What should you do when the traditional language of worship becomes a barrier between worshipers and God? Answering this question is one of the most important tasks facing pastors, church musicians, and others who prepare and lead the church’s services of public prayer.
In a review of Elizabeth Johnson’s new book Quest for the Living God, Amy Plantinga Pauw, refers to “the strategy of subtraction,” which she says is “currently in vogue in some mainline churches.” The problem with this strategy is that it “results in a very restricted vocabulary for prayer and praise.” The book under discussion bears as its subtitle “mapping frontiers in the theology of God.” Thus, Pauw’s comment deals specifically with God-language, and in particular with the exclusive use of male and hierarchical language with respect to God.
When we use the strategy of subtraction, we excise the unwanted language and make do with what is left. Since this male-gendered language dominates Biblical and classical prayer language, much of the tradition is rendered unusable by the strategy of subtraction. One reason for rejecting Father as a title for God in public prayer is that some people have had unhappy experiences with their fathers; therefore, these life experiences stand in the way of their praying when Father is the title used.
The same logic, however, quickly reduces the language even more. In recent weeks, national news has featured stories of mothers who have abused and in some cases murdered their own children. Therefore all motherly language has to go. And the experience that some people have had in their families—experiences of abuse, neglect, domination—mean that all references to family must be discontinued. When we correct problems by subtracting what bothers us, we quickly come to what may be even deeper problems: skimpy language, abstract language, empty language, insipid language, misleading and perhaps faith-diminishing language.
Pauw notes that “even in Protestant traditions in which women have some role in shaping liturgical language, there is disagreement about whether the best strategy is to edit old language, craft new language or, for a variety of reasons, simply to live with a lopsidedly male vocabulary for God in worship.”
The obvious alternative to the subtracting strategy is a strategy of addition. Although I didn’t use that nice term in Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship (a book I published exactly 30 years ago), this is the approach I recommended. We should reduce our use of male vocabulary for God, I proposed, while at the same time increase our use of female vocabulary and other metaphors that are not gender-based.
In his most recent book, Speaking Christian, Markus Borg also proposes a strategy of addition as a way to revise worship. He is discussing the use of a creed in the church’s services of worship. In both the Lutheran Church of his earlier years and the Episcopal Church of his current life, either the Apostles or Nicene Creed has been a standard element. After discussing problems with these classic statements, Borg suggests what I would term a strategy of addition. Instead of excising these two ancient statements, Borg proposes that they be continued but in rotation with other more recently developed statements that declare the core of the Christian faith in ways that are useful to Christians today.
If we have to choose between these two strategies, my preference is for the strategy of addition. By increasing the number of metaphors, any one of them is modified in scale and scope. We have so many to choose between that we cannot easily limit our focus on one or two. When we decrease the number of metaphors, in contrast, those few that remain are elevated. Because we have so few alternatives, we have to settle for one of those remaining to us, no one of which may be adequate.
Another way of resolving these problems identified by Pauw is to edit and revise the language of prayer. This strategy has an important place, but first we need to deal with the contrasting approaches of subtraction and addition. Once we are clear on this point, we will be better able to take on the much more challenging task of editing, revising, and improving the church’s language of praise and prayer.
Amy Plantinga Pauw teaches at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Her review of Elizabeth Johnson’s “Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God” (Continuum) appears in “Christian Century,” July 26, 2011.