The Gospel: A Story Like None Other

Words, Language, and Meaning

Early one morning, shortly after purchasing our home in a newly developed neighborhood in Colorado, two small boys on bicycles from the end of Prickly Pear Circle, whizzed past my dad who had traveled from Nebraska to see our first home and to show off the new car which he was proudly polishing that morning.

Both boys darted up the driveway into the empty garage terrorizing our small daughter. She toppled over onto a spade slicing open her cheek, requiring a trip to the emergency room for stitches. A few days later, and a bit calmer, I marched down the street to have a visit with their mother. We stood at the end of her driveway visiting for over an hour. The conversation went surprisingly well and grew into a friendship.

She shared they were Mormon. I prodded to know more. What followed was a conversation about the essentials of our faith. Yes, God was the creator of the world. Yes, Jesus was born of Mary. Yes, she was a virgin. Yes, Jesus was the son of God. Yes, Jesus died and was resurrected. All seemed good and well.

Our relationship grew. She exemplified a genuine gift of hospitality. Discussions about marriage, family, and all things domestic took place around her small kitchen table. Exploring the teaching and doctrines of our faiths were my favorite – even though they were a bit tense and risky a times.

In a short time I realized her meaning of the words God, Mary, virgin, son, Jesus, priest, priesthood, and incarnation were far removed from my understanding of those very terms.

I was befuddled. Determined to learn more I met with a woman who recently left her Mormon heritage – at great risk to her own life – to follow the Christ of the New Testament. We spent hours discussing the key Mormon doctrines and writings.

Those discussions prompted me to be more precise when asking penetrating questions about my friend’s faith, and continued until her husband prohibited any further conversations between the two of us regarding the mysteries of the inner workings of the Mormon religion.

Language Produces Images

At first we might blame language and words for their shiftiness, as if they have the ability to twist and turn all on their own! It’s not the words that mutate meaning, of course, but the meaning we give them throughout history.

But, what comes first? Is it the images in our mind or the words used to convey the ideas and images?

As I see it, our minds form images that correlate to what we read and hear – something unnecessary when watching movies. In the medium of video and film, the images are given to us – stunting our imagination in a way.

When we speak we try to convey the images of our mind – a task often leading to miscommunication in our relationships. How many times have we said, “Can’t you see what I’m saying?!” We expect our words to convey images, and we expect those images to be understood precisely as we see them. In frustration we pull out the pencil and paper, scrawling out an awkward replica of the image in our mind.

Language, consisting of words, is necessary to narrate the stories and doctrines of our faith. The words used construct images meant to explain our relationship with the divine. Frequently stories are told by the few to modulate the behavior of the many. This need not be taken as a negative practice, but it no doubt depends upon the agenda of the narrator and interpreter of those stories.

So, let’s return to my friend’s way of telling her faith story. It consists of three main characters: God, the virgin Mary, and their son, Jesus – characters we’re familiar with from our own Scriptures. But her story conjures images starkly different from those in our traditional Christian story.

Let me briefly summarize and please note this is for illustration only of the various stories that shape one’s faith. This is not a critique of the validity of the Mormon faith.

Her g/God, as a male, comes to earth, strides into where Mary, a virgin, resides. The two have intercourse just as humans do. Mary conceives. If she gives birth to a male child his sole purpose is to repeat the process: copulate with a female in order to populate and preside over a new world just like his father/god, as did generations of fathers/gods before him, in order to become a god himself. At the end of time, or the era of resurrection, the husband, after attaining the status of a male god, possesses not only the power – but the prerogative – to determine the eternal destiny of his wife/wives. Only those wives whose names are called forth on the day of judgment – by their husbands – will be resurrected to eternal life.

Why Do Pronouns Matter?

Had I been familiar with ancient mythologies I might have seen this story for what it was. Since fantasy and fiction stories were deemed inappropriate material for the impressive mind of a child, my own imagination was stunted.

Today, decades later, I appreciate this one thing about her faith story: its honesty.

There is no ambiguity – in this story god is a male! And this god functions like a human male. The agenda is clear: men aspire to become gods to rule a world of their own. The pronouns used correlate to its gender. We’re not left wondering whether he and him correlates to females or males, or to a god. It’s male, through and through. And god is male.

The female pronouns, she and her, correlate to the female. In this story of faith, the female’s role is clearly laid out before her: contribute to her husband’s deification by bearing him a son. Any aspiration for eternal life on her part is demanding, requiring complete submission to her husband’s every whim, lest she be left molding in the grave on resurrection day. Disobedience comes at an immense cost. If you’re a woman reading this you already have plenty of images to draw from.

But, thankfully, that’s not the Christian story – or is it? Here we must admit that it depends on who is narrating the story.

Gender Matters

I’ve been reading through several books that discuss gender and the development of our Christian doctrines. Particularly of interest to me are those important to our understanding of the incarnation (Jesus in human flesh) and the eucharist (communion or Lord’s supper).

I’ve noticed that simply mentioning the word gender causes the hair to rise on the back of many Bible-believing people. Minds are locked down tight – giving little wiggle-room whatsoever for civil conversation, and definitely no room to imagine how problematic this can be to our own sacred stories.

I see this often where I work. Folks seeking to purchase a new Bible come from both sides of the debate. Some are adamant to find a Bible that espouses an egalitarian message. Others reject any version that makes a claim to purport gender-inclusive language. Both parties, in my mind, should pay more attention to the doctrines and teachings of the celebrity pastors whose names looms large on the leather-like covers.

Why are we frightened, like scared little children, when it comes to this subject? Long gone, it seems is the boldness of the early church fathers and mothers who wrestled through doctrinal issues – and often with a threat of death held over their head.

In a post written a couple years ago (Getting our He’s and She’s Together), I focused on how masculine pronouns appear to erase the female from the story. More and more biblical research, thankfully by men and women, is revealing women were there – contributing all along – and were essential to the salvation story.

Yes, it is vital to continue discussion on how pronouns should be translated. It is important to ask why at times some are mistranslated in the Biblical text. Is there a genuine motive on the translation team of faithfulness to the text? Or is there an agenda against one gender or others in the church? I cannot find an answer, and feel we’ve hit a wall! But I do know that the discussion must go much farther than a quest for equality in the secular world (important as that is) and much farther than achieving a gender-neutral, egalitarian rendition of the Biblical text.

Every Eucharist Tells a Story

Depending upon which church you’re from, only a small amount of the service is given to the Lord’s Supper or Communion, when the church gathers to worship – whether that be on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. Christians from diverse denominations around the globe gather to hear a message from God’s Word. Each denomination or faith group, therefore, tells the story of the gospel in their own unique ways, using language and words to convey the message to those in the pews.

Many of us from Baptist and Independent Christian churches are unfamiliar with the practices of Orthodox and Catholic churches. For these churches, the Eucharist is enacted as a story every time they gather. All in attendance participate in this reenactment of the gospel story.

As I continue reading and studying the issues of men and women in ministry I’ve realized we’ve overlooked a key area of study: the history and practice of the eucharist. The Eucharist for many Orthodox churches and those of the Catholic churches – is the heart of the service, and herein may be a hint of the problem we face.

Is this an oversight on our part? I think so, but more research is needed.

I hope that a long look at the history of the evolution of the eucharist and its practices in the ancient church and onward will reveal clues to why the function of men and women in ministry is such a stickler to navigate today.

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