Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Women in the Image of the Son: Being Female and Being Like Christ"
by Kathryn H. Shirt in LDS Women’s Treasury: Insights and Inspiration for Today’s Woman
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1997], 53.

In the popular children's book The Neverending Story, by German author Michael Ende, a young boy reading in an attic is magically drawn into the story and becomes one of the characters. The appeal is irresistible. What reader has not wanted, at some time or another, to pass from observer into participant and to share the adventures and friendships of a new world.

Of course, the experience of entering into the story depends upon finding a magic book, connected with powers beyond the printed page. In fantasy tales such books are never advertised publicly. They always seem to be hidden on dusty library shelves, waiting for the right person, with the proper sensitivity and imagination, to come along and discover their worth.

At first glance such stories strike us as delightful but utterly fantastic. We need to remember, however, that some fairy-tale makers have written their stories not for escapist reading but as metaphors for spiritual reality. As the professor in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia tells the skeptical children when they ask about the possibility of doors into other worlds, "Nothing is more probable."

Lucy Smith recalled that her son Joseph was not the child in the family who read the most but he was the one who pondered most deeply what he had read. When the familiar passage from James, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (James 1:5), struck Joseph with uncommon force, he took the initiative and asked, thus moving into the world of the Spirit, which beckoned from the pages of the Bible. What made Joseph Smith unusual was the extent of his willingness to enter into the real "neverending story" by being receptive to messages and messengers from another world.

Not only could Joseph communicate with ancient prophets but he could also identify with them. As he dictated the Book of Mormon under inspiration, he learned of parallels between the Joseph who was sold into Egypt, Joseph the youngest son of Lehi, and a future Joseph who would be the son of another Joseph. (2 Ne. 3.) Thus while preparing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was faced with a remarkable invitation to liken the scriptures unto himself.

In a fascinating paper on the book of Abraham, Machicko Takayama demonstrates some of the ways Joseph became involved in the experiences of earlier prophets. The scriptural narratives revealed through Joseph are presented in the first person, "I, Mormon," "I, Moses," "I, Abraham." Each of the narratives traces the genealogy of the author to earlier inspired writers, and each story refers to earlier stories. The narratives have a nesting structure, like the layers in the skin of an onion or like a series of Russian dolls, one inside the other. As Takayama writes, "The Book of Moses is the book of Noah is the book of Enoch is the book of Adam is the copy of the Book of Remembrance of God." The endowment ceremony that Joseph introduced to the Saints in Nauvoo carried the story back to the very beginning of time where, in dramatic form, he reenacted the experiences of the creation as if he were Adam.

Although Joseph understood that his prophetic calling was unique, he also realized that, like Moses, his mission was to lead all the children of Israel into the presence of God. He delegated to others the authority that he received under the hands of heavenly messengers. He extended temple ordinances to ever-widening circles of followers. He inspired others to ask God and receive their own answers, to seek their own spiritual gifts, and to see the fulfillment of ancient prophecy in their own lives.

As the historian Richard Bushman has observed, when Joseph presented the ancient city of Enoch as a model for a new Zion society gathered from all the earth, "the sacred history of the past . . . flowed into the Mormon present." Bushman maintains that even today, "the sacred stories of Enoch, Moses, Nephi, Mormon, and Joseph Smith envelop Mormons in the realities of divine power and the redemption of Christ. . . . In the final analysis, the power of Joseph Smith to breathe new life into the ancient sacred stories, and to make a sacred story out of his own life, was the source of his extraordinary influence."

How are we as a people responding to Joseph's challenge to enter into the sacred stories and transform our own lives? What about us as women? Do the scriptures invite women to participate in the realm of the Spirit as powerfully as they invite men? Is it more difficult for women to relate to the scriptures than it is for men? An experience in my own family made me realize how much more difficult it might be.

In a family home evening lesson several years ago, I brought up the story of Nephi's going to the Lord for instructions on how to build a ship. I asked our children if they thought that the Lord could help them do something practical like that, if they had a special need. My eight-year-old daughter's response was immediate: "No, because I'm a girl." She could not identify with Nephi nor relate to his experience, and the reason was gender.

What was behind her thinking? Perhaps it was that the scriptures record so few experiences of women. Although the Book of Mormon insists that God imparts his word by angels unto women as well as unto men (Alma 32:23), those angelic visits are "off the record." Since the sacred texts are written by male leaders of the spiritual community, it is their experiences that are recorded as scriptural, sometimes giving the impression that they have a monopoly on such experiences.

What else was behind my daughter's thought? Perhaps it was the form of our scriptural language. The revelatory language of Joseph Smith's day was Elizabethan English, as represented in the King James Version of the Bible. One of the features of our literary heritage is that when we refer to men and women together, we use masculine nouns and pronouns. To a certain extent, this convention need not be a problem. As Madeleine L'Engle wrote, "I am female, of the species, man. Genesis is very explicit that it takes both male and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both. . . . When mankind was referred to it never occurred to me that I was not part of it." On the other hand, while the word man can refer generically to a man or to a woman, there are instances where man refers only to a male. There are times when it is not appropriate to expand words such as man to include a feminine counterpart. Our family learned that when we attempted to read the scriptures together, substituting "man and woman" for "man" or "son and daughter" for "son." We always had to make decisions about whether the inclusive language was appropriate in the context of the passage. Sometimes we found other scriptures that were similar and obviously inclusive to help us decide. Sometimes we found theological arguments. Sometimes we used clues from the passage itself. One of our sons loved to deliberately misuse inclusive language, referring to sizable armies coming down upon the Nephites as "the hosts and the hostesses."

As we tried to determine when inclusive language was appropriate, we became aware of a significant difference in the religious perspectives of men and women. Where men can freely assume the scriptures are speaking to them personally, women must ponder and weigh the evidence. As they read the scriptures, women must constantly make decisions about whether or not to include themselves in the text.

Is there any way to clarify the ambiguities—to affirm the spiritual potential of women and to demonstrate that the gospel, all of it, really does apply to them? Is there anyone with whom women can identify to make them full participants in the story?

What about the concept of a divine Woman, a Heavenly Mother? Joseph Smith suggested that the logic of the revealed gospel requires a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. It is not surprising that Mormon women cherish the concept. A divine Mother represents a final destination for daughters, someone with whom they can identify fully and without ambiguity.

But even though we have the idea of a Heavenly Mother to whom women can relate without ambiguity, we still have a problem. Our concept of the divine Woman is itself ambiguous. Our scriptural stories give no accounts of her activities, no clues to her personality. Our theology contains no doctrine about how to relate to her.

We are tempted to fill the vacuum with images of a heavenly woman drawn from the earthly condition of women. We envision, perhaps, a nurturing figure devoted to innumerable spirit children but withdrawn from the wider realm of cosmic government. I remember a Primary class, in which someone asked the teacher, "If we have a Mother in Heaven, how come we never hear about her?" The teacher's reply was that God was protecting her name from the kinds of slander that human beings direct toward the names of the Father and the Son. It was a clever reply, and, at the time, we all thought it was quite satisfying. None of us realized then that this answer described a lady not quite up to taking care of herself in a tough world, an image drawn purely from certain human conventions and not from divine reality.

There have been attempts to fill out our idea of Heavenly Mother by borrowing from descriptions of goddesses in ancient cultures. Many of these societies revered powerful female figures who were thought to control fertility and the rhythm of the seasons, representing the giving and nurturing of life. As appealing as we might find the concept of dynamic female deities, however, from the perspective of overall morality, the pagan goddesses are ultimately no better role models than are the pagan gods.

So how do we handle the absence of information about our Heavenly Mother, the divine being who could embody the spiritual identity of women? Perhaps it is easier to understand this absence when we realize that we lack a detailed description of our Heavenly Father as well. The Savior spoke of the Father at every turn, but when Philip asked to be shown the Father, Jesus replied that the Father was made manifest through the Son. "Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?" (John 14:9.)

When we ask about the Mother, might not the Lord give us a similar reply? "He that hath seen me hath seen the Mother." We think of the Godhead as united in purpose and similar in character. If we as Mormons are going to assert the existence of a female Deity, shouldn't we assume that her Son mirrors her perfection as well as that of the Father?

When we take this approach, we see that both men and women can enter into the scriptural story and understand their spiritual potential by identifying with the Savior as "the way, the truth, and the life," the divine ideal and the divine mentor. (John 14:6.) But wait, we might ask. Isn't it important for women to have female role models? Can women learn about their own spiritual potential from a male? And can women be as much like Christ as can men?

In answering these questions, we need to consider the scriptural insistence that Jesus was not a man like other men. One of the limitations of human existence is to be locked into one's narrow perspective, based on one's nationality, social status, education, and gender. With perfect compassion the Savior transcended those limitations, descending below all things to be in all things and through all things the light of truth. (D&C 88:6.)

The Gospels record his ability to step outside the perspective of a Jewish male to see women simply as individuals. In a society where women were not allowed to study the scriptures, he taught the Samaritan women at the well and he excused Mary from serving with Martha in order to study things of more value. Women were not permitted to function as legal witnesses, yet he allowed women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. His parables balanced the shepherd hunting for the lost sheep with the woman hunting for the lost coin. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, "Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them . . . who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend."There have been many questions about whether Jesus was married. Without going into a detailed analysis of the issue, the writers of the gospel portray him as having no mortal wife or child. He is not limited to the role of an earthly husband. He is the bridegroom to the Church. (Matt. 9:14-15; D&C 88:92.) But then again he is the mother hen who would gather her chicks under her wing. (Matt. 23:37; 3 Ne. 10:4-6; D&C 10:65.) The Savior used many images to describe the Atonement—the image of grain being buried in the ground to ensure a harvest, the image of a building being destroyed and rebuilt, the image of a man laying down his life for his friends. (John 12:23-24, 2:19, 15:13.) He also used the image of a woman in labor. (John 16:20-22.)

It is this image of Christ's spiritual suffering to bring forth spiritual life, as a woman suffers physically to bring forth physical life, that reverberates throughout the scriptures. "Inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul," God tells Adam, as recorded in the book of Moses, "Even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come." (Moses 6:59.) King Benjamin declares that because the hearts of his people have been changed through faith in Christ, they have become "the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters." (Mosiah 5:7.) King Benjamin uses dual imagery. Christ has spiritually begotten them—in other words, he has become their father—and they are born of him, in essence making him their mother as well.

Just as the scriptures describe the Savior using both male and female imagery, the scriptures insist that God is serious about women identifying with Christ. In Genesis, we learn that God created man in his own image, male and female. (Gen. 1:27.) The book of Moses adds "in the image of his own body, male and female, created he them" and also "in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him; male and female created I them." (Moses 6:9, 2:27.) There are important differences between the Savior and ourselves to be overcome during our mortal existence, but gender is not one of them. Being female is not something we have to repent of.

According to the book of Moses account, God brings Moses up into a high mountain to speak with him face to face. In that exalted interview, he declares, "I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth." Moses is profoundly impressed to hear that he is "in the similitude" of Christ. When the presence of God withdraws from Moses and he is left to confront Satan, he asks the adversary, "Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?" And Moses insists a second time, "Get thee hence, Satan; deceive me not; for God said unto me: Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten." (Moses 1:6, 13, 16.)

Since all human beings are created in the image of the Savior, as the book of Moses explicitly states (Moses 6:9, 2:27), we can envision God's saying to all of us as he said to Moses: "Thou art after the similitude of mine Only Begotten." Women may thus enter into the story themselves, identifying with the Savior and acknowledging their relationship with him: "For behold, I am a daughter of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten."

There are other suggestions in the scriptures that, since we can all relate to the Savior, we can all relate to the crucial stories detailing the process of salvation, regardless of whether the stories are told about men or women. The same verse which declares that God created male and female in the image of his own body also states that when God created male and female he called their name Adam. This usage reflects the Hebrew 'adam, which can refer to humanity or mankind in general.

With this collective meaning in mind, we see the story of Adam's baptism in the book of Moses as the story of Eve's baptism as well and therefore as the example for all human beings that it is clearly intended to be. After God has explained the plan of salvation to Adam, Adam is carried away by the Spirit of the Lord and immersed in water. When he has been baptized, the Spirit of God descends upon him and he is born of the Spirit. A voice from heaven then declares: "Thou art baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost. This is the record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever; And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity. Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons." (Moses 6:66-68.)

What God says about Adam as his son, and thus about Eve as his daughter, at the time of baptism parallels the identifying characteristics of those who receive eternal life as defined in D&C 76.

•In Moses 6:68 Adam is declared a "son of God." D&C 76:58 calls those who endure to the end "gods, even the sons of God."

•After his baptism by the water and by the Spirit, God tells Adam, "thou art one in me." (Moses 6:68.) D&C 76:59 says of those who overcome by faith, "all things are theirs . . . and they are Christ's, and Christ is God's."

•God informs Adam that "he is baptized with fire, and with the Holy Ghost," implying that a member of the Godhead is present with him representing, or bearing record, of the Father and the Son. (Moses 6:66.) Those who are sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise, according to D&C 76:62, "dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever."

•After his baptism, God tells Adam, "Thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity." (Moses 6:67.) D&C 76:57 explains that the inhabitants of the celestial world "are after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son."

To go through the process of salvation, therefore, is to assume a series of identities in relationship to the Savior by obedience to the first principles of the gospel. We are born into the world as children of God, in the image of his Only Begotten Son. When we are born of the water and of the Spirit, we become sons and daughters of Christ through his atonement. Those who endure to the end in the divine tutorial complete the identification. In the words of John, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him: for we shall see him as he is." (John 3:2.)

It does not yet appear what we shall be because we are in process, but to be in process at all is to have gone beyond the pages of the scriptures and entered into the story. The Savior becomes not only an ideal but a sustaining presence, not only the text but the interpreter of the text, not only an exemplar but a companion. Thus to read the scriptures is to be open to a divine dialogue, to be speaking with another Character in the story.

In his earthly life, the Savior himself entered into this kind of dialogue as a child growing from grace to grace in the image of a parent. He was instructed in the Law and the Prophets and immersed in the traditions of the Jews, yet it was through his close relationship to the Father that the Savior was able to recognize himself in the scriptures and carry out his divine mission. The role of the Messiah, his own special role, was always present in the scriptures, but it was comprehended through personal inspiration.

As women we have several options in dealing with our own scriptural heritage. One alternative is to object to the male language and male culture saturating the scriptures and reject the scriptures as irrelevant to our needs as women. Another option is, as obedient daughters of God, to accept the scriptures but be overwhelmed by their predominantly male perspective and underestimate our own spiritual potential. Relying on the Savior as a model and as a mentor, however, we have yet another approach. We can immerse ourselves in the scriptures and, at the same time, by being open to the influence of his Spirit, relate them to our own lives and circumstances. In the intercessory prayer recorded in 3 Nephi, the resurrected Lord prays that those who believe in him might be purified, "that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me." (19:29.) The intimacy of that relationship overcomes the distance that can be created by any particular form of scriptural language and brings women as well as men into the very center of the story.


1. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan, 1981), p. 46.

2. Machiko Takayama, "The Book of Abraham—A Grammatological Analysis," presented at the Sunstone Symposium. Salt Lake City, Utah, August, 1990, p. 19; copy in possession of author.

3. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), pp. 186, 188.

4. Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980), p. 36.

5. "An interesting sidelight is given to this time through a possible glimpse of the thought-kernel which grew into such fragrant bloom in the full-voiced poem of Sister Snow. It was told by Aunt Zina D. Young to the writer as to many others during her life. Father Huntington lost his wife under the most trying circumstances. Her children were left desolate. One day, when her daughter Zina was speaking with the Prophet Joseph Smith concerning the loss of her mother and her intense grief, she asked the question:

"`Will I know my mother as my mother when I get over on the Other Side?'

"`Certainly you will,' was the instant reply of the Prophet. `More than that, you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.'

"`And have I then a Mother in Heaven?' exclaimed the astonished girl.

"`You assuredly have. How could a Father claim His title unless there were also a Mother to share that parenthood?'

"It was about this time that Sister Snow learned the same glorious truth from the same inspired lips, and at once she was moved to express her own great joy and gratitude in the moving words of the hymn, `O my Father.'" Susa Young Gates, History of the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from November 1869 to June 1910 (Salt Lake City: General Board of the Y.L.M.I.A., 1911), p. 16, footnote.

6. Jolene Edmunds Rockwood, "Jesus and Judaism," 1987 Sunstone New Testament Symposium, 11 August 1987.

7. Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 47.

8. Jolene Edmunds Rockwood, "Eve's Role in the Creation and the Fall to Mortality," in Women and the Power Within: To See Life Steadily and See It Whole, ed. Dawn Hall Anderson and Marie Cornwall (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991), p. 50.

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