Theology Class- Paper #1

Friday, January 14, 2011

Language, God, Children

The way that the church uses language, imagery and symbols has a significant effect on our young people and as ministers to them we have a great responsibility to help correct damaging or exclusive talk of God so that our children and youth can grow to be adults who know God more fully. Thinking about the use of language and symbols in the life of the church and how our young people are affected by this is a somewhat overwhelming task. To think of all of the different voices speaking into our young people’s lives and to question the overall picture they are beginning to form about God scares me in many ways. Yet, to know that the church can have a positive role in developing a healthy and holistic view and understanding of God is a beautiful task that I am ready to grab a hold of.

In reading, Feminism and Christianity, An Essential Guide by Lynn Japinga, I was pleasantly surprised by the conversations addressed about language and its impact on humankind and our view of ourselves and our relationship with God. Japinga shares about her ideas on theology, feminism and what it means to understand ourselves as creations of God, formed in God’s likeness, no matter our gender, age, class or ethnicity. Japinga addresses the issues of gender in our Christian culture that are too often overlooked and go uncorrected. She points out the oppressive ways in which the church specifically has excluded women from fully being a part of the body of Christ, to use their God-given gifts and to fully participate in their callings.

“Feminist theologians seek to understand and make sense of this ambiguous Christian faith, which both affirms women as God’s people and excludes them from the life of the church. Many feminist theologians believe that ultimately the Christian faith does offer good news to women, but not without some hard work at sorting through the meaning of the tradition for them. Feminist theology begins with the assumption that women are fully human, made in God’s image, and loved and valued by God.”

I believe the Christian faith does offer good news and hope to all, but the church must work extra hard to break through the brokenness of tradition and history to restore healing and fullness of life to all people. Japinga focuses a great deal on our language and its implications to the Christian faith and to how all humankind views themselves in relation to God. Theology must be life-giving to all.[1] As a young woman in ministry I have encountered the limiting views of “Bible belt” Christianity, I have received questions and eye-brow raisings concerning women in leadership in the church and I have seen and heard the oppressive rhetoric of submission of women in the church and in the home. I hope for the young girls whom I encounter within the church to grow into women who know who they are as creations of God, equally beloved and empowered to be fully who God has called them to be. I hope for our young men to grow up viewing both femininity and masculinity as a gift and to understand both as equals in this world, fully embracing whoever it is that God has created them to become.

Japinga spoke a great deal about children and the ways that language affects them and the things they do or say in response to our persistent nature of speaking of God in male terms. [2] In her story of the young boy who was taught a prayer using inclusive language about God, but came home from preschool with persistence in using “he”, we are given a great example of the seemingly simple ways that our culture and even our teachers portray one image of God as the ‘right way’. Japinga’s passion for inclusivity and presentation of God’s full character as we can understand it comes much from her interactions with people, both young and old, who she has her own relationships with and who she cares for as God’s beloved children. As a minister to both children and youth, I have the great privilege of having a foot in both the world of young childhood as well as adolescents entering into adulthood. In seeking to gain deeper understanding into the spiritual and personal worlds of our young people I have been so challenged and inspired by our readings and conversations on the usage of language and imagery and how it affects our young people at all stages of development.

In gaining more understanding of feminist theology I believe this statement is a great summary of the belief and goal that these theologians have in mind: “Feminist theologians believe that language about God matters a great deal because it reflects our deepest beliefs about God and ourselves. They want to change, or at least to expand, some of the language traditionally used for God because they believe it has contributed to an excessively narrow understanding of God.” [3] As a minister to young people, it is a great responsibility to make sure our students do not just have a limited understanding of God but that they are taught to be open and aware of God’s great mystery and character. God surpasses our assumptions of gender, God is spirit and God is mystery.[4]

Language deeply affects our young people and it affects them in many different ways and perhaps in ways that they may not even realize as they enter into adulthood. The influence that our culture, the home and the church have on a person begins from the moment they enter into this world. I am strongly convinced that we cannot just start working on carefully constructing our language once a thirteen year old enters our church youth room; it must start in the church nursery and it must start in the home. Both of these are necessary places to begin this growth and understanding. I get tired of hearing well-meaning congregation members or even youth ministers place all of the expectation of faith development on the youth ministry when really faith development for our young people should already be in place way before that time. The church must be a place where we examine the books, music, conversation and curriculum (both intentional and hidden) as a whole that we share with our children at a very young age. As a minister to children I believe it is a great responsibility to aid in building a solid foundation of the Christian faith within our young people.

Our readings in Japinga and our class discussions have challenged me several ways. First, I have been challenged to recognize that the images, symbols and language that are often being used with our children are not always as extensive as scripture shows us they should be. I enjoyed reading about the ways in which feminist theologians have worked to encourage inclusive language. These revisions are something the church can certainly look at and make changes by. [5] After our first encounters with our readings and through our class discussions I was prompted to immediately go to my church office bookshelves and sort through the imagery and language used within both curriculum and books written for children or children’s ministry. What I found was a pretty good variety of images of God or sometimes no images of God at all in the Bible stories written for children. Yet, I wonder what I would find if I walked into a bookstore and examined the children’s section there? I aim to intentionally continue to add different imagery and stories of who God is to my library as it grows and as I grow in my ministry. I have always believed in the importance of inclusivity, especially after entering seminary, but am now much more sensitive to it than ever before. I believe, more than ever that there is a need to carefully select resources and curriculum. And, not necessarily to throw every resource that has images of God as a man or father out the window but to intentionally provide additional books and images and conversation for kids to explore different characteristics of God. Children are highly impressionable and even the images we use can convey some sense of meaning to them, even if it is unspoken.

Second, there is a great need to educate volunteers and parents and guardians concerning their use of language as they instruct and guide children. I was challenged by the point Japinga brought up in the “Language of God” chapter pointing out the problems of the ways that we speak of God. [6] By using predominately male language, the church is teaching that God is a male, making God difficult for some to relate with. We must recognize and be careful with our imagery for when we only express God as a father figure; we are creating an image of a God that some may feel correlates with their own personal experience that is not always a positive one. A child who has encountered an abusive or absent father may have trouble relating to a God who is explained continuously as a father. It is important to recognize the other characteristics of God found in scripture: alpha and omega, lion and lamp, mother, eagle, light and love. Through educating our volunteers and parents about ways they can be more careful about their language about God, we can help our children hear more voices of consistency about this truth.

Third, there is a need to have conversations with children about who God is, their view of God and their own self-image. Of course, these conversations will develop from first educating those who are in conversation with children. Our kids are growing up in a culture where they are implicitly taught that all of their worth is formed through what they can do and how successful they can be at those things. Kids (and adults) need to hear that they are created in the image of a God who is a mysterious and wonderful God and not one bound by the gender constructs of our time. What a beautiful thing it would be for children to be able to recognize that God is at work all around them and within them throughout their everyday lives. Children must be encouraged to see that God is in the wayside flower and the smile of a friend at school and that God is not an absent father or a perfection demanding mother. It would be a powerful thing to pull apart these metaphors, to share with children new ideas about God, to inspire them to see God all around them and know other language besides the language often given to them in the church, the culture, the media and even in our children’s books.

The beautiful thing about children and youth is that they are generally open and excited to learn new ideas and concepts as long as they are explained in a way in which they can developmentally grasp. Children especially respond well to the mystery and wonder of a God who we have difficulty understanding. They are not as wrapped up in thinking of God in particular ways. I am challenged to be intentional about helping young people think for themselves and to give them more insight in the realm of faith and in the God that we worship. I hope to encourage them to wonder about God and seek understanding of God in their own personal ways, understanding themselves as loved, created and fully capable of being a part of God’s plan for their lives as well as understanding that others are beloved children of this wonderful and mysterious God.


Japinga, Lynn. Feminism and Christianity an Essential Guide. Nashville, TN : Abington Press, 1999.

[1] (Japinga 1999, 21)

[2] (Japinga 1999, 58-59)

[3] (Japinga 1999, 56)

[4] (Japinga 1999, 55)

[5] (Japinga 1999, 60)

[6] (Japinga 1999, 57)

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