One of the most striking features of Young’s parable is his depiction of the Father. This has occasioned criticism at several levels.
Is it idolatry to portray the Father in such a manner? Does the female metaphor undermine the biblical image of the Father?
Admittedly, the imagery is startling. To picture the Father as a gregarious African American woman is counter-intuitive to most Western Christian sensibilities. Is the Father really so gregarious? Is the Father female? Is the Father African American? Is the initmacy too chummy, too familiar? Is the holiness–the transcendent separateness of the divine–trumped here? (I will take up the latter two questions in my next post.)
My take on this literary move by Young is shaped by my understanding of what he is doing in The Shack. Young is weaving a story that will help wounded people come to believe that God really loves them. Many, like Young himself, were wouonded by their fathers. In the story Mack was physically abused by his father and wants nothing to do with him.
One critical moment in the parable is when the door of the shack swings open and Mack meets God. Whose face will he see? What kind of face will he see? How will God greet Mack? If Mack sees his father, then shame, hurt, anger, and pain would fill his heart. Instead Mack sees a woman of color. This arises out of Young’s own experience when his earliest memories of love and acceptance were shaped by the dark skinned women of New Guinea. Those memories and some subsequent relationships with African American women shaped Young’s character in the story.
The African American form of the Father in the parable is a metaphor; it is not a one-to-one image of the Father as if it were an idolatrous substitute for God himself. It functions as a theophany in the story, not a digital photo. It comes in a vision (dream; Mack had cried himself to sleep on the floor of the Shack). God appears to Mack as an African American woman because this is a metaphor that will communicate to Mack how delighted God is to spend time with him. It is a metaphor that overturns some mistaken conceptions of God in Mack’s mind–conceptions that are more rooted in his abusive earthly father than in the God of Scripture. It is a theophany–the appearance of God in a particular form for the sake of encounter and communication.
Theophanies are common in Scripture. God comes as three visitors to Abraham’s tent. God, in the form of a man, wrestles with Jacob. God comes as a dove descending out of the heavens. God appears as a burning bush. God is even pictured with hands and feet sitting on a throne in the Holies of Holies.
I don’t find a theophanic depiction of the Father disturbing. It would be rather Neoplatonic to ascribe to the Father a kind of transcendence that cannot appear to human beings in a theophany, vision, or dream. This does not detract from the revelation of God in Jesus. In fact, it is consistent with that revelation where incarnation moves beyond theophany as well as the theophanies of the Hebrew Scriptures.
God comes to his people in a way that communicates something about himself. This does not mean that the form in which he comes is actually who God is. To identify the form with God himself is idolatry and fails to recognize that God transcends any form in which he appears. Instead, it is a revelation of himself through a particular medium but not limited to that medium. I think this is what Young is doing in his novel.
In fact, it is a brillant move. I know people who cannot connect with the Father’s love because their own father was so abusive. If they opened their shacks and saw their fathers, they would hesitate, doubt, and reject the “love” offered. Their hearts would leap with fear rather than delight. But if they open their shacks and saw that God has come to them in a theophanic form (metaphor) which connects with loving experiences in their own life, then they would more readily embrace the love offered. God meets us in our personal experiences in ways that best communicate his love for us.
Scripture uses feminine metaphors to describe God’s love for his people (cf. Isaiah 49:15). Young simply uses the metaphor in an extended way to make the same point that Biblical authors do. It is not an indentification but a metaphor or a theopany of divine love.
God, of course, is neither African American nor Asian nor Western. God, of course, is neither male nor female. God transcends and at the same time encompasses such categories. Masculinity and femininity are both aspects of the divine nature since we (male and female) were created in the image of God. Whether black or white or red or yellow–as we sing the children’s song, the diverse ethnicity and colors are also aspects of God’s own diversity (the Trinity) and his love for the diverse character of creation.
Young recognizes the relative way in which God appears as a African American woman by changing the metaphor when Papa leads Mack to Missy’s body. On that day Mack would need a father, that is, he would need the human qualities that father’s represent, and Papa comes to him as male. The form in which God appears to Mack is relative to Mack’s needs as God seeks to commune and communicate the truth about himself with his beloved.
The theological truth is that God is delighted to meet us at our shacks. Young communicates this through an African American metaphor for the Father because it is what Mack needs (and how Young found recovery in his journey through addiction).
I find it helpful to use different metaphors for God as I envision his delight in me and experience the comfort of his enveloping love–something I am still learning to do. Whether it is crawling into my mother’s lap or a bear hug from my brother, it communicates something true about the Father where an image of a male parent might not exactly do the same thing for me emotionally and spiritually. The Shack’s metaphor is bold and daring but enriching and redemptive for those who connect with it given their own particular experiences.
Our imagination, guided by the truths of Scripture and sanctified by the Spirit, is an important tool for letting the truth that God loves us sink into our hearts, into our guts. During my devotional time, I envision the Father, Son and Spirit meeting with me. They are delighted that I have come to listen to them and talk with them. They welcome me. My imagination becomes a means by which I experience, by the power of the Spirit, the love of the Triune God.
The Shack has given many believers the resources to imagine–to visualize in their minds–their own encounter with God for the sake of imbibing his love and letting it settle into their hearts. The Spirit can use our imagination, just as he uses our dreams, art, poetry, didactic teaching, assembled praise, and the sacraments for such purpose as well.
For those interested, here is a 30 minute video where Young talks about his book.