In his best-selling book, The Shack, author William Paul Young deliberately uses a fictitious story with a high degree of literary imagery concerning the Trinity and how each person within the Godhead might appear to a man drowning in a whirlpool of personal grief and pain. Did I mention that The Shack is fictitious? If not, please hear me, “The Shack is a work of fiction. The story is completely made up by the author.” While many people have found this a comforting way to portray and understand God’s love and grace, the appearance of God the Father as a large African-American woman bothers a lot of pastors and theologians, particularly some prominent and powerful men like R. Albert Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and Chuck Colson. But remember, God really didn’t appear to anyone as a womanâ€¦because it’s a work of fiction. I hope we got that straight.
Mackenzie Allen Phillips, the main character of The Shack, is also troubled by these things. Shortly after his arrival at the shack where his daughter had been brutally murdered by a serial killer, Mack expresses his surpriseâ€”even his discomfortâ€”at relating to God the Father (Papa) as a woman:
Mack: “I think it’d be easier to have this conversation if you weren’t wearing a dress,” he suggested and attempted a smile, as weak as it was.
“If it were easier, then I wouldn’t be,” she said with a slight giggle. “I’m not trying to make this harder for either of us. But this is a good place to start. I often find that getting head issues out of the way first makes the heart stuff easier to work on laterâ€¦when you’re ready.”
She picked up the wooden spoon again, dripping with some sort of batter. “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help keep you from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning.”
She leaned forward as if to share a secret. “To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.”
Mack almost laughed out loud and wanted to say, “You think? I’m over here barely believing that I’m not stark raving mad!” Instead, he focused on what she had just said and regained his composure. He believed, in his head at least, that God was a Spirit, neither male nor female, but in spite of that, he was embarrassed to admit to himself that all his visuals for God were very white and very male.
She stopped talking, but only long enough to put away some seasonings into a spice rack on a ledge by the window and then turned to face him again. She looked at Mack intently, “Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?”
He knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange, and painful, and maybe a little bit wonderful. [pp. 93â€“94]
Genesis 1:27 states: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In some respects, the full meaning of this brief text of Holy Scripture is beyond our comprehension, but it seems clear to me that God created the human race as male and female to fully represent his image. If our internal visualization of God is strictly maleâ€”and I’m wondering how many of us would even be willing to confess that we sometimes picture God the Father in our mindsâ€”then we are missing an important element of his fullest essence.
Paul Young’s fictional character, Papa, who represents the member of the Trinity that we know as “God the Father,” appears as both male and female in The Shack. Yes, it’s true that Papa assumes a female visage in the beginningâ€”fully explained to Mack in the above excerptâ€”but all that changes near the end of the book when Mack and his natural father have been gloriously reconciled to one another. Papa appears to Mack in a completely different form:
The man standing next to him looked a bit like Papa; dignified, older, and wiry and taller than Mack. He had silver-white hair pulled back into a ponytail, matched by a gray-splashed mustache and goatee.â€¦”Papa?” Mack asked.
Mack shook his head. “You’re still messing with me, aren’t you?”
“Always,” he said with a warm smile, and then answered Mack’s next question before it was asked. “This morning you’re going to need a father. C’mon now and let’s get going. I have everything you need on the chair and table at the end of your bed. I’ll meet you out in the kitchen where you can grab a bite to eat before we head out.” [pp. 218â€“219]
Those who miss the amazing story of The Shack by theological nitpicking are like those who try to fit every aspect of a biblical parable into their systematic theology textbook. They will never make all the pieces fit together. It seems to me that the predominantly white male critics of The Shackâ€”especially those with Reformed theology running through their veinsâ€”may owe Paul Young an apology and the rest of usâ€¦well, we’re just really thankful for a literary portrait of the God who crawls into our deepest sadness and brings us through the darkest night from brokenness to wholeness once again.
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