Last time I was up north visiting my parents, I had tea with my surrogate grandmother. Stephanie is a lovely old British lady who’s now nearing eighty. She is rather concerned about the spiritual wellbeing of my two little boys and inquired if I had a good children’s book of bible stories to read to them. As a matter of fact, I’d just picked up the same book she’d given me to read when I was seven years old. Stephanie was thrilled.
A few days later, I found myself on the sofa with A. perched beside me. “Living in God’s World” was spread open on my lap, while he looked skeptically at both the thickness of the book and the high text-to-picture ratio. I launched in and got pleasantly carried away by the familiar old stories that I used to love so much as a child. I have memories of reading this exact same book, curled up beside my aunt and mother.
Despite the nostalgic déja-vu as I read to my own small redheaded child (where has the time gone?), it was eye-opening to read the children’s bible stories from an adult perspective. I immediately became uncomfortable with the brutal violence of these Old Testament tales. I skipped over Cain and Abel, but not before my son saw the illustration of Cain striking Abel, with blood running down his face. I skipped Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Too disturbing. I tried to explain Rebecca’s preferential treatment of Jacob and their mutual deceit toward Esau, but my son remained confused why they treated each other like that. I skipped the polygamous marriage of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. I skipped Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Then I gave up.
This experience was upsetting to me because I care deeply about the spiritual upbringing of my children, but these are not the stories I want to read to my child. They are all about the “warrior-father-omnipotent-king” god, a thoroughly male god, a male savior, male disciples, male leaders, male domination, male-initiated militarism, male achievements — and all the men are depicted as white-skinned. The women are mostly silent, invisible, disenfranchised, undervalued; basically, there just aren’t many of them. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of The Woman’s Bible, estimates that only 10% of the actual bible has anything to do with women.)
Frankly, I’m just tired of Christianity in all its patriarchal oppression. I’ve not given up entirely on the faith of my childhood, but I’ve got one foot out the door because I don’t know if feminism is compatible with a religion that shoves a white male god at people. I want bible stories that are free from gender pronouns. God is simply “god,” or else “mother god,” which fits much better into my perception of what god would be like and how I want my boys to think about god.
I like the idea of the “Five-Finger Test” for children’s bibles, as suggested by Melanie Dennis Unrau in her article, “Where are the girls in children’s Bibles?” (Geez, Spring 2013) The test includes:
(1) Are there gender pronouns for god?
(2) Do illustrations represent main bible characters as people of colour?
(3) Is there sufficient critique of power that exposes problems with sexism, empire, militarism, and racism?
(4) Do half or more of the stories include women or girls as persons who speak or act?
(5) Do half or more of the pictures show women or girls?
If the book fails this test, it won’t be read in our home.
I would like to feminize god on the home front. From now on, god will be a “she.” I will have failed my children and my gender if I passively carry on the tradition of indoctrinating them in a male-centric view of Christianity that doesn’t give women the equality and voice they deserve.
It’s time to get “the church ladies” out of the kitchen and into the pulpit. (Let’s put the men on coffee duty for a change.)
It’s time to offer free childcare at every church event.
It’s time to talk about the women in the bible and demand that educational materials show gender and racial equality for the children of the 21st century.
Let’s picture god as an elderly black woman instead of an old white man. When I’m next in church, I’ll be starting the lord’s prayer with “Our mother, who art in heaven.” Soon there will be two more little voices chiming in along with me. That’s a start.
“It is through disobedience and rebellion that progress is made.” Oscar Wilde