Author mines Bible for images to describe the indescribable

By Lauren F. Winner
Published by HarperOne, $24.99

Reading Lauren F. Winner's Wearing God is like having a chat with her over coffee. This book is written in conversational chunks and the structure is not always immediately apparent. That being said, it is not a disorganized work. The intellectual stream that runs through this friendly chat is an examination of our unending attempts to interpret the metaphors of the Bible and to further describe God in a way that makes the ineffable knowable.

The author notes that most churches use repetitive images of the Trinitarian God, such as God as a king, a shepherd, a lamb, a dove, a physician or light. Although Winner grants that traditional metaphors have some "true and helpful things to say about God," she writes, "I began to realize that my pictures of God were old."

In an effort to break free of the old images, she returns to the Bible to explore the question, "What pictures, what images and metaphors does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might those pictures invite?"

Winner, a convert from Judaism who is now an Episcopal priest, walks comfortably through both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in her hunt for evocative imagery. Her discussions and descriptions are elaborated with quotes and commentary from saints, rabbis, theologians and contemporary writers.

The tone is often light, but there is a tension in this exploration. Groundbreaking feminist theologians like Mary Daly, Judith Plaskow, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible have helped us understand the influence of (and damage from) biblical metaphors for God. Reading Winner's book in the light of these pioneering scholars' insights is slightly discomfiting because she does not shy away from biblical descriptions of the angry God, the landlord God, the abusive God.

Winner projects both old and new language about God onto her own contemporary experiences. Again, this invites the reader to grapple with the danger that God-talk poses.

She uses the metaphor of laughter as an example. Winner points out that there is the God who laughs in delight with Abraham when God tells the old man that he will have a son, yet God's laughter turns derisive when Sarah laughs in disbelief regarding the same news.

Winner notes, "Generally, when God laughs in the Bible, the laughter is derisive." What, then, can we learn from the metaphor of a laughing God?

Still, there are many positive metaphors. The author begins with a discussion of "the God that runs after your friendship." She describes the Jesus of John 15, who not only seeks the disciples' friendship, but also dies for his friends.

She also delightfully relates her personal experience of God the Jewish grandmother. Many readers will recognize the narrative of guilty feelings regarding an elder who longs for a visit — a visit that is constantly being put off because we are too busy or afraid of boredom, criticism and awkwardness.

Given the title, it is surprising that Wearing God doesn't start the discussion of clothes as a metaphor for God with the expected quote from Paul in Galatians 3: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." Instead, Winner begins this discussion with Genesis and the expulsion from the garden.

When Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness, God "made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them." Winner pictures a sad and tender God who ensures that the wayward children will be clothed, like a parent saying, "I know you have to leave, but here is one last thing I can do for you before you go."

And yet, ultimately, the rustic garments of the expulsion are not God's final act of tenderness toward humankind. As we know from the apostle Paul, the salvific coming of Christ allows us to be clothed in God Godself.

The author is strongest when she takes a new and creative look at some of the old metaphors for God. For example, her discussion of God as fire touches on the traditional images of light, warmth and purification, but also focuses on the fact that fire is beautiful, ever-moving and fascinating: "the God who wants to hold our gaze."

At this point, she takes the reader from envisioning the God who runs after our friendship to the God who is a faithful and passionate lover of humankind. She writes, "The God who wants to hold our gaze — the God who wants to fix our attention and say, Here, look here, look at Me, don't look away — that God is a lover."

Indeed, history tells us that although our attention wanders and wanes, we do ultimately find it difficult to look away from God. Despite the clear futility of it, humanity has been attempting to describe God for millennia.

Winner wisely gives nod to the apophatic philosophers and theologians who assert that we can only say what God is not, but she also affirms that we can formulate infinite metaphors for a God who is "too much" for us to describe.

Our longing to describe God leaves us caught in a dialectical struggle: What metaphors are helpful or unhelpful? What can we say and what shouldn't we say? Is this struggle to describe God an essential part of God's description?

Winner writes, "This dance between saying and unsaying is the way we know it is God about whom we long to speak."

[Melissa Jones is a freelance writer in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and a longtime contributor to NCR.]

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