Friday, March 19, 2010

El Shaddai and the Shack, or, who's afraid of a genderless God?

Yesterday, I attended a local MOPs meeting, and during the meeting we were handed print outs of the names of God. This print out listed one of the names of God, El Shaddai, as God of the mountains.

I have a problem with this. You see, the translation of El Shaddai is being contested among certain scholars, and there are those that argue that Shaddai comes from the word for mountain, and then there are those that argue it comes from the Hebrew word for breast.
(From wikipedia article on El Shaddai)

"Another theory is that Shaddai is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in the Akkadian shadû ("mountain") and shaddā`û or shaddû`a ("mountain-dweller"), one of the names of Amurru. This theory was popularized by W. F. Albright but was somewhat weakened when it was noticed that the doubling of the medial d is first documented only in the Neo-Assyrian period. However, the doubling in Hebrew might possibly be secondary. According to this theory, God is seen as inhabiting a mythical holy mountain, a concept not unknown in ancient West Asian mythology (see El), and also evident in the Syriac Christian writings of Ephrem the Syrian, who places Eden on an inaccessible mountaintop.

Albright also proposed that the name Shaddai is connected to shadayim, the Hebrew word for "breasts". It may thus be connected to the notion of God’s gifts of fertility to human race. In several instances in the Torah the name is connected with fruitfulness: "May God Almighty [El Shaddai] bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers…" (Gen. 28:3). "I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]: be fruitful and increase in number" (Gen. 35:11). "By the Almighty [El Shaddai] who will bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies beneath, blessings of the breasts [shadayim] and of the womb [racham]" (Gen. 49:25)."

All Sufficient One is the generally accepted translation of El Shaddai- and as far as I'm concerned, mountains do not nearly fulfill this as breasts do.

Mother's milk is all sufficient for an infant, and the promise inherent in the name is exceedingly comforting. God is All sufficient, giving us all we could ever need to grow. How does a mountain provide?

What bothers me most about the mountain translation is that it removes the feminine from God. If God created all things, then he, by inference, created women with breasts that produce milk for their children. If God made humanity in his image, then women, by inference, are a part of his Image. So why can't God choose to express his sufficiency for us in the picture of a breast producing life-giving food?

Peter, in fact, likens the Word of God to mother's milk:

1 Peter 2:1-3

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.

This takes me immediately to the uproar that continues to rage over The Shack, where the character of God is represented by a big black woman. God, as a black woman, tells the main character to call her Papa. Mind you, thiss is in fact a character in a novel, not God himself, but the uproar over God depicting Himself as a woman is huge. I can barely wrap my mind around it, really. The outrage at this God character choosing to be a woman inflames people.


If woman is the other part of God's image in humanity, than why oh why do we feel that this is wrong? This is not to say that God is a woman- I will tell you that God is not a man OR a woman. God is not female or male, but choosing to refer to Himself in masculine pronouns. Super- He is God, after all, and I am not. But let us not forget, lest we become intellectually lazy, what the Jews have always known. God is Spirit, not flesh. God is neither and both genders, all at the same time. God contains both. Once again, I must remind you all, that God chooses to refer to Himself as a Him.

But we must not exclude his motherly attributes in this. He likens himself to a mother hen, at one point. Now astute readers will say likening is not the same as showing up as a big black woman. Ok, sure. But then again, The Shack is not the Bible, and the character of God is but one author's exploration of an idea.

So why do people get so bothered by it? What is it about breast milk that people refuse to allow it near the name of God? What is it about the expression of God as able to contain both genders and be neither that get some scholars so freaked out? I see in The Shack an attempt at expressing God's transcendence of all our boxes of religion- not universality, no. Please do not assume universality. Even in the book itself, the author makes a point of saying that Jesus is the only way to God. But the author does hint at the fact that any road without Jesus, even a "Christian" one, is insufficient and must risen above. It doesn't matter what denomination you are, if you do not have Jesus. That is exclusionary inn the extreme, because you see, it doesn't matter if your belief system is arranged within the family of so-called "christian" ideologies, if you're off by an inch, you're off by a mile.

So what is the big deal that people see in God choosing to show Himself as a woman to one wounded man? Why do scholars deem it necessary to strive for a distant linguistic cousin as an explanation of Shaddai? Why can't God choose to say he is All Sufficient by using a picture of breast milk?

What are they afraid of?

I'm finally going to talk about Twilight.

Much has been said about the Twilight series, and the feminists are blogging brilliantly (about all the rich dysfunctional gender issues, as well as the racial ones. I have read all but the last book- the first two were swallowed whole, and the third became tiresome quickly.
Stephanie Meyer is a figure I am ambivalent about. Her Twilight series came out while I was in my last months of pregnancy, a time when I was very aware of my lack of writing. The story of a good little housewife writing in the wee morning hours while half-delirious from lack of sleep from breast-feeding a newborn struck a chord with me. I felt that it was possible, then, to write and to be a mother, to write and be successful. Ah, but how I mistook success for talent! I had read articles praising the books, the sexual tension, the purity of the characters, the simplicity of the life, the huge numbers of books sold, and I thought that the writing was good.
I did not read the books until months afterward. I had still not written much of anything- while my son was still very very small I traveled to Barnes and Noble and while he slept in the sling around me I spilled out poems about labor and childbirth and pain and identity. Other than that, my pen was largely unproductive. The idea of a mother of more than one, but most importantly, the mother of an infant, could pound out a four book series in a mad fever dream of inspiration over six months still haunted me. I had no inspiration to speak of.
So there is still a mythic awe of her fecundity, as relates to production of stories. As I continue to write my critiques, please keep in mind that though I never hope to write in her style, I do hope to write like she did. In the dirty hectic midst of children clamoring for attention, and hope that neither the story nor the children suffer any want.

To be fair, one must remember that Stephanie Meyer calls herself a storyteller, not a writer. I am afraid that she has fulfilled that nicely- but she cannot even be called a good storyteller, because if one compares Twilight to the fairy tales of folk lore, it is too wordy, too detailed. If one were to look to a writer of novels, her stories are lacking in depth. Too much one to be any good as the other.
So how could a woman write so poorly and get so rich? Why is her work so well-received? It is in what the characters and plot is not that we find the answer. The characters are sketches of types, not actual people. She does not draw on the power of mythos, it is the type of popular culture that we see in her novels. Teens, Tweens and twentieth century women with shallow educations can seize on the types easily- there are no references to ancient archetypes, no mother or father gods, no labyrinths, nothing to resound in the mind deeply.
There is the good little housewife, Bella, who fulfills her destiny by the end of the novel, there is Edward, the polar opposite of Jacob in the discourses of the male libido. And then there’s everyone else. All other characters serve only as plot mechanisms, they are all the dreaded “side characters”. As Stephen King so aptly said, “It’s also important to remember that no one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’ or ‘the whore with the heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much fiction.”

In all the whole series, there are truly only three characters, the love triangle of Edward, Bella, and Jacob. But I must reiterate, I use the word character loosely. They are three types sketched in, and Edward feels the closest to real because of his normally reserved, tight laced nature. We are supposed to know all about Bella, since she is our narrator, but sadly there isn’t much to know.

She herself doesn’t quite know who she is- all the feminist takings on it use the actions she describes without much thought, such as cooking dinner and doing laundry- it is in her lack of attention to these daily rituals that we see how she aligns her priorities, the things that make her up. One may try to posit her as the virtuous heroine, the shining white princess of fairy tale, but the truth is, she can’t wear white, she’d spill the spaghetti sauce on it. That banality in her character is glossed over, barely paid attention to in the narrative- it is simply assumed. And this is the most important point to make- it is assumed, taken for granted, that she would rustle about the house, taking care of her father, habits learned from parenting her own flighty mother.

Bella’s entire existence as detailed in the series is filling needs- at first she fills the needs of her mother, by paying the bills, cleaning up and cooking- in short, providing food shelter and security. But this is referenced perhaps in three full sentences in the first book. If any more is said of it, it is only repetition.
She removes herself from her mother’s home to make room for the new man, and heads off to take care of her father in the same way. He, too, seems to take her care-taking for granted. It is seen as a kindness, not as a defense against encroaching chaos, which is the only way I can imagine a sixteen year old girl parenting her own (non-addicted, assumably mentally sound) mother. No one ever notices that this girl is not a girl at all, but a rather empty and friendless adult in a sixteen year old’s body.

In fact, her father urges her to stop care-taking, and go get some friends, a life. Bella is not only not needed as the little mother, but is told to relate to people she cannot relate to- after all, what do 16 and 17 year olds know about caring for your parents?

Here is where I see some serious issues at play. Now, granted, I've come out of a dysfunctional home, and had access to some other seriously dysfunctional family systems, so please believe me when I tell you, taking a tour through Bella's family life looks, well...familiar.

commercials can be so great.

Sometimes I think my point would be far better made by a clever artist on a nineteenth century style advertisement.

“Do you wish to be brave? Noble? Do you have many questions and don’t want to go to the Church with them? Are you dissatisfied with the easy platitudes of “God’s way are not our ways?”
Then become an Atheist! (beams emerging from the text, clouds parting) Join an untold number of noble intellectuals who have bravely stepped out from under the Church’s influence, and are even now reforming our universities for the fair-minded, like yourself!”

And all of that is in bright circus poster colors. Someone could do a whole series on ideologies. That would be hysterical. I’m afraid of what Christian might come out to be, though. Unless it were done in the tone of a laundry ad….

Are you tired of scrubbing at those sin-soaked stains? Have you had enough of leaders and gurus who tell you to do it yourself and mind your manners?
Well now is your salvation! Jesus, the God who cleans your stains for you! No more scrubbing, no more begging! Forgiveness is here, and it is free! Be amazed as Jesus wipes away your sins with an effortless nail-scarred hand! No more guilt or shame!
Come see Jesus, today! Oh, wait, is that Him, knocking at your door?

That would be a hysterical commercial. You can just hear the infomercial voice-over, right? I saw this as a TV ad.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Image sells

"I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif?.. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about."- C.S Lewis, the Screwtape Letters

We all know the phrase "Sex Sells.", used almost constantly now in advertising. The truth is that sex itself doesn't sell much at all- sex itself is often a let down for those of us raised ona steady diet of the idealization of sex. What our culture acknowledges as sex is a far more sterile and glowy idea, one where sweat is always a good thing, and the moment of passion sweeps away all thought, and the release at the end is never ugly messy or boring.
But here is the import of my argument- the distance between the crafted image and the thing itself. Sex does not sell, my friends. The image of sex sells, and I will go even further than that- image sells. Do not craft a real picture of anything if you want to sell it- craft only it's potential, it's ultimate idealized state.

C.S. Lewis published the Screwtape Letters in 1942, and I am often astonished by how well this quote expresses the truth in our consumerist society today. It is not the argument or it's logic that matters- it is the image.

These days, every ideology has an image. The easiest example of this is given by Richard Dawkins in the preface of his book The God Delusion, in which he states that atheism is "Brave and noble" and goes on to promise just how he will prove his statement and in what chapter. The Preface itself is all about image- he makes vague references to how many people really are atheists, even if they themselves cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it- an impossible statement to prove, since the people in question cannot acknowledge it even to themselves. He also goes on to say that being an atheist in America is equivalent to being gay in the 50's. Not only are they numerous, noble and brave, but they are also downtrodden and misunderstood, as well as persecuted! He paints a very interesting image of the state of atheism in the world today- but never gives any hard facts, never gives any data to back up his claims.

Dawkins is selling atheism, very clearly in his preface to the God Delusion. I must admit that I thought him a giant with awful rhetoric on his side, excellently wielded data and argument, but I have been deeply disappointed by the disparate image and the man. His rhetoric is easy to disarm, it is easy to drive Hummers through the Redwood trees that grow in the holes in his logic. But you see, logic is not important to one who longs to be brave and noble.

I cannot speak so clearly towards other ideologies, but Buddhism's image is an easy one to point out. Immediately, one thinks of serene inscrutable smiles, the lotus blossom, and pacifism. I have heard the Dalai Lama described as a"Beautiful man" more times than I care to count, from people who aren't even Buddhists. The picture he presents is one they enjoy, would hang on their walls, even, but ask them to actually prescribe to the self-denial rigorously upheld by Buddhists...and well...the Dalai Lama is a beautiful man. I think that's the nice way of saying "That's true for you, but-"

Every ideology maintains an image. Once upon a time it was based on the lives of its followers. Now we are surrounded by marketing, and marketing is all about hype, not actuality. Remember the first time you had sex? Was it really any good at all? Were you disappointed? I know I was. The image presented was so much more...everything. Magical, exciting, romantic...clean. MArketing is all about hype, about potential, about the ideal state, and it does not concern itself with the distance between what it shows and what life is like. But we should.

What does it mean to be a responsible consumer of ideas? What does it look like when people truly think about the messages they receive?

Image is fired at us from so many different medias that it's commonplace to think in image-jargon instead of truth. Atheism is brave and noble, Buddhism is serene and compassionate, Christianity is hypocritical, Republicans are corporate, Democrats are philanthropists, etc. And all of these crafted images will shift when you talk to the followers of an opposite ideology.

Abortion is the perfect example. From the Pro-Choice camp: Abortion is a necessary right of a woman to control her life and her body, and denial of that right is cruel. Those that oppose it are referred to as "anti-choice" or even better, "anti-woman".
From the Pro-Life camp: Abortion is the destruction of human life and should not be allowed. It itself is a cruel act that harms all involved. Those that oppose this view are called "pro-abortion".

Now, before anyone gets all up in arms about this narrow very very short run-down of terms, please be aware that I am using terms employed in short essays and articles written by both sides of the issue, and will be glad to hunt down those articles for you if you want them. For quick reference, the pro-choice terms can be found on, and the pro-life terms can be found on

But the truth about image is that it tells us, the audience so much more about it's crafters and the culture that we live in than most would believe. Each image carefully omits very important ugly details. By familiarizing yourself with the details omitted, you begin to see what it is that the proponents of the ideologies struggle with themselves, what our culture tells us we should and should not want out of our ideologies, and in the end, human nature itself. If you follow the rabbit hole, Alice, you will come out the other side of the looking glass, and then my child, you shall be so much fiercer than a Jabberwock.

Be a responsible consumer, and do not blindly swallow the images, but discerningly swallow the image's makers, their fears, their hopes, their secrets exposed in the way they crafted the image, chew them soundly in your mind, and spit out the lies.

See what blows, and how far.