Dismantling the “old white guy” God myth

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Author Margot Starbuck urges Christians to release false images of the Divine and embrace God's true face. - Image courtesy of "Caveman Chuck" Coker http://bit.ly/1cWNf2V)

Author Margot Starbuck urges Christians to release false images of the Divine and embrace God's true face. - Image courtesy of "Caveman Chuck" Coker http://bit.ly/1cWNf2V)

Author Margot Starbuck urges Christians to release false images of the Divine and embrace God's true face. - Image courtesy of "Caveman Chuck" Coker http://bit.ly/1cWNf2V)

Author Margot Starbuck urges Christians to release false images of the Divine and embrace God’s true face. – Image courtesy of “Caveman Chuck” Coker http://bit.ly/1cWNf2V)

A.W. Tozer once said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

So what comes into your mind when you think of God? A man or woman or an amorphous ball of light? Is this Being safe or dangerous, predictable or sporadic, gentle or temperamental? Author Margot Starbuck argues that many today believe in a mythical God–namely, an “old white guy”–and not the One who actually exists. In her book, “Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God,” the Princeton Seminary graduate and seasoned writer encourages us to embrace a different God–one who loves us as we are, not as we should be. Here, we discuss her book and this provocative concept.

Cover image courtesy of Baker Books

Cover image courtesy of Baker Books

RNS: You claim that people assign a face—an image—to an invisible God. Say more.

MS: From an early age, our brains create a picture of an un-seeable God, and our experience of important people in our lives contributes—probably more than we realize—to that composite image. But we also glean God’s likeness from the representations of God we’ve seen and heard: an illustrated Bible storybook featuring bearded-Jesus, an oil painting of glowing-Jesus in the creepy basement of Grandma’s church, or, if we’re really sophisticated, a muscular 65-year-old pale-skinned deity peeled from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

RNS: Are there other pop cultural images that influence how we see God?

Great question. One of the previous pastors at the church I attend had a deep booming voice, and people often remarked that “he sounded like God.” Where did they get that? How did they know God doesn’t have a high squeaky voice?

I’m pretty sure it was the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille “Ten Commandments” movie, starring Charlton Heston. Heston played Moses, but also performed God’s deep bass voice coming from the burning bush. In the late 1970’s, 81-yr-old George Burns played God in the “Oh, God” comedies. And, of course, a few films have since dared to present God as something other than an old white guy–Morgan Freeman, in “Bruce Almighty” or Alanis Morisette in “Dogma”—though I’m not sure the last few are gaining any real traction in the collective psyche over “old white guy.”

RNS: Do you think race and gender are significant in how we view God?

MS: Many of us say we know that God isn’t really male or white, but when William P. Young’s “The Shack” imaginatively portrayed the first person of the Trinity as an effervescent rotund black woman, a lot of the same folks got their hackles up. Personally, I think that assigning race and gender to God, the first person of the Trinity, are less important than the expression of the face we give to God.

RNS: Some folks would disagree with you on this point, no?

MS: Some might say that I’m speaking as a person whose life experience has been shaped as a member of the dominant culture.

But my friend Sameer Yadav, who teaches at Indiana Wesleyan University, and is Indian, has helped me see differently. He grew up as a brown person in Idaho, and was fed images of Gary Larson’s white, robed, bearded “Far Side” god. Sameer expressed it so beautifully said, “To the extent that I do not resemble the paradigm human person being inflated to come up with that image, I internalized it as an anxiety rather than as a living source of comfort.”

So race and gender do matter. But I’m still wanting to push people to notice what expression they’ve given to the face they assign to God.

Author Margot Starbuck encourages people to confront the false images of God they've accepted.

Author Margot Starbuck encourages people to confront the false images of God they’ve accepted.

RNS: But don’t people sometimes do a “good cop, bad cop” thing by formulating and an angry, Old Testament God who morphs into the gracious, New Testament God?

MS: Sure. Jesus becomes the chummy grinning friend and we conceive of Jesus’ Father as the cosmic bad guy who demands satisfaction for sin. But Jesus knew how we are. And one of the last conversations he had with his disciples was about this very thing.

When his friend Philip asked Jesus to show him the Father, Jesus was like, “Dude! I’m it. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. Same face. If you want to peek at the Father, look at me—there’s no difference. When I graciously receive a woman who’s had five husbands or forgive someone caught in adultery or move toward a despised tax collector, that’s the face of my Father.”

RNS: So where’s the good news in all this?

MS:  I think the good news is that we’re invited to choose  and live into a truer story. Right now, the story a lot of us tell is that when we were saved—the moment we prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” or were baptized—God smiled upon us. And then, when we die, as we’re jettisoned off into the clouds—the ones with the pearly gates we’ve seen in Warner Brothers cartoons—we’ll be warmly embraced by God into our heavenly home.

But what about every moment in between?

The good news of the gospel is that, because of Jesus, God receives us right now as we are and not as we should be.

  • Tim

    Good interview, you two.

    It’s that conversation with Philip that seals the deal. When people ask what God looks like, the answer is he looks like whatever Jesus – God the Son – looked like. Trying to figure out what God the Father looks like is as futile as trying to figure out what God the Holy Spirit looks like. The physical manifestation of God is the Son.

    Anything beyond that, no matter what books like The Shack or the various movie representations try to say, is a meaningless exercise in futility.

  • Agree with Tim. If you want to know what the Father looks like, look to Jesus.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie

    Eons ago (it seems!) while being educated as a registered nurse, the professor was discussing the light that shines in a living person’s eyes, even if the person cannot see. She said that as soon as a person dies, that light goes out; in other words, the brightness is lost (it is). Then she repeated that “the eyes are the windows of the soul.” To look at a person is to see that soul and so, if the person loves goodness, one can see the image of God. If the person loves evil, partly or wholly, the image of God is still there, but distorted. As human beings, we are physical spirits. Our souls animate our bodies completely and when we die, the body is left, lifeless, but will one day be reunited with the soul.

  • Atheist Max

    Thank you for the interview. But this is a con game.

    Margot, said, “…notice what expression they’ve given to the face they assign to God.”

    Well. That’s just cheating.

    We can’t debate some God you have made up in your mind!
    And, unfortunately we MUST debate God because Americans are being forced to do so – by Christians who make all sorts of wild claims.

    Mandatory Trans-vaginal probes – Virginia Legislature

    Blocking people from family planning services (even married people!) – Texas, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana
    Obstruction of prescriptions – Illinois, Oklahoma, Washington, etc.

    Discrimination as religious choice – Arizona (SB-1062)

    Anti-Gay laws – Texas
, etc.
    Anti-women’s rights laws – Texas, Indiana, Louisiana, Virginia

    Creationism to replace all Science Education in all public schools: Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Texas…12 States!

    We are faced with a new Dark Ages filled with voodoo and nonsense
    and it is tiresome to hear yet again that God can be anything you want
    him to be – EXCEPT APOLITICAL!

  • Marcus Johnson

    We can’t debate some God you have made up in your mind!

    Not only do I think we can, but we have to, if we’re ever going to break the sexist/homophobic/racist/anti-intellectual religious movements that threaten rational public policies, like the one you mentioned above (and let’s not forget the resistance by Christian conservatives to building mosques – Tennessee, New York). The human characteristics we assign to God (race, gender, age, ethnic features, etc.) reveal the characteristics that we have privileged. So, if a person imagines that the guiding force behind the formation of the universe is a White male, what does that say about how they view women of color?

    And yes, it is tiresome to think that God and/or Jesus is apolitical. Jesus was quite a political firecracker in first-century Judea, and while we like to pretend that Jesus can transcend politics, pretending that our concept of God doesn’t affect our politics is willful ignorance.

  • Fascinating! Was just having a similar conversation with my ophthalmologist stepdad, and this helpful. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Susan Humphreys

    People create God/s/ess in their own image, what they imagine, and in some cases the God/s/ess resemble them. They also proclaim that God is all seeing, all knowing, wise, loving, powerful, pure Will (for Muslims), PERFECT in every way—then they endow God with all of their own human imperfections. He is a jealous God, narcissistic—not just demanding to be worshipped BUT he must be worshipped in particular ways, attend the RIGHT church, believe the RIGHT beliefs, practice the RIGHT sacraments (be dunked rather than sprinkled or not baptized at all or vice versa), you must follow the RIGHT laws, he hates homosexuals and people of other faith traditions and people with no faith….. Such depictions tell us about the nature of the person making the claims and nothing about the TRUE nature of God/s/ess.

  • Agree. Are there ever instances when God/s/ess does NOT resemble the humans claiming to know God/s/ess?

  • Lin Jenkins

    I was surprised no one referenced Xenophanes’ famous quote: “If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen would draw them to look like oxen, and each would make the gods bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.” This from a guy living c. 500 BC, and not that much has changed in the human imagination. (Or the imaginations of horses & oxen, I assume.)

  • Atheist Max


    “pretending that our concept of God doesn’t affect our politics is willful ignorance.”

    Oh, I know! But that is why I need you to get the message.
    You have a right to go to church to pray and speak freely about God in public.
    As long as I have a right to say, “Get away from me with that nonsense.”

    But Christians simply can’t seem to control themselves.
    They don’t want me to be ABLE to say NO to them!

    Creationism, unfounded, disgraceful religious nonsense is now pushed into classrooms across the country destroying science education.

    And….South Dakota wants to legalize THE MURDER OF DOCTORS – IN THE NAME OF JESUS! And they MAY actually get their wish!

    Religion is a sick, inhuman, self-imposed prison.
    Keep it for yourselves. Millions of us have had enough of this.

  • Atheist Max

    But how can you then say God is ‘real’? You describe God as a picture in the mind from something you see in a mirror. This is something entirely constructed in the mind which will die when the mind dies – a delusion.
    How much can one kid oneself? It is an invitation to go nuts. Where are the brakes, or checks and balances?
    You are validating all sorts of absurdities.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Perhaps in the Tao teh Ching. Modern Taoism from what I understand is a hodge podge. But The Tao, of the Tao teh Ching is translated as the Way, it is described as the way of heaven. It is considered to be the force that animates the universe, Chi. Also in early Judaism the Jews refused to give God a name, as long as it remained an unnamed force or power, similar to the Tao, people refrained from giving it human characteristics. In Qaballah you get more of the essence of “God” in this light as pure energy or animating force of the universe. I am afraid I am not familiar with all of the hundreds of other religions to comment further.

  • To clarify, I agree that our human temptation is to create God in our own image. I believe that there is a knowable God who is, graciously, OTHER than we are.

  • Marcus Johnson

    What evidence do you have that I don’t “get the message?”

    Atheist Max, there’s a sociological term called “outgroup homogeneity,” in which one assumes that all of the people who are not like you are all the same. I think that, as repulsed as you are by people’s personal religious convictions, you would do well to avoid lumping everyone into the same category. Doing so makes you no better than the people who you are condemning. As a matter of fact, it makes you exactly the same.

  • Atheist Max

    If I sound allergic, perhaps. I have good reason.

    I am challenging the assumption on your part that God is inevitably going to be included in politics – that this is somehow tolerable, beneficial or worthy of our discourse. As per Margot, the religious are making up a God in their heads – seems crazy to me.

    If only God beliefs were benign this would be harmless. But it isn’t. It is frankly terrifying that these casual ideas about God are thrown around, that Jesus was a political ‘firecracker’ and such. I’m not sure that’s true.

    And it tells us a lot about the suspicious ‘authority’ of God claims if an imagined God can be as good as the ‘real’ one. Too many people take this seriously. Rational people must challenge this.

    Now, I agree the religious have that right to promote it. But wow.

    I not only reject the god claims and the solipsistic mirror ‘revelation’ techniques Margot describes, I challenge the entire assumption that this dangerous stuff should be normal or expected from modern people.

    This dangerous nonsense has been a runaway train for too long.

  • Larry

    If you think that is all tough to take in, try reading Spinoza.

    Everything simply being a reflection or aspect of God in an elemental sense. Reads like an novel which was translated from english to chinese and then back to english. Philosophy students are assigned his work as a form of punishment. 🙂

  • Marcus Johnson

    I’m sure you have good reason for the allergies. I strongly suspect that there is a much deeper story of abusive treatment that isn’t worth dredging up in an online forum.

    The concept of God to you seems much like the concept of race to me: odious, rancorous, and only serving the purpose of “keeping people in their place.” However, by 2014, both have become so ingrained into America’s cultural psyche that trying to separate either concept from political discourse is like picking the egg out of pancake batter. I don’t believe in normal, but we aren’t going to get into a post-religion society, or post-religion political discourse any more than we are going to get into a post-racial America–at least, not any time soon.

    And did I miss something? Is there something in my earlier comments that suggested that I had a problem with your atheism? I see nothing in my commentary to suggest that assumption of me was valid.

  • Atheist Max

    No, I don’t see where you criticized Atheism.

    The allergy right now is The effort in South Dakota to pass a law to allow the killing of Doctors – this is a ‘faith-based’ initiative like the ‘religion discrimination bill’ that almost became law in Arizona.

    These are examples of the outrageous way God beliefs are infecting Law and the religious right has figured out how to subvert the process for political gain.

    It is enough for someone to throw their hands up in exasperation. And there are too many folks like Margot who are well-meaning and don’t intend harm, but are giving validation.

    If Christians want to help they should do a self-analysis. I know it is out of their bounds to question the existence of God but surely the doctrines that lead to this hellish wave of laws could be opened up and discussed – instead of talking about whether God has a long beard or a short beard (For goodness sakes!)

  • Marcus Johnson

    Oh, you know you don’t have to stop with South Dakota. In Tennessee, Christians are bullying Muslims who simply want to pray to a different version of the same God that they pray to. In Illinois, a woman who believes that God plagues us with tornadoes and earthquakes because of gay marriage and abortion won a GOP primary. And in Michigan… and in North Carolina… and in Texas…

    I absolutely agree with you that Christians need to do a self-analysis of the expectations they place on public systems to affirm their faith tradition. They also need to question the tenets of their faith, and what convictions are worth holding onto (i.e., social justice, caring for the poor) and which ones they can let go of (i.e., LGBT issues, vagina regulations). However, part of that analysis means we have to accept the presence of Christian privilege, how deeply we have allowed it to affect public policy, and how it marginalizes everyone that doesn’t fall within the mainstream faith tradition. That requires us to do some of the stuff that Margot is explaining. I don’t think it’s fully flushed out, and I certainly want to read up more before I can give her a thumbs-up or -down, but it’s really not that odious of an argument that she is making.

  • Edward Borges-Silva

    Being utterly finite creatures, limited by time, space, and human frailty, creating an image of God is a problematic circumstance at best. I am satified that God is just, merciful, righteous, and holy. I will not box God in by anthropomorphic images.

  • Susan Humphreys

    But you have used human traits, anthropomorphic concepts, “just, merciful, righteous and holy” to humanize God. As opposed to describing God as some others have done as raw power, the power that animates the universe, the glue that holds the universe together (what a Scientist would call dark matter/energy), the anima mundi (breath of life). You simply haven’t drawn a face to go with the human traits.

  • Atheist Max

    “Being utterly finite creatures”

    Are you an atheist, too? Or is this a Freudian slip?

  • Edward Borges-Silva

    As humans we have no other frame of reference for ‘Other’ sentient beings whom we have not seen or heard, in the normal sense of those terms. In this instance I have refined the anthropomorphism (pardon the liberty) to exclude the purely physical, hence visual, attributes some might associate with God. The terms I used are descriptive of character, and I believe ‘power’ may meet the case as well. God can only be defined properly by His character, presumably if there are other sentient beings like humans in the universe they would demonstrate similar qualities. Without some means of describing God, He remains a cipher, and that would be pointless.

  • Edward Borges-Silva

    Max, the realisation that I am a finite being does not necessarily euate with atheism.

  • Susan Humphreys

    Simply declaring that “God” has a character to be described IS anthropomorphizing. Again I point out the difference between seeing God as raw energy, animating energy and seeing God in human terms with human characteristics, emotions and/or physical features. Now I grant that a God that is just raw energy is uncomforting, doesn’t feel very personal, and certainly doesn’t seem that such a God would care a fig for you personally, or for anyone else either. AND that is why people have described God in human terms, to make him more approachable in hopes that he will offer them aide and assistance against their enemies.

  • EdwardBorges-Silva

    Fine. Insist on my anthropomorphsizing(sic), but your picture of God resembles nothing more than an electrical current, both pointless and ridiculous. God, in His Word (Something more than philosophical pontificating) assigns to Himself the anthropomorphic qualities which you seem to believe are an error and irrelevancy. The question in this thread is about a specific race/age/sex view of God. He is beyond all this. But the term ‘He’ is a mere convienience, a sop to our human limitations.