Throughout her time as ELCA director for gender justice and women’s empowerment, Mary J. Streufert has heard from many people hungry for expansive, inclusive language and images of God.
She wrote her new book Language for God: A Lutheran Perspective (Fortress Press, 2022) for those people and other readers who need assurance that language and images for God include all genders and ethnicities, who are unsure why language and images for God matter, and who want language for God to be faithful to the Scriptures and to the witness of Christian theological tradition.
She wants the book to help readers “feel the capacity to allow God to dwell among them” through language for God that is inclusive (“of all genders and no gender”) and expansive (“of other beings and things in the world”). Living Lutheran spoke with Streufert about how her book offers scriptural, theological and historical insights into such images and language, using a Lutheran perspective as a compass.
Living Lutheran: Could you tell readers about Language for God?
Streufert: I wrote it for people I have met over the years—congregational members, pastors, bishops, worship leaders, and teachers and students of faith, some of whom don’t understand what the big deal is about almost exclusively masculine language and images for God and some of whom are desperate for others to be willing to transform the language of faith to be multigendered.
The common denominator is that everyone seemed to need theological explanations that were both Lutheran and scriptural. And even though I speak as a Lutheran from within this faith tradition, I think how I use history, theology and the Scriptures can speak to many Christians.
How did you decide to write a book on this topic?
Sitting in a church pew every week with three children who are males made the urgency for a book like this part of my daily life. Their hearts and minds were soaking up a nearly exclusive understanding and experience of God as masculine or male. Children matter too much to me to ignore how much the language and images for God need to be of all genders.
“People have shared their anger, their tears, their shock and their delight with me. It was time to answer them.”
Language for God has been on my mind since I read Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is (Crossroad Publishing, 1992) in 1998. That book fed a hunger that I had no vocabulary for at the time. Ever since, I have needed another layer—one that comes from the Protestant tradition, especially my own as a Lutheran.
And, as I share in the book, people told me how much they ached for language for God that includes masculine, feminine and neutral language and images. People have shared their anger, their tears, their shock and their delight with me. It was time to answer them.
Why is it particularly important for Lutherans to be mindful of using and recognizing inclusive and expansive language and images for God?
Lutherans are oriented to proclaiming God’s grace through Christ. Christians proclaim God’s promise of grace in many ways, including sermons and liturgies.
Martin Luther thought it was the duty of ministers and of every Christian to communicate God’s love. He was absolutely clear that how we speak must be effective. Androcentric (male-focused) language is not effective for many people. It can interfere with faith. So we need to search for language that is effective.
“I hope my book feeds and sustains people in conversation with each other.”
I think the Lutheran concern to effectively communicate God’s grace mirrors how Paul approached people. He wrote to the community at Corinth that he became “all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Early Christians were learning to proclaim grace in many ways.
So this is why the ELCA social statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Call to Action (2019) calls on “leaders and members to enlarge the dialogue about and practice of inclusive and expansive language and images for God” and calls on “the Conference of Bishops, synods, and the churchwide organization to use gender-inclusive and expansive language for God.”
What do you most hope readers will take away from the book?
Curiosity might be the best guide in reading this book. What surprises you? What takes you someplace in the Christian tradition that you did not know about or pay much attention to? In the book I say this is like listening to all the parts of a piece of music and not only the melody.
I hope my book feeds and sustains people in conversation with each other. Maybe after dialogue with my ideas and with each other, readers will look for even more conversation resources and partners to discern faithful transformation of liturgy, educational materials and daily language.