One of the more striking dimensions of The Shack is the intimate picture Young paints of Mack’s relationship with the Triune God. This intimacy is portrayed through actions (eating, gardening, and cooking with God), language (“Papa”), and settings (lake, log cabin, garden). Relationality is at the heart of his picture–God lives in relationship with Mack, the kind of relationship that is fully and personally engaged in every aspect of Mack’s existence.
It seems obvious to me that “Papa” is a modernized English version of “Abba,” an Aramaic term for the male parent. But “Papa” communicates something that is not in the Aramaic term “Abba.” It has been a common misunderstanding that “Abba” is a diminutive form of “Father” such as “Daddy” or “Papa.” Actually, it is a determinative form which is clear by how it is translated into Greek in the New Testament. It is not translated as a vocative (“O Father” and thus could have a diminutive meaning of “Papa”). Rather, it is translated as a determinative (“the father”) in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:14, and Galatians 4:6. While “abba” is the diminutive (“Daddy”) in Modern Hebrew, there is no evidence that it is a diminutive in ancient Aramaic. Those interested in some detailed argument, check out James Barr, “‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’,” Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988): 28-47.
“Abba,” however, is direct address (cf. Mark 14:36) and since in colloquial speech the pronoun suffix is often dropped, the meaning is an expression of intimacy–perhaps something like “my dear father.” The word does express intimacy but with respect, honor, and reverence.
As a consequence, I’m not too enthused about “Papa” as a from of address to God in my own prayer life or talking about God since it can lack a sense of honor or reverence (depending on how it is heard or used). But I understand the point Young wants to make. He wants to lead us into a kind of familial familiarity with God. And, indeed, we should embrace that kind of relationship with the Triune God. “Papa” works as a metaphor for intimacy, but unintended consequences/implications may render its usefulness in liturgy or theology suspect. It can reduce God to a “papa” (a human conceptualization) if we remove it from the context of the novel itself or the context of a broader theology (conception of God).
The context is important here. As I have previously written in other posts, Young is seeking to reconnect wounded people with the God whom they believe, in some sense, wounded them. Consequently, an emphasis on intimacy, relationality, and familiarity is important for healing. Wounded people need to experience the delight that God has in them, the ease with which God converses with them, and the friendliness of God. Young’s parable should be assessed in this context. With this purpose, “Papa” works as a metaphor.
At this point it would be easy to critique the way Young portrays how chummy God is with Mack. One could easily forget about God’s transcendent otherness, his holy separateness when watching Papa, Jesus and Sarayu converse with Mack. But this would be unfair to Young’s purpose.
There are moments when Papa reminds Mack that his appearance to him does not mean that now Mack can fully grasp God’s identity. For example, Papa tells Mack, “I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think” (p. 98) and it is a “good thing” that Mack cannot “grasp the wonder” of God’s nature (p. 101). This is a healthy emphasis on divine transcendence.
But despite such caveats and the parabolic context, nagging discomfort remains for some. I understand that discomfort. I feel it a bit myself. I think I feel it because I sense that there is not sufficient acknowledgement of the holiness of God in the book. What I mean by “holiness” is not God’s ethical perfection, but God’s otherness and separateness (cf. Psalm 99:1-3). It is the kind of “holiness” that demands that Moses take off his shoes before the theophany of the burning bush (Exodus 3). It is the kind of “holiness” that evokes a confession from Isaiah before the throne of God (Isaiah 6). This is missing in the novel. And, yet, at the same time, I understand why it is missing: wounded people initially need divine intimacy rather than divine transcendence for their healing.
A corollary of this missing sense of divine holiness is the absence of the wrath of God in the work. But is it really absent? It is absent in the sense that the fire of God consumes sinful people, but it is not absent in the sense that God holds Mack accountable at every point. Mack is not let off the hook. He is confronted, particularly in the chapter where he appears before Sophia. Mack is forced to face judgment in the sense that he has to face himself and acknowledge the truth about himself.
Young’s focus on intimacy and relationship is healthy for wounded people. It is not the whole story and there is no claim that the parable tells the whole story. This parable is no more the whole story than the Prodigal Son is the whole story. But it has a significant and important point to make about intimacy.
Intimacy is what religion addicts and performance-oriented believers lack. We do the rituals, follow the rules, and pursue good works for approval or out of duty. This ultimately wounds us by shaping us into people who emphasize rules rather than relationships. And when the other wounds of life come, it provides little comfort. Rather, we take our licks, continue our performance, and hide a nagging sense of God’s unfairness in our hearts. Since we have little or no relationship with God–no intimacy–we pull ourselves up by our boot straps and keep on keeping on. We persevere in our duty.
That kind of perseverance, however, turns into bitterness and meanness. We are upset that others are not performing like we perform. We are bitter that we are wounded despite our good performances. We become unforgiving, unmerciful, and unhappy–we will treat others the way we think God has treated us, or at least as other religion addicts have treated us. Nevertheless we keep doing our duty because we are religion addicts.
Intimacy is the path of healing for addicts. Intimacy with God–eating with him at the table, as in the Lord’s Supper, for example–heals wounds. It is not the only aspect of God, nor should we reduce God to some human conception of intimacy, but it is a necessary part of healing from our woundedness. Intimacy brings joy in the midst of hurt. Intimacy displays God’s delight in and joy for us. Intimacy with God brings forgiveness, mercy, and joy.
It is in that context that the metaphor “Papa” works for me. God has invited me into the circle of his love to enjoy the familial reality that is the communion of the Triune God. God rejoices and sings over me…even in my shack. Wow!