The Dennison family got cable television in 1984. I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish. I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day. However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs. To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.
In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music. Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car. A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs. Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well. No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.
My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also. I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.
To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <email@example.com>
Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700
Subject: Re: hi
I finally have a few minutes to sit and write. It has been such a busy week! I’ve had a lot of work to do. Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).
Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing. This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails. I continued reading.
I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like. The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.” Do you know that song? Is that one of your Christian bands? How is your class going? One more week, right? Talk to you later. Love, Mom
I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music. If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.” A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.
Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville. I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.” Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church. The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.” Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol. Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God. I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.
The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church. I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend. I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station. Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable. God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me. The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996? Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.
“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members. “How are you?”
“Doing well. One more week of class.”
“Nice! Are you taking a class second session?”
“No. I’m just going to hang out. And I’m moving at the start of September.”
“Me too. I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know. I’m going to have my own room for the first time! I’m not going to need my bed loft! Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”
“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested. I’m going to be sharing a room. How much?”
“I was thinking fifty dollars. We can talk about it later. I’ll let you know.”
I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark. “Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Good! We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives. I’m excited about that!”
“Fun! I have my final exam on Thursday.”
“Good luck! I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“When do you go back to California?”
“Middle of September. So I’ll still be here for a while.”
“Good,” I said.
Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass. On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed. I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.
“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible. “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.” I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me. Probably not.
After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose. Lisa walked back to her music stand. I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away. We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away. Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.
“Sorry!” Lisa laughed. “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”
“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.
“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.
“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.
“Yeah,” Lisa explained. “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”
“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.
“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing. Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing. I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine. This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.
Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship. At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching. I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.
“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said. “How are you?”
“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked. “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”
“Sure. What’s your schedule like this week?”
“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2. I’m free tomorrow.”
“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon? Around one o’clock, maybe?”
“That sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
“Yes. See you tomorrow.”
I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving. That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward. The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived. I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.
“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said. “Take a seat.” I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”
I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right. “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me. It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”
“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”
I paused. It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad. I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”
“Well, God is not a man. God has both male and female attributes.”
“Then why is this a problem for you?”
“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat. “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”
“Church teaching has changed. And so has language. It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”
I nodded, but inwardly cringed. I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables. It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed? I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable. Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.
However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman. I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.
“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible? And the word of God doesn’t change.”
“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated. “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus. And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that. You agreed that God has male and female attributes. So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”
I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”
“Pray about it. Pray that God will give you peace about this.”
“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where?”
“The Newman Center. I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.” I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.
“Greg, no one is perfect. Everyone sins. That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”
I nodded. “That makes sense,” I said.
“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long? Two years now? I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”
“May I pray for you?”
Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same. “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg. I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community. I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings. I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.” She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”
“I’ve been trying to do that.”
“Good! Keep doing that.” We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.
Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner. My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand. Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes. “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.” My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on. It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.
I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought. God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible. Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same. A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word. I hope you do meet him someday.
But that in no way makes women second-class citizens. Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom. And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.
I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine. I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine. “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her. Tell me, am I very far?” I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him. Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.