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God the What?: What Our Metaphors for God Reveal about Our Beliefs in God Paperback – October, 2008

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Editorial Reviews


"No book can be more helpful than this one in guiding pastors and lay people to come to greater clarity about what they really believe about God. Guides us in critical reflection in a way in which all can participate. At once genuinely popular and genuinely theological."
John B. Cobb, Jr., professor emeritus, Claremont School of Theology

"Titillating ... an adventure in 'metaphor wondering' and in multidimensional faith."
Rev. Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, professor of pastoral care, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

“A treasure house of word pictures, some conventional and some outrageously original. A testimony to the inveterate need, on the part of humanity, to connect with God.”
Rabbi Neil Gillman, professor of Jewish thought, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America

“Lays out the implications of our choices of metaphors for the Divine and expands our minds with practiced and practical suggestions. A must for all who wish to leave parochial worlds!”
Nancy Corcoran, CSJ, Catholic chaplain at Wellesley College; author, Secrets of Prayer: A Multifaith Guide to Creating Personal Prayer in Your Life

“Scholarly and accessible … will help seminarians and seekers, professors and pastors explore new ways to talk about the Divine. Deftly compels the reader to continually nuance the mystery and complexity of our God―no matter what our faith tradition. A book we've been waiting for!”
Marsha Foster Boyd, president, Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit

Pastor, professor and author Carolyn Bohler's new book, God the What?, takes readers on a rewarding and evocative faith journey. Arguing that while any description of God is partial, metaphors point to the God we believe in, and that the pointing itself can open new windows into the experience of the living God. She goes beyond discussions of God's gender to important notions of how God uses power, how God wills and makes God’s will happen. In the process, she examines foundational, underlying beliefs about God’s presence, action and possibility in a variety of life experiences.

Bohler takes experience and language equally seriously. She draws with ease upon experiences in pastoral ministry and in her own life, including the major California earthquake of 1994 and the accidental death of her son, Stephen, in 2003. She is not afraid to ask the hardest questions of faith and to push beyond platitudes and easy stereotypes to profoundly evocative metaphors for God’s presence in such painful, wrenching circumstances. At the same time, she is playfully comfortable naming God’s presence in nature, in childhood experiences, and in all matter of circumstances of sickness and health. All this is part of what she calls a lively, multidimensional faith, made more rich and profound through metaphors for God that are both traditionally familiar and refreshingly unexpected. God the Bright Night Light? God the Divine Blacksmith? God the Uncountable Infinity? Good metaphors for God are profoundly relevant to the lived experience of faith and doubt, assurance and wonder.

A good metaphor, she argues, will startle or shock us into a new insight into God’s multidimensionality. The word metaphor comes from the Greek, meaning 'a transfer,’ or 'to carry over.’ Metaphors thus describe what carries over from one object to another, the new insight coming from seeing the two objects in relation to one another. Good ones convey similarities and differences between the two. Metaphors for God should simultaneously evoke recognition and familiarity while at the same time conveying a sense of surprise and even skepticism, expressions of both "Yes, God IS like that," and also "No, God is not quite like that." This combination of our yes and our no reflects the possibilities and the limitations of language, points to God while never fully giving voice to the mystery of the Holy One.

Bohler’s premise is that multiple metaphors for God need not be mutually exclusive. We do not have to let go of one in order to take up another. The challenge, she posits, is to discover those metaphors that limit or conflict with our sense of God and which metaphors revitalize or increase our perception. Old metaphors of God as shepherd, potter, author, daddy, rock and so forth are explored for enduring as well as new possibilities of meaning. And new metaphors such as God the jazz band leader, the improviser, the graffiti artist grow out of faith experiences from her own life and people within her congregations.

This book is a gift to the spiritual life of the believer by first offering new and fresh imagery to a variety of faith experiences. But perhaps its deeper gift comes at the point at which it lovingly probes daunting questions around the possibilities and limits of God’s will and power. Questions of “God the What?” are followed by all the vexing questions of “God Can Do What?,” “God Wants What?,” and “God Interacts How?,” that underlie the most disturbing and challenging situations of pastoral care and counseling. Bohler shows how unexamined metaphors for God can create or limit the experience of God’s healing presence in these most challenging of life’s circumstances. Drawing on mini-case studies from her own pastoral experience, Bohler invites the reader into ways of opening up new possibilities for the naming of God’s presence and love right in the midst of disturbing and painful situations.

These reflections point to the power of love at the heart of God’s interaction with us. By inviting the reader into new ways of wondering about God’s presence at precisely those times when it is hardest to recognize and to name, Bohler’s poetic use of new metaphors for God opens windows into the heart of God that are life-giving and transformative.

It would be a shame if the book’s title misleads potential readers into thinking that this is yet one more admonition to think beyond God the father or God the judge, and so forth. It is much, much more. This book is an invitation to more faithful living and praying, more profound worship and praise, more healing counsel and care. Its insights will be welcomed by pastors and parishioners alike, to life-long believers and to seekers. Its dance of life and faith invites every reader into a closer, more authentic relationship with the God of love.

(Rev. Patricia Farris United Methodist Newsletter 2009-06-01)

This is an easy, thoughtful look at the analogies we make for God, taken from everyday life. The book is an ideal read for someone who has just "discovered" God in their lives. Christ followers who are further into their own journey however, might become bemused by the wide variety of figurative language about God found here. There is a strong monotheistic theme, with little mention of the Trinity.

However, the author does make some striking implication in the ways we understand God. Our descriptions of God affect what we believe about ourselves. Convincingly, she goes on to show how the dominant image we have for God, we will imitate in our lives.

For instance, if we imagine God to be distant, almighty and all-knowing, thus our human actions are influenced in those ways. But if we imagine God to be responsive, affective and attentive, then our lives will be in better harmony. The writer makes no claim for this conclusion as a universal truth, but it would be hard to refute that.

The book climaxes in the examination of the "God as Coach" metaphor. The author refines this to the ultimate, "Team Transformer God" metaphor: a God of power, location and knowledge, where the players, (that's you and me), are called upon to forfeit our self-interests. This enables the team to work together at a very deep level, to overcome the skilful opponents. Any analogy about who the "skilful opponents" could be, is left to the reader's imagination.

Regardless of the singularity of the deity maintained throughout this work, the book is a pleasant, worthwhile read. Should you ever be confronted by the child-like enquiry, "What does God look like?", or any pagan-cast challenge about what is God, then there is a wealth of responses to be found in these pages.

(Rev Bruce Raymond Journey 2009-12-07)

About the Author

Carolyn Jane Bohler was the Emma Sanborn Toussant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, for twenty-one years. She has served three different United Methodist churches in Southern California―in San Diego, Tustin and Redlands. She was also campus chaplain at Simpson College in Iowa and hospital chaplain intern in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco. She is the author of six books, includingOpening to God: Guided Imagery Meditation on Scripture(published under the name Stahl) and a children's book, God Is Like a Mother Hen and Much, Much More. She is now enjoying retirement back in Dayton, where she is embracing a new role as grandmother.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: SkyLight Paths; 1 edition (October 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594732515
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594732515
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #351,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Maxwell Grant on May 11, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you are looking for theology in an genuinely exploratory mode, this is a great book.

Bohler focuses on some of the metaphors we do (or might) use to understand God, rather than on some set of metaphors we "ought" to use. Thus, while there is some attention to the old, familiar images, such as Father, Rock, Divine Potter, etc., the author's deepest and most interesting thinking is in developing new ones: God the Bright Night Light, the Nursing Mother, the Jazz band leader, and as a coach (to name just a few).

There is an ENORMOUSLY helpful checklist in the appendix for individuals or groups to use as a way of clarifying their own metaphors and the theology behind them -- and it asks how strongly you believe each one, which is a significant addition that spurs a lot of discussion.

The checklist alone would be worth the price of the book for the busy pastor or harried group leader scrounging for resources at the last minute.

For more conservative or traditional types, I suspect this may be a bad fit (although I say that as a progressive). God as Divine Mother has to be o.k. for you. (Though the book itself would try to get you thinking about why you have such a stake in one gender over the other. A good question...but not everyone's cup of tea.)

As a way of doing theology, the book's emphasis is squarely on helping people find language for how they're seeing and experiencing God now -- it's based on an inductive, relational, process-oriented way of thinking and shies away from definitive answers.

I'm currently using it for a confirmation class and we've all loved it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By William W. Zeitler on October 18, 2008
Format: Paperback
If we're talking about God, we HAVE to use metaphors. This book explores various metaphorical ways of trying to understand God, which only helps you be conscious of the metaphors--and the possibly LIMITING metaphors--we use to think about the nature of God.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J Martin Jellinek on March 11, 2009
Format: Paperback
Metaphors are like keys that open our minds to new understandings in insights. This is particularly true when we are dealing with God since man has never been able to directly see or comprehend God. In God the What?, author Bohler makes a very strong case for the importance of metaphor in our discussion about God. How we visualize and talk about the divine greatly influences how we relate to God. The conversations that she inspires are extremely important and open the reader's conscience to new concepts and visions of God. This is an excellent, well written book for anyone who is willing to ask questions and search for answers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Geoff Moran on February 7, 2009
Format: Paperback
Lively and engaging throughout, Carolyn Bohler draws from her life as a seminary professor, a pastor and a mother to give us hundreds of ways to think about God. This is an excellent read for inidividuals and a easy-to-use resource for pastors or small group leaders in churches. Indices of scriptures and metaphors are provided as well as discussion guides and reflective questions. As Prof. John Cobb says, "No book can be more helpful than this in guiding pastors and lay people to come to greater clarity about what they really believe about God."
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