Gender-Inclusive Language

A post I recently wrote and then deleted (‘My own powerlessness’) touched on a few subjects, and although it was unwise and indelicate of me to discuss the initial issue in it, not least because I had misunderstood what was going on, some of the other issues that surround that post are worth talking about again, and at least letting my own views be heard properly.

First, I am in many ways a deep traditionalist. My love for the Book of Common Prayer, for example, is fuelled not only because I think its orders for worship helpful and its theology true but because they are beautiful and stand firmly within a wider western — and, to a degree, eastern — liturgical tradition. When I pray or sing those words, I am joining a centuries-old body of people who have also done so, and an even older and broader body who have done so in various other languages.

This love of the old (I am a Classicist, after all) and of the old-fashioned or even archaic, if you will, tends sometimes towards phraseologies that, because of how language is used today, can have the appearance of exclusion and, indeed, can make women feel excluded. And making half (or more) of the human race feel excluded is, in fact, a problem.

As a writer, I try to avoid ‘sexist’ language. This is not always successful, because English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. As a grammar fiend, I would shudder to use ‘they’ in the singular. This is what Anne Fadiman discusses in her brilliant essay, ‘The His’er Problem’ in the fantastic book Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Some of you may have noticed me use the verbal mash-up ‘his’er’.

As well, sometimes I get caught up in words and phraseologies that strike me and move me. Since I read a lot of old books, the older, etymological use of man(n) (and thus mankind) to mean ‘any human being’ vs. its contemporary use ‘a male human being’ (formerly wer in Old English) sometimes slips into my writing — specifically my blogging, and at times my speech, but not what little academic writing I do.

I am also a bit of a translator and a reader of texts that are often translated. And here I think trying to find gender-inclusive terms for foreign gender-inclusive terms is a worthy endeavour, not only because of the normal issues attendant to gender-inclusive language but also because it can be a more precise way of speaking. Does the writer say ‘men’ or ‘human beings/people’uiri or homines? Sometimes there is certainly a chance that an ancient writer was only thinking of male men when writing homo or anthropos, but my job as translator is to present an English rendering of the words at hand, not necessarily their intention. Hopefully the reader can decide for his’erself.

One of my translation problems with the NRSV is not that it translates anthropoi as ‘people’ or adelphoi as ‘brothers and sisters’ but that when Peter is explicitly masculine in Acts with Andres Israelitai, the translators render it as ‘You that are Israelites.’

However, I am not fond of changing the words of hymns for any reason (see here and here). And this is the contingent point of my last post, not the question of gender-inclusive language. A hymn is a poem is a piece of art from its own time and place, often a time and place more sexist than ours, but also often one where the older meanings of ‘man(n)’ are more clear. I am wary of changing things because they do not match zeitgeist — the desire to change for this reason is often followed by other changes, some aesthetic (getting rid of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’), some theological (getting rid of lines such as ‘Thou our Father, Christ our brother’). I also think a jarring encounter with the past can be helpful in curing us of modern chauvinism. Finally, many times the metre and rhyme-scheme depend on a less-inclusive turn of phrase. The attempts to change are often awkward.

I also think we should not condemn older generations for their use of ostensibly sexist language. Oftentimes, they were being sexist. But maybe they weren’t. We cannot always tell. So it is not worth getting worked up over, especially if in most other ways, what a particular author writes is commendable rather than condemnable.

Contemporary writers, even if they don’t fully grasp the significance of the issues, should use gender-inclusive language for generic human beings. This is just good sense. It removes a barrier from the reader’s mind, and helps women and men who are more sensitive than I am to be able to engage more fully with the text in front of them.

My final note on where I stand with gender-inclusivity is that I am still a traditionalist when it comes to the Godhead and specific human beings. Using the word manhood in reference to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is no problem — he was a man. Thus, in telling a story, say ‘salesman’ or ‘saleswoman’, not ‘salesperson’ (the term used if you are advertising a job vacancy). Using terms endorsed by Scripture of the Trinity is no problem — Father and Son. I am not in favour of removing these terms for vaguer terms that refer to the economy of the Trinity, because that could slide into modalism and ignores the relationships of the Persons involved.

And I am not in favour of using mother-language of the Father, although mothering images as used by Scripture and writers such as John of the Cross (who refers to us suckling at God’s breast) I get. They are probably best used when they can be explained, because if simply slipped into a hymn or the liturgy, they will cause more frustration and anxiety, whereas at least in a book or sermon there is a chance to helpfully challenge our paradigms of how we envision the Divine Person(s).

Reading the Bible (pt. 1)

So, let’s say that my first, second, and third posts on reading the Bible have made you, a biblically illiterate person, interested in reading the Bible.  However, you say to me, the Bible is a large, unruly beast, very big and full of all sorts of things.  Indeed, to the newcomer, various things could be seen as deterrents:

-Genealogies

-Long, complicated laws governing the ceremonial, civil, and personal lives of ancient Hebrews

-Lists of people who did stuff

-Trippy visions and prophecies that are hard to understand

-Psalms of a repetitive nature

-Prophecies of a repetitive nature

-Etc.

I’m sure there are other things that would dissuade many a newcomer from getting far into the Bible.  But let’s say you’re willing to surmount these obstacles and start reading the Bible.  Where do you begin?  What do you do?  I would like to recommend three things today:

1. Don’t begin by grabbing books about how to read the Bible (books about reading it as literature or as reading it as history or books that demythologise it or books about how to read it for all its worth or whatever).  These books may have value, but my experience is that if you start with a book about the book you want to read, the task will seem just way to daunting and you may never actually get around to any substantial reading in the book at hand.

Once you’ve started reading the Bible and have read portions of it, having such a book at hand may be very helpful.  But do not read a book like that at the start.  On the other hand, I think a good study Bible that has footnotes explaining tricky passages may be very helpful to the first-time reader.

2.  Don’t read it straight through from Genesis to Revelation.  The genealogies will get the genealogophobes down before Genesis is through, the laws will cut out the antinomians towards the end of Exodus, and so forth.  Although I don’t  recommend large books to help you get through a large book, I do recommend guides that give you outlines for getting through it.  These are best short and brief.  Like: “Day One:  Genesis 1; Day Two: Genesis 2”.

As well, if you wish to become acquainted with the Bible, don’t imagine that you have to read the whole thing in a brief span of time.  You can try.  People have done it.  But since it is so large and so varied, take a guide that gives you day-by-day, bit-by-bit readings or that gives you a general direction and then read manageable portions of the Bible on a regular basis.

3.  Finally, you need a Bible. No translation is perfect.  Scholars today like the NRSV (it has study Bible editions in the New Oxford Annotated Bible and the Cambridge Annotated Study Bible), although sometimes its gender-neutral translations leave much to be desired, especially in prophetic passages wherein “he” becomes “they”.  I grew up with the NIV (it has its own NIV Study Bible), and I’m generally okay with it, although it apparently has some troubles translating Paul.  If you’re used to reading Jacobean English, the KJV is also a good option, and ties in well with reason to read the Bible #1.  I’m sure someone has a study Bible based on it, too.  And if you know ancient Greek and Hebrew, you’re laughing!