By Elijah Keay
“Blasphemy!” is what many Christians are saying concerning Ariana Grande’s song, “God is a Woman.”
What makes this worse for some, is that the song and video are infused with images and lyrics that promote feminist messages to its listeners. It’s a song that promotes female empowerment and a disregard for the belittling and shaming sometimes doled out by men. No doubt the message of female empowerment, even without the sexual overtones and vague theological statements, is unacceptable for some Christians. If you don’t believe me, just read this review of Captain Marvel.
And while one can only speculate about what it is that Ariana Grande is really asserting by tying female sexuality with the statement: “You’ll believe God is a woman,” she does say that her song is about “sexual female empowerment,” so I want to offer my take on the ideas of God’s gender and what Ariana Grande might be doing (and I use the words “might be” intentionally here) in her popular yet controversial song.
Biblical Descriptions and Depictions of God
One of the objections to a female God is that God is often depicted in a masculine way, given male pronouns, and is even referred to as “Father” and “Abba” in the Bible.
For instance, Isaiah 64 states that ” Yet, O Lord, you are our Father…” In the Gospel narratives, we find that the famous “Our Father” prayer comes from Jesus himself.
I don’t think anyone, not even Ariana Grande, would deny this.
However, before we make up our minds here, we ought to consider a few more ideas. First, let’s examine the culture in which the Hebrew tradition was formed.
The Scriptures were written in a patriarchal, ancient society.
While there are stories that break from this mold, the Bible has a predominantly patriarchal tone. Do you ever wonder why we have constant references to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” instead of the “God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel/Leah”? Or, have you ever taken a close look at the stories of Lot in Genesis 19 and the Levite’s host in Judges 19, and how they offer their daughters (who don’t have a say in the matter) to a gang of men? Or take a look at Genesis 29-30 where Bilhah and Zilpah, whom Laban gave to Rachel and Leah to be maids, are forced to have sex with Jacob and bear children for Rachel and Leah. It’s a passage that should sound familiar if you have seen The Handmaids’ Tale.
So, in a culture that elevated masculinity, is it unreasonable to expect an increasingly monotheistic religion to refer to their deity in masculine language?
Furthermore, it appears that the Hebrew God, YHWH, was originally thought of as a male deity as opposed to (and perhaps at some points the husband of) Asherah, the female goddess also known as the “Queen of Heaven” in Jeremiah. So, YHWH was the male God of Israel, and when Israel cleared away all of the other gods they were inclined to worship along with YHWH, the only deity remaining was the male deity, YHWH.
Yet even within the patriarchal and ancient world of the Bible, there are descriptions of God that catch us off guard.
For instance, the Bible sometimes describes God with feminine imagery.
Boaz tells Ruth, whose pursuit of Boaz challenges our traditional rules for romantic relationships, that God is like a mother bird who gives refuge to her (a metaphor that Jesus uses later when talking about Jerusalem). Deuteronomy says: “You forgot the God who gave you birth.” Furthermore, speaking on behalf of God, Hosea states: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I bent down to them and fed them.” There are more examples like these.
But some may suggest that these extraordinary examples only metaphorically describe God in feminine language. It never says that God is female. The Biblical authors never call God Mother, neither do they use a feminine pronoun when referring to God.
That’s true. We’ll come back to that idea of metaphorically describing God.
But first, let’s look at an understanding of God that may help us in the long run.
All of humanity—not just men—are fashioned in the image of God.
According to Genesis, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” a passage which at least means that male and female humans—not just one or the other—comprise the image of God.
If women are included in the “image” and “likeness” of God, then what does that say about God’s gender? Can God really be male?
If God is spirit and isn’t made up of chromosomes, chemicals, hormones, organs, glands, etc. (physical characteristics people often use to categorize creatures), then what is there about God’s nature which determines God’s gender?
Perhaps this is why adherents of Classical Theism believe that God transcends femaleness and maleness.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, when talking about the unbegotten Christ, remarked upon the absurdity of either a gendered or hermaphrodite deity when he says in Oration 31 that “may be you would consider our God to be a male, according to the same arguments, because he is called God and Father, and that Deity is feminine, from the gender of the word, and Spirit neuter…”
Likewise, in his commentary on Isaiah, St. Jerome suggests, “No one ought to be scandalised in this matter because in Hebrew the Spirit is spoken of in the feminine gender, when in [Latin] the masculine gender is applied, and in Greek the neuter; for in the Godhead, there is no gender.”
At this point, you may be thinking: “So God isn’t male or female, therefore it must be wrong to say that ‘God is a woman.’”
But before I address that, I think it is important to step back for a moment and interrogate ourselves as to why we think that it is good to talk about God—who, as we noted above, transcends gender—using only male language, but blasphemous to talk about God using female language.
God of the Oppressed
Humans need ways of talking about God, and the ways we think about and describe God will affect the ways we think about and act towards ourselves and others.
Let’s consider the metaphors Israel used for God. Israel described God in many different ways. For instance, God is likened to a potter, a shepherd, a refuge, a rock, a parent, a warrior, a fire, etc.
Can one find God sitting at a potter’s table, or can one locate the rock which is God? No, of course not. But these metaphors described God in a way that was needed at the time or at least made sense in their historical situation.
For instance, the Jewish tradition sometimes takes their oppressors’ metaphors and uses these metaphors against them. In the book describing God’s delivering Israel from Egypt, God is described like the images of pharaoh, smiting enemies with “a strong and a stretched out arm.” It appears that, when confronted with the threat of an Assyrian Suzerain, Judah formulated Deuteronomy which depicts God as the Suzerain creating a treaty with Judah, demanding loyalty.
The community that produced the Hebrew tradition crafted or borrowed these depictions of God because they made sense and were often needed in their context. Many times, these depictions of God were creative challenges to the powers that be.
Furthermore, we often find that the Bible portrays God as the God who is on the side of and even identifies with the oppressed against their oppressors. In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies with the stranger, the naked, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, and the incarcerated.
Does God hunger, thirst, need shelter, need clothes, need looking after?
Of course not.
But, according to Jesus, God is so tied to them that caring for them means caring for God and neglecting them means neglecting God. In this way, God is described as being encountered in and even one with our less fortunate sisters and brothers.
These sorts of Biblical ideas and the reality of oppression are what helped shape James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. In it, Cone argues that, since the Bible places God on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors, and since blackness has become nearly synonymous with peoples who are and have been oppressed, God must be black. A colorless God wouldn’t be helpful, for it would imply that God doesn’t identify with the oppressed on account of their race or skin color. And since whiteness has been a symbol of domination and colonization, God cannot be white. For God to be white would mean that God sides against People of Color. Instead, God identifies with the marginalized and in opposition to those who marginalize, therefore God is black.
God as Female
Much of the world has a long history of looking down upon that which was considered feminine at the time and glorifying that which was considered masculine at the time.
According to Rob Stegmann, Roman architecture often portrayed the Romans themselves as strong, masculine male soldiers and attempted to shame conquered peoples by depicting them as women. In other words, the conquered peoples were emasculated by their more masculine conquerors.
In his dissertation, Stegmann states: “While the possession of a penis does not of itself infer masculinity, understood as a socially constructed phenomenon, the physical, fleshly penis within a patriarchal economy represents power. In other words, the penis is metaphorically reconfigured to become “the abstract representation of male power, focused and figured as a penis” (Buchbinder, 2012: 75); the penis becomes the phallus; the phallus is the symbol of masculine power.”
Kelly Olson, in her article on masculinity and sexuality in Roman antiquity, remarks,
Roman sexual ideology seems to have divided the world up into “penetrators” and “those penetrated.” The penetrator was an adult male of citizen status who by his active sexual role also configured himself as dominant and masculine. It mattered little whom he was penetrating, or which orifice, as long as he took the active role.’ The penetrated partner was characterized as womanish, servile, and emasculated—a role well suited to slaves, prostitutes, and women but problematic if filled by another adult citizen male.
So in the ideals of the Roman Empire, the active partner, the one penetrating, and the penis are the symbols of strength, domination, and manliness, and things haven’t changed as much as some may think. After all, isn’t it common to call cowards or wimps “pussies,” and isn’t it common to tell a cowardly man to “grow a set,” because a “ballsy” action is a brave action? And isn’t it common to hear someone say, “Man up!” and “Stop being such a girl,” implying that manliness is synonymous with courage and strength as opposed to womanliness?
So what could Ariana Grande be doing by using words tying God to female sexual power and by symbolically employing the use of female anatomy throughout her video?
It appears to me that Ariana Grande is advocating a liberation of female bodies by reversing the societal gender-power structures presupposed and inherited in much of the world, and she is trying to achieve this by elevating symbols of female sexuality to a preeminent position verbally, in historical artistry, and in cosmology.
And this, she asserts, will cause her audience to believe that God—rather than being a male deity who is on the side of men and thereby (whether implicitly or explicitly) justifying their historical status as the dominant, more-god-like sex—is a woman.
So rather than her statement being blasphemous, it might very well be right in line with what the authors of the Bible are frequently doing: placing God on the side of the oppressed and describing God in ways that are relevant and needed at that time.