The following is a guest blog by Bret Powell
There’s nothing new about podcasts, but the subscription-based digital downloads seem to be opening a new door into something that looks an awful lot like “community.” More than just a cult-following of artistic enthusiasm—of the kind that develops around eccentric films, music, television dramas, and many other types of media—these podcast communities are tuning in for a no-boundary brand of discussion and post-modern explorations of society. While the fear to express alternative political and religious opinions has left many feeling marginalized or “herniating on the fence of ambivalence—” teetering somewhere between definitive party platforms and the complexity of social issues, or between denominational identity and the failure of religion to meet the challenges of the culture in a way that does more than simply inoculate it with nostalgia for some golden era of the past—such frustrations are now the vital pulses of a different kind of community: a church. Instability and doubt are now a cause for gathering and commonality. This is the church of honesty and empathy, of expressiveness and profanity, of nuance and complexity, of story and therapy. Here, Jesus is still the Son of God…if you want him to be. But without a doubt, Satan is any semblance of hatred or shaming.
Although labeling these podcast subscribers as a “church” might seem like an exaggerated misnomer, it may be more of a pejorative. Subscribers willingly devote significant amounts of their free time listening and learning—once they recognize that they are entering into a space that is totally free from the humiliation of hellfire and judgment. They connect with people just like them: people who are asking the same kinds of questions and are faced with similar personal situations. Listeners may submit serious questions and social frustrations—all those things they could never comfortably ask a pastor—and they either receive back a thoughtful, reasonably-researched response or a calming assurance that their voice has been heard. They feel compelled to contribute and sustain; to share an offering with the understanding that a little goes a long way when you’re one of hundreds or thousands of others—each sparing a few bucks for some extra content or some special access to bonus material. But these podcast-churches don’t relegate the community experience merely to the web. They actually meet up. They physically gather together. Podcast hosts are invited to the local stage, but they are there to do more than perform. The hosts facilitate communion and belonging. They speak about Jesus as they process the empirical reality. They sing, dance, meditate—all while sharing their inner insecurities and wounding experiences—and the audience is invited to do the same.
Mike McHargue is a leading figure in this phenomenon which he has described as “the church in exile.”1 He hosts the podcast Ask Science Mike, a science-oriented podcast which debuted in January 2015 and had 3,500 subscribers before the first episode even aired. This podcast follows a simple question and answer format, covering any and every topic imaginable within the realm of science, faith, and life. Within six months of the debut, McHargue was receiving enough support on Patreon to quit his job and begin booking live, extended venues at churches and conferences across the U.S. His latest venues in England and Scotland attest to his growing international presence, and he has since authored a best-selling book Finding God in the Waves—which details his journey from the Southern Baptist fundamentalism, through scientistic atheism, into Jesus-based mysticism. McHargue is very open about having no formal education in either science or theology, but he fashions himself a fervent reader and meticulous fact-checker. He’s good. He’s incredibly intelligent and easy on the ears. Together, with Michael Gungor (a former Evangelical, Grammy-nominated worship leader) McHargue co-hosts The Liturgists Podcast.
The Liturgists is the epitome of the podcast-church as described above. The podcast, which began in 2014, now has over a million listeners every month. It is approaching $20,000 a month in donor support on Patreon, which has enabled staff additions and cultural diversification within their recordings and venues. This year they have begun to release video courses which explore meditation and the personality identifications of the Enneagram. The Liturgists are reaching out to a crowd of young, liberal-progressive, post-Evangelicals—which they label “the spiritually homeless and frustrated—“ by providing a place of belonging through music, meditation, and storytelling. This liturgy, defined as the work of the people, decidedly operates through a type of mysticism that is informed by Christianity and Hindu nondualism. The work of the liturgy is personal, cultural, and societal deconstruction which projects towards honesty and, by implication, subjective forms of truth.
One of the more recent episodes from The Liturgists is a release of a live venue in Boston dubbed “God Our Mother.” This particular episode deals with the traditional masculine understanding of God, as Father, and the many layers of authoritarian patriarchy that such an understanding has presumably imposed on Christianity. Though this artistic challenge to the masculinity and fatherhood of God seems typical of the broader postmodern critique, after listening to this episode I noticed some features of the delivery that exhibited an interesting similarity to something quite ancient and not-so-new. Without actually pushing back against The Liturgists’ efforts to question and undermine strictly masculine conceptions of God (which would require turning a blind eye to a litany of biblical expressions which describe God in terms both feminine and neuter), it’s worth considering this gender reversal as one of several inevitabilities that result from a specific form of social awareness. In this write-up, I would like to briefly develop a few noticeable parallels between this episode, “God our Mother,” and select themes that have been observed across the spectrum of Christian Gnosticism.
Anytime I read through the works of an ancient school of thought, especially any so-called heresy, I instinctively try to determine the rationality or motivation that is operating and sustaining the school from within. This has always been particularly true of Christian Gnosticism. St. Irenaeus of Lyons was the first to explicitly name the Gnostic schools and expose them as an opponent to the traditions of Christianity. Irenaeus claimed that greed and carnal interests were at play in the propagation of Gnosticism. However, this explanation easily falls short as the driving force behind Christian Gnosticism which apparently intersected numerous cultures and emerged in a variety of forms. That’s not to say that Irenaeus was entirely incorrect. Nor is it to say that malice hasn’t ever successfully made short work of people’s trust and money. It’s simply to say that it’s often difficult to determine where prejudice ends and a good will effort to understand begins, and accusations of immorality tend to blur that horizon. That’s where breaking down a few notable parallels may be quite helpful in understanding the rationality behind the Gnosticism of old and in making a critical assessment of this increasingly popular pod-church movement.
The Real Fall from Eden
Gnostic Christianity always seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with reinventing and reconstructing the Creation and Fall narratives of Genesis. That these retellings are an obvious abuse of the Hebraic texts (which would have been considered ancient and well-established by the time of the earliest Gnostic texts of the second century AD) is easy to see. As a matter of fact, this is a clear indication that the Gnostics maintained a very low standard in terms of accurately relaying the details of a tradition. Characters, situations, and settings were conveniently borrowed from the Jewish traditions for the construction of a richer myth.2 One key point persisted throughout: Gnostics maintained that culpability for the fallen nature of creation was attributable to some disproportionate relationship with Sophia (a feminine personification of wisdom)—whether it be within an eternal realm of aeons, outside that realm, or as part of a series of incidents within the (evil) material order. Whichever way it was depicted across the diverse milieu of Gnostic literature, this disproportionate or faulty relationship resulted in Sophia becoming the progenitor of an evil, prideful demiurge: the Creator-God of the Old Testament.
In “God our Mother,” The Liturgists invite Dr. Christena Cleveland, of Duke Divinity, to remark on the problem of patriarchy in Christianity. Cleveland begins her synopsis by offering an interpretation of Genesis 3 as a long-standing, patriarchal rejection and cursing of the feminine wisdom—Sophia—which was characterized by the crafty serpent of Eden. Dr. Cleveland contends that the cursing of the serpent constituted a patently misogynistic narrative, given a multi-cultural symbolic correlation between the serpent and the feminine dating back to the earliest days of biblical composition.
However, if Cleveland is correct to interpret the traditional Hebrew narrative of Genesis 3 in this way, then the Gnostic retellings of the creation and fall are but a mere redundancy on the point that the world’s fallenness is the fault of Sophia. In other words, if we follow Cleveland’s interpretation of Genesis 3, it’s reasonable to deduce that the ancient Hebrew narrative (as it was interpreted by traditional Christianity) and the Gnostic narratives are making the very same point. Thus, Irenaeus notwithstanding, there is an unspoken, primitive agreement between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism.
Given the historical incompatibility between the two, this seems unlikely.
Rather unintentionally, Dr. Cleveland is actually just reiterating the Gnostic appeal on two levels by asserting that there is something integrally wrong with the text, meaning, and interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative (in its traditional form) and by insinuating that a disproportionate relationship with the feminine Sophia is the source of what is presently wrong with society.
The Gnostic (Pro)gnosis
In “God Our Mother,” McHargue asks Dr. Cleveland, “How can we possibly create language, liturgy, ritual, and, institution that creates space for all people, especially women, especially queer people, especially people who don’t identify as male?” Cleveland responds, “I don’t think we can create language, liturgy, and institution to do those things because those are all masculine forms of interacting with God…the liturgy is still all about transcendence which is inherently patriarchal, inherently masculine—to rise above the mundane, nitty-gritty parts of life. It’s the feminine, it’s the matriarchal pathways that say, ‘No! Let’s get down into the dirt’…the metaphors that we have for a male God just don’t get us there…”
Much philosophical and theological discussion is aimed at working out transcendence and immanence as they pertain to the relatedness of God and creation. While the way in which these relate to masculinity and femininity is itself an important avenue to be explored, neither transcendence or immanence can expect to receive a proper treatment by simply assuming an equivalency to masculinity and femininity. Ancient Gnosticism gives us the resulting prognosis of such an equivalency: ambiguity and a failure to reverse the claim to power.
Integral to the Gnostic conception of divinity was the inexpressible, eternally transcendent Virgin Spirit. In the second century text, the Apocryphon of John (a text which epitomizes the Gnostic mythos), this Virgin Spirit is largely described in non-gendered terms. However, as a way of emphasizing the transcendent, unknowable nature of the Virgin Spirit, the Apocryphon makes use of specific masculine descriptors. Masculinity is a marker of transcendence. Still, Gnostics were able to claim some knowledge of the Virgin Spirit. And so, as the myth unfolds, it is by an original act of femininity (Ennoia, thought) that this Virgin Spirit begins a complex process of revealing itself through a series of emanating aeons which ultimately form a divine realm. Femininity is a marker of immanence.3 This feminine act, usually called the Barbelo, is described thus:
[The Virgin Spirit’s] self-aware thought (ennoia [feminine in Greek]) came into being. Appearing to him in the effulgence of his light. She stood before him. This, then, is the first of the powers, prior to everything. Arising out of the mind of the Father. The Providence (pronoia) of everything. Her light reflects His light. She is from His image in His light. Perfect in power. Image of the invisible perfect Virgin Spirit. She is the initial power glory of Barbelo, glorious among the realms. Glory of revelation. She gave glory to the Virgin Spirit. She praised Him for she arose from Him. [This, the first Thought, is the Spirit’s image] She is the universal womb. She is before everything.
She is: Mother-Father, First Man, Holy Spirit, Thrice Male, Thrice Powerful, Thrice Named, Androgynous Eternal Realm
It can be observed, in this text and throughout the Gnostic milieu, that transposing male and female into respective categories of transcendence and immanence results in ambiguity. Rather than clarity and understanding, there is a gravitation towards obfuscation. Even so, this categorical function of gender still remains in regular use, and the ambiguity that results is not necessarily unintentional, as one might expect. In this vein, “God Our Mother” features altered renditions of Christian hymns and worship songs in which the masculine designation “Father” and all masculine pronouns are replaced with “Mother” and both feminine and neuter pronouns. Musically speaking, each rendition is beautiful. (In fact, the entire aesthetic of The Liturgists Podcast is always exceptional.) Sang as one musical montage are: the hymn “This is My Father’s Mother’s World;” the poetry of Francis of Assisi, as it is reworked into the worship melody “All Creatures of Our God and King Queen;” Chris Tomlin’s “Praise the Father Mother, Praise the Son;” and the lyric to the worship tune “10,000 Reasons” sings “…worship His Its holy name…—“ each tune being stripped of its masculinity.
Despite the ambiguity, the real deficiency of maintaining a categorical explanation of masculinity as that which is transcendent, hierarchical, and powerful begins to emerge in this process of playing musical chairs with gender-specific pronouns. It would seem that this swapping around amounts to a brash, forced reorganization within a structure that is already broken and is already in need of major revision—with the intention of simply empowering what is female by disempowering that which is male. The impulse is to bring balance or rectify the damages of patriarchy by reifying its failures—making masculinity an absolute category of power. And here, it is crucial to heed the Gnostic prognosis.
As ancient Gnostic texts became widely available after the Nag Hammadi discoveries, scholars like Elaine Pagels began eagerly considering what a feminine conception of God must have meant for hierarchical structures within these communities. It was supposed that such inclusive notions of God must have resulted in a more egalitarian community. However, Religious Studies scholar David Brakke notes that “Since the 1970s… [feminist] scholars, including Pagels, have become less enthusiastic about the roles of women and the feminine in Gnostic myth. For one thing, historians of religion are no longer confident that the prominence of female characters in a religion necessarily leads to greater roles for women in religious communities.”4 Brakke goes on to explain that Gnostic theology operated on the understanding that the female is a derivative of the male.” From this point of view, androgyny is not the union of two equal genders. Instead, it’s the proper incorporation of the female into the more fundamental and superior male.” Referring back to the passage on the Barbelo, above, it’s worth considering that the descriptions “first male” and “thrice male,” as they are applied to a feminine divinity, may be symptomatic expressions of an attempted reversal of power that is being brokered through ill-defined categories of gender. At the very least, a cursory study of Gnosticism should caution us against decrying the power of patriarchy while at the same time working within its structure to rectify marginalization.
Incarnational Pattern of Gender
These parallels of myth, ambiguity, reinterpretation, and the disproportionality of feminine wisdom (along with some not discussed, like the use of folk-myth and an explicit dismissal of the canonical Johannine corpus) each represent an impulse to break from a culture which upholds tradition. But while St. Irenaeus attributed the rise of Gnosticism and its break from tradition to moral misconduct and a pursuit of pleasure, comparisons with the modern-day pod-church might signal a nobler purpose.
For many early Christians, the traditions of divine retribution found in the Hebrew scriptures juxtaposed alongside the traditions of a humble Christ were too great an obstacle to overcome—especially in an era that predated historical and textual criticism. Tradition can be brittle. Narrative-myth, on the other hand, is much more malleable. While some, like Marcion, found that it was easier to excise those problematic texts which depicted God as violent and temperamental, others sought to conceptualize God through a balanced, Platonic hierarchy—a dualistic, philosophical ordering. Yahweh was extracted from this concept and was reinterpreted as an antagonist; an arrogant and evil demagogue. And so, myth, reinterpretation, and the employment of cultural symbolism were crucial to Gnosticism, which attempted to produce a sophisticated theodicy from within a rich Judeo-Christian tradition. Ultimately though, Gnosticism failed on at least two important levels which are relevant to this discussion: first, in saying anything remotely meaningful about God; and, secondly, in achieving inclusivity within ecclesiastical structures. Gnosticism became a consequential pitfall of a religiously- and socially-oriented conscious that refused to be informed by a well-defined tradition.
While these parallels between ancient Gnosticism and The Liturgists’ presentation of “God Our Mother” help construct a possible rationale for a departure from God as Father, together they most clearly embody a struggle to disempower. Not only do they recognize difficulties in the traditional notions of God, but they also exhibit an awareness of failures and injustices within such societal norms as patriarchy. That said, it would be a mistake to suppose that the Liturgists’ objective is to replace patriarchal power with a matriarchal reckoning. After all, Dr. Cleveland envisions a femininity that more closely resembles the human reality—one that is shared by men and women alike. But her comments and the major framework of the podcast perpetuate a fallen, worldly notion of masculinity. To keep from making the same mistake, perhaps we should extend her consideration of femininity more generally and propose that the conceptualization of each gender not be detached from observable characteristics or from sexual functionality within the emergent order. This underscores gender as something which can be studied, understood, and uniquely defined. We can be cognizant of physiological factors, both anatomical (intersex) and psychological (transgender), which may very well inhibit us from resolutely defining the genderedness of the individual human being. But at the same time, we remain wary of cultural trends that would permit us to simply self-identify ourselves into happiness and self-acceptance, completely detached from any concrete biological reality.
Furthermore, perhaps we should hesitate to follow the impulse to simply discard traditional notions of God. What we mean by tradition in Christianity is a point of contention. However, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Restorationist, we maintain the possibility of a true and defined understanding of the Incarnation, whereby the unseen God was made visible as transcendence and immanence were woven together within the womb. The value of tradition is not in doing things one way for nostalgia’s sake; nor in ensuring the oppression of those on the margins of society. Tradition asserts that the truth of God and humanity is oriented around the Incarnation of God in Jesus and that Christianity looks to the Incarnation as the foundational pattern of the created order. This is no small claim! And even if every impulse is urging us to break from it—when the tendency has been for a dominant culture to normalize oppression and for minority cultures to obfuscate distinctions—tradition ought to be prompting us to appropriate gender soteriologically. Within the Incarnation, femininity retains its essential biological character as that which conceives and brings forth, but it is predicated on complete openness and receptivity within an ongoing patriarchal culture of fear and shame. Femininity is enacted in the Marian Fiat, through which there is union with the Spirit and God is thereby made utterly immanent. Meanwhile, masculinity yields its role in the process of conception and turns that role over to the Spirit—only to take it up anew in the life of the good, obedient Son who does the will of his Heavenly Father.
2 Though it may not be relevant to the present discussion, this consequently casts a long shadow over the authenticity of sayings and acts which are attributed to Jesus in those gospels which are known to have originated among Gnostic communities.
3 Irenaeus attests to this multiple times throughout Against Heresies, noting how the Gnostics often related the feminine as substance.
4Lecture 8: “The Feminine in Gnostic Myth”, Gnosticism: From Nag Hammadi to the Gospel of Judas by Professor David Brakke (Joe R Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History) from The Great Courses.
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