Recently, another faith-based film has been released, based on the New York Times Bestseller, The Shack. A film which has become the center of debate, in some ways, more heated than this last presidential election. The Shack, by some, being labeled as a work of heresy. This article is in defense of The Shack, and will be addressing some of the most popular conflicts presented about this work.
However, before diving into this discussion, please know I have read both the book and have seen the film, and believe both to be impacting tools within ministry. I do not agree with everything presented in both medias; however, I also don’t agree with everything that I personally believed last year. My faith and theology are constantly evolving, and they both should if I am to continue to grow in Christ. I also believe there needs to be debate and disagreements within the Church. Every member should not blindly believe the same thing. There needs to be diversity; however, it should be within unity. Also, when entering into the realm of disagreement, love needs to always be present. Without love, a fight’s nothing but angry words and violence: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
Papa as a Black Woman:
First off, know that The Shack is a work of fiction. This does not by any means dilute the impact of The Shack, for fiction is a powerful tool even within ministry. C. S. Lewis demonstrated this many times with his own works, such as with The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. And even Jesus himself utilized fiction, telling parables like “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37).
Within William P. Young’s book, God the Father is presented as an African American woman. This depiction ruffles feathers, for it’s not the ‘normal’ depiction that many of us think of in the U.S., such as a man with a white beard in the sky. However, I see no problem with depicting God in this manner. Yes, I think it’s weird; I’m not accustomed in thinking of God as female. But Papa does so, both to shake the expectations of the protagonist, Mack, instead of strengthening his stereotypes, and because Papa believed that because of Mack’s own daddy holes within his heart, a Father at the moment, would not be the best medicine in helping Mack–that he initially needed a loving mother figure.
Additionally, Papa appearing as a woman, I believe, is not against the teachings of the Bible: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
Here in Genesis, God says, “Let us make man in our image,” before He creates both male and female. Males are not the only ones created in God’s image. Both male and female were created in His likeness. Yes, Jesus refers to God the Father as ‘Father,’ there’s no denying this truth. Possibly both because of the roles fathers are meant to play, and because he was working within a patriarchal society. But God is also described in feminine language within the Bible, too:
But the LORD’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
“He found him in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
he kept him as the apple of his eye.
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone guided him,
no foreign god was with him.(Deuteronomy 32:9-12)
God Himself, with the exception of Jesus, has no gender. Both were created in His image. And gender, despite what our culture is trying to persuade us, comes from biology. Therefore, if God does not have a physical form, He cannot have a definite gender. If He does not have a penis, he cannot be male, just as if He does not have a vagina, He cannot be female. Additionally, He created all men within His image. No matter your ethnicity, if you accept the gift of Christ, you are a child of God. Besides, Jesus wasn’t white, yet how many paintings do we have portraying him so? Therefore, why can’t the Father appear as a black woman?
Concerning God’s portrayal within The Shack, many argue that portraying Him as men goes against the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). We are commanded by Yahweh Himself, to not make for ourselves any images of Him. One reason for this, I argue, is because we are the images of God.
Going back to Genesis 1:26, when God said, “Let us make man in our image,” the word for ‘image’ which He used here, is צֶ֫לֶם (tselem). Tselem being the same word, which Nebuchadnezzar uses when he creates an image of himself in Daniel 3. We are the images, the idols of God. We are the visible images of the invisible God. Which is . . . humbling and scary! Therefore, I believe, Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, and Sumire do not break the Second Commandment by being actors, but represent Him within this film as His tselem. Similar in how His prophets represented Him, or how the Church should represent Him. This does not mean we should worship ourselves or other men, for worship is for God alone. But I believe, the Creator allows His creation to represent Him. Additionally, Young doesn’t say this is what God looks like, only how He chooses to show Himself to Mack, similarly in how He may have appeared as three strangers to Abraham in Genesis 18.
Concerning the representation of the Trintiy, how do you accurately portray three in one? No, I don’t believe anyone can achieve such a feat precisely; however, I do believe, that The Shack does a pretty good job representing this very complicated concept. For both the book and the film portrays God as three figures, but they are samely connected. That Jesus is just aware of Mack’s conversation with Papa, as Papa is herself. Additionally, it is because of this bond, that Papa also suffered while Jesus was on the cross, being why she also has scars on her wrists. This does not mean that God the Father was crucified upon the cross with His Son. Young is not supporting the hypocrisy Patripassianism. But he demonstrates how one the Trinity is within their threeness. That though Papa wasn’t crucified Himself, He too suffered with Jesus as he suffered. Papa’s scars being the physical representations of the pain she felt through Jesus on the cross. For the Father and the Son are One.
Additionally, remember this book is fiction; however, some argue that this book supports false doctrine, because God reveals Himself on a personal level and provides revelation. Believing in Sola Scriptura, that because we have the Bible, God no longer appears to man as He once had to Abraham, Moses, or the prophets. I would like to humbly disagree. Firstly, saying that God doesn’t, is putting God in a box. He fully well has the ability to, and saying that He can’t, puts us above Him. But does He still reveal Himself in this manner? That, I do not know. It is possible. And I personally believe He still speaks. He is a living God after all. . . . And I’ve heard Him, but not in a direct voice as if I’m talking to another person.
Secondly, as Martin Luther made known, Sola Scriptura is important. The Bible is the Word of God; however, how many of us who are Protestant truly make faith-based decisions solely on the Bible? The Bible has greatly affected my faith, and I believe it has much more authority than many in our modern world give it credit, but there are other powerful influences that affect our understanding of God as well, such as Christian writers. No, I would not hold the writings of C. S. Lewis on the same plain as the Bible; however, his works have greatly impacted both my faith and how I look at God. Creation has also impacted my faith. For who doesn’t learn about the artist through his art? Even Church traditions have a place in our understanding of the Bible, though they can be challenged since they are manmade, while at the same time, having the weight of history behind them, supporting that we shouldn’t hastily throw them out with no thought.
There is a popular belief that The Shack supports Universalism, the belief that everyone will eventually enter Heaven, that eventually, no one will remain in Hell, including the Devil and his angels. Perhaps a mistake from misinterpreting the emphasis of love within The Shack, as well as reading one passage within the book out of context:
They arrived at the door of the workshop. Again Jesus stopped. “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslim, Democrats, Republicans, and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some were bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
Does that mean,” asked Mack, “that all roads will lead to you?”
Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” (184)
Young is not saying that all religions are the same, that all religions lead to salvation. For Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the only way to salvation. But, who says that God the Merciful, can’t use other religions to guide His followers to Him? Jesus is the truth, but all religions have some truth within them. After all, a pure lie has no backbone. A ‘good’ lie needs truth to support it, which can be seen by how the Devil twists the truth to manipulate Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:4-5), and attempts to do so to Jesus in the wilderness, even by preaching the words of Scripture (Matthew 4:1-11). All religions have some of the truth within them, which is one reason why there are so alluring. Therefore, I believe, that God can use this truth to lead others to Him, such as a devote Muslim learning truths of Allah, which lead him on a course to Yahweh and His Son. One example of this, is C. S. Lewis, who in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, reveals that one of the things that gave to him joy, was Norse mythology. The story of Baldr being one of the main catalysts in leading this atheist to Christ.
Mercy vs. Justice:
Lastly, the final issue I’d like to address, is mercy vs. justice. Many don’t like the idea, that mercy outweighs justice. But, if you read your Bible, that’s exactly what happens. God told Adam and Eve if they ate the fruit, they would die (Genisis 3:3), yet they eat it anyways. He does cast them out from the Garden, yes. But He also promises to them salvation (Genesis 3:15). In Genesis 6, man has become corrupt. So corrupt, that God regrets ever creating them, and plans just to wipe them out. But, He provides salvation for Noah and his family, and allows mankind to live on. And in the books of the major and minor prophets, such as Jeremiah and Isaiah, God announces His judgement is coming upon His people, for they have sinned:
“For my people are foolish;
they know me not;
they are stupid children;
they have no understanding.
They are ‘wise’—in doing evil!
But how to do good they know not.” (Jeremiah 4:22)
But, even in the midst of His wrath, He promises mercy:
“Return, faithless Israel,
declares the LORD.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful,
declares the LORD;
I will not be angry forever.” (Jeremiah 3:12)
God is a God of justice. In the book, Papa does help Mack to forgive the man who murdered his little girl. But, he also reveals to him needed information that he shares with the police, to get this man caught and imprisoned, to pay for his crimes.
God is a God of justice. But, He is also merciful. God is a God of scandalous love. For if His mercy did not outweigh His justice, then Jesus would not had to have died on the cross. Justice would have been served by us serving our time in Hell. But, because of His abundant mercy, Jesus died upon that cross instead of you and me. God, is much bigger and more merciful than what we can possibly imagine.
Many legitimate concerns have been brought up concerning The Shack. Yes, the Church should be on guard against false prophets and doctrines. But she also needs to work at not being so sensitive, forgetting who our brothers and sisters are in the drop of a hat.
This is my defense for The Shack. I believe that it’s a great book and a fantastic movie. The Shack being a great source in teaching how to grieve, and why bad things still happen though there is a loving God. It also presents many truths in a different perspective that make us uncomfortable, which is why, I believe, it has been attacked so bluntly. Again, I do not agree with it 100%, and I believe it should be discussed. Feel free to disagree with me and tell me why. But, can we not have civil conversations within the Church about it? instead of allowing the Church to tear herself apart with such ferocity and damnation?