Blue Like Jazz and the God-Man

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

“What do you mean God isn’t an old white European male? When did that happen? That’s exactly who it was, last time I saw a Sunday School flannelgraph…”

You know? I’ve tried. And recently I tried again to pick up books from Donald Miller’s catalogue to make my way through them. And yet, despite the number of times I’ve been told how refreshing they are, how these books open up a whole new world of Christian faith, how we’re able to blow apart the box we’ve created for God, I’ve still got some issues. Maybe it’s just me…If I were capable of speaking objectively, I’d talk about many life-giving aspects of these stories. I like the flow, the heart-on-sleeve honesty, and the On The Road kinda feel.

But here’s my problem. And maybe it’s just that this has become my new Kryptonite, but the capital-He God still really bugs me. And He is everywhere in those books. He’s in multiple sentences per page. He just looms throughout the stories. And I suppose that could be quite intentional. 

I don’t know when it happened, when I moved on from old white male God. I haven’t even read The Shack, although I think I might like it. But it seems that sometime recently, no matter how fluid the prose, no matter how innovative and improvised the lyrical flow, capital-He God has become incompatible with my system.

Rewind ten years. I was attending a meeting of QCF, the Intervarsity group at Queen’s University in Kingston. A couple of guest speakers had come in that Wednesday night to talk about something. I actually can’t remember quite what they were actually going on about. They were visiting from California, or some other far-away place, and may (or may not) have been former students in Kingston. Whatever the case, in the process of their talk, they referred to God as “she.”

For this kid who grew up in Capital-He-God, Capital-E Evangelical land, this was a bit of a shock to the system. My God-box was under siege.

And yet, over years of processing this, of working to dismantle the white-man-with-long-white-beard-in-the-sky images of God, I’m coming to retrospectively appreciate that unsettling moment in my life. It was in the midst of a troubling time, a time of doubt, a time of really wrestling with how or if Christian faith could actually say anything about the world I was encountering for the first time. And it was another piece of my worldview that had fallen to the ground.

That was a time in my life where the worlds of existentialist philosophy, and sexual history, and postmodern literature were all a part of my studies. Each of my classes was contributing to this questioning of my neat-and-tidy God-box. Each of them offered new challenges.

I don’t know what it was, but part of it was that I hadn’t really faced challenges before. I had been comfortable in my faith. I knew the way it was, I knew I had accepted Jesus, and I knew that even though I wasn’t okay, God had made everything okay on the cross. I knew the secret handshake, and heavenly paradise was assured.

This one time, after hearing from the Californians, I tested these ideas with the leader of my bible study. I told him I was wrestling with these new notions of God, I was starting to question some assumptions. Reassuringly, I was told not to think about it. “He’s a He in the Bible. Father. Son. Spirit. That’s all there is.”

It didn’t exactly resolve things for me. It wasn’t exactly a comfort, but I did put the questions to the side for awhile. I had enough to worry about without questioning God’s gender identity. Male? Female? Somewhere in between?

Sometime later that school year, after delving deeper into Nietzsche, Sartre, Mann and Foucault, I approached the same bible study leader again. I was wandering through more struggles, trying to reconcile these versions of history, these worldviews with the one I’d inherited. They were at odds, it seemed, to what I’d grown up with. And yet at the same time, many of those struggles were rooted in the contrast between outward appearances and inward reality.

For me, this was the valley of the shadow of doubt, and yet in the midst of all that, my bible study leader told me “all you need is to have more faith.” Looking back, I both get it, and I don’t. In one very real sense, that is the answer. In another, it is completely the opposite – because faith and certainty are not the same thing. And what I think he was actually advocating in those moments, was that I hold on to certain propositions about God, rather than to truly exercise faith in the midst of that palpable tension.

These experiences, these tension and question-filled moments marked a transitional moment in my faith journey. All that was solid may have been melting into air, but at the same time, a sense of freedom and wonder at this new world was emerging.

Part of that emergence included a discovery of the feminine images of God throughout scripture. The discovery of the Wisdom tradition. Starting to see God’s self-revelation as a mother caring for her children. Encountering strong and noble women created in God’s own image (as it was in the beginning). Focusing on the stories of Deborah and Ruth and Esther.

Through all of this, I started to run into descriptions of God’s femininity in passages like Isaiah 49:15, Hosea 11:3-4, or Luke 15:8-10 amongst others. These were not images I grew up with, and yet they were there, in the heart of scripture, pointing beyond the male God-box.

I guess that’s one thing about imaging God. Sometimes we create God in our own image. God may be spirit. We may even acknowledge that God is spirit. And yet, if much of history (and certainly the majority of Christian histority) is dominated by the male voice, perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked to encounter the man-God at every turn.

It’s here that I find myself nodding in assent to Karl Barth’s words: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” This quote comes from before the popularisation of inclusive language, And yet, I’m not sure that in case there’s any need to update it. We’ve spent so much time projecting a male persona on God that maybe, just maybe, this is exactly the corrective we need to make.

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

10 Responses to “Blue Like Jazz and the God-Man”

  1. Kate

    Interesting thoughts Andrew… St. james town misses you. Are you Ottawa committed for the foreseeable future?

    • andrew

      “Interesting…I think you’re crazy,” or just interesting? ;0)

      We’re really enjoying our time here in Ottawa – tho there are still so many friends we miss in Toronto. That said, my work has been both fun and rewarding, and we’re starting to get a feel for the city…I hope things in SJT are going well. Work in the neighbourhood was one of those things I was just getting into at the time we left…I’m sad not to be in the midst of it anymore.

  2. Jeff the Beff

    “But here’s my problem. And maybe it’s just that this has become my new Kryptonite, but the capital-He God still really bugs me. And He is everywhere in those books. He’s in multiple sentences per page. He just looms throughout the stories. And I suppose that could be quite intentional. ”

    I highly suggest you keep reading. I really enjoyed the book, and if I recall correctly, many of the things you have experienced in your life, he experiences as well.

    Blue Like Jazz is very much a biography, where he (Don Miller) talks about his own personal reflections and his growing understanding of the nature of God and Jesus, and the need and responsibility for an authentic personal response to that understanding.

    I like to think that because we are not Gods, we cannot fathom what it means to be God, so humanity makes him into something safe & cuddly that we can understand.

    Good post Andrew, though I am still looking for the Green Day review. :p

    • andrew

      Jeff – Thanks for your comments (it’d be good to see you in real life again soon too!). If CS Lewis taught me anything, it’s that Aslan’s not a tame lion…which is somehow reassuring…that we can’t just nail it all down. I realise that Miller’s story is just that – a biographical encounter with God – and that those stories are never static, that we’re always encountering God in new ways, and in unexpected places (even the most unlikely). I guess this is just something that’s been brewing for a while, and I needed a chance to articulate that process in my own life…

  3. andrew

    Maybe that’s it…maybe it’s about a more holistic understanding and encounter of God. Yet there’s a lot of stuff out there that talks about Christianity losing its masculine edge. I think that Bruxy Cavey’s point in a recent sermon was important – that the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) are not just for the ladies – but all of God’s people was important.

    Not only is God bigger than the box we create, but our response to God needs to be more holisitic in the way we live out our own “biblical manhood” or “biblical womanhood,” realising that we are all called to the same virtues, and to bear the same fruit, whether Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female,…

    I too long to better know this God who is just and all-encompassingly loving – in ways even Dan Brown cannot imagine.

  4. Jim

    I certainly understand that being a hurdle. If you’re trying to get into the flow of a story, and you keep hitting something that turns your stomach 3 times a paragraph, it can ruin the experience.
    I think, in Don’s defence, he (being Mr. Miller) does this (refering to God as He) on purpose (although probably subconsciously). Don has written a lot about his struggle of growing up without a Father, without a positive male role model. I think this is one of the things that resonates with me so much. As such, he (Miller) has taken God (He) to be his “heavenly father” to substitute what he didn’t have here.
    I highly suspect that Don feels much the same way as you about the tension of God being something other (not male, or female), but at the same time the bulk of his readership is a somewhat conservative audience, and as such the word He is acceptable, and flows better that God/He/She/It/Thing/Stuff we don’t understand that would eventually come to replace it.
    Each of us have certain influences that change us. Perhaps Miller isn’t one for you. I still enjoy his writings though.

    • andrew

      Ah, the clarity! Thanks for helping keep the he’s straight – and for pointing back towards some of those autobiographical notes about Miller and his own father. That truly could have something to do with it. I wonder what we’d say to a young man or woman who had lost their own mother, who had been abandoned by her or whatever, and wanted to refer to God as “heavenly mother.” Would that fly?

      Perhaps not in more fundie circles, but perhaps there is some more room for that these days. I’m not sure, although I guess that also begs a question about our own projections of the notions of Mother or Father on the divine. Granted, no descriptor or metaphor is going to be able to sum God up (which is perhaps why there is a diversity of imagery throughout the scriptures to describe God as mother, father, rock, lamb, lion, etc. – and not coincidentally why descriptions of God’s kingdom use such varied imagery as well).

      Certainly we all have a starting point, and particular influences. And this is definitely important to remember when we encounter one another, whether through words on a page (or blog), or in real life. Thanks for those insights, Jim!

      • Jim

        “Metaphor is all we’ll ever have to describe God” (probably mis-quoted, but the idea still comes across)

  5. Randy Gabrielse

    Very interesting Andrew.

    I just commented to a friend the other day how in the 1980s, my Dad joked about God how surprised Christians would be to find that God is an African American female, and get ironic chuckle sorts of responses. Now, it seems that even as conservative Christians are able to expand some notions of God, this one becomes ever more taboo.

    Randy Gabrielse

  6. Mark Petersen

    I’m with you Andrew. Thanks for this great post today.


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