? If so a whole lot of Christians have a whole lotta work to do. If not, then are there any theological inferences which we, who live in a different culture and a different time, can draw from His election to be incarnated into a male body?

Some people are socially more receptive to a male or to a female pastor. But that is just people being people. The core question for consideration is whether it makes any difference to God whether the pastor is male of female. I think not. Scripture says that in Christ there is no male or female - just people, hopefully sharing the gifts of God.

By the way Chuck, for me this topic is important for several reasons and I engage it from a very complicated vantage: I was raised Roman Catholic and I still hold a deep reverence for its teachings - which is complicated by the fact that I have a 23 year old daughter who most who know her agree appears to be called into ministry.

John

Anonymous said...

I DON'T SHOUT! oopps cap lock.

I'm like John, I was raised Roman Catholic and thus have little exposure to female priest, er preacher. I might claim not to be prejudiced, but wonder if that would really be true. I had some doozi nun's as teachers. I try to look to words and deeds over physical form.

I love your input Church. Hey, do you think Tiger will take Brit Hume's advise to switch to Christianity?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVjuO5v5Cts

David Mc

Anonymous said...

oops, Chuck. Anyone ever call you Church before?

Anonymous said...

Never been church before.. lol.
Its a hard question if Jesus could have done everything he did if female. I grew up Catholic-light.. Episcopal. Growing up in the south, my church was very much a "society" church. I literally grew up with "you went to church, check the box, you are good". It wasn't taught from the pulpit, but you would hear it from the people.

The female priest role is hard to argue about on a blog. My thoughts would come out as "red meat", ready to be pounced on. A quick summation is I feel men and women are generally wired/built/etc for different, yet VITAL roles in the family. Obviously after the fall in Genesis many of these roles are spelled out. I DO NOT believe that man sits on a throne and orders woman around. I DO feel he must live self sacrificing daily.. something I struggle with daily.

I will stop here, but maybe we will have a dedicated post to go on and on about and I will be sure to toss out the red meat. :)

Chuck

John said...

Yes, I agree, men and women can play vital roles in the nurturing of children. But I think you and I would define the roles a little differently.

Nevertheless, men and women also live and participate in community outside of the home and family unit. However one sees the roles of men and women in the life of the family, I don't see that as limiting or defining their vocations outside of the walls of the home.

John

Anonymous said...

Male or female, the harmful and/ or ineffective ones should be in another vocation, punished or re(s)trained. You're pretty safe Bob. David Mc