Theological Reflections on “The Shack” II: An African American Female “Papa”

[My book on the Shack is now available on Kindle.]

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.

14 Responses to “Theological Reflections on “The Shack” II: An African American Female “Papa””

  1.   Tim Archer Says:

    I had no problem with this image. The Bible uses such a wide range of images to help us understand God; I wish Young would have used MORE images.

    Thanks for sharing. Good stuff.

  2.   preacherman Says:

    John Mark,
    I want thank you brother for sharing this link with us. I know it was worth 30 minutes of my time. God bless all you do for the Kingdom of God. I hope you and your family have a great weekend.

  3.   Blake Says:

    Yes. Thank you for articulating this. You have described so eloquently what I have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to say to friends about God and “Papa”. Theophany…what a great word.

  4.   Steve Kenney Says:

    I think it’s absolutely essential that we appreciate the limits of language and metaphor in scripture. As humans, we are limited to metaphor in understanding God and in describing that understanding. Even when I say that I’m not just thinking of “father” but “beyond that” to God, that understanding of God is metaphoric.

    This should give us humility in our faith, openness to deeper understanding of God, and a newfound appreciation for the mystery of divinity.

  5.   Veto F. Roley Says:

    When we were still sinners, God came to us, not in His shekinah glory, but in form of a baby, clothed in human flesh, not born to royalty, but born of a craftsman and his young wife, born in a manger. I am reminded of Jesus speaking to Peter following His resurrection, asking Peter if he philosed Him. Since we can not go where He is, God meets us where we are at and brings us to Him.

  6.   rich constant Says:

    I have a question:
    how often do you think to yourself durning a day, about being a sinner (a disconnect)?
    and then also how many times a day do you say i am righteous (connect).

    What I’m wondering is how foreign the words “I am righteous” as compared to saying I am a sinner.
    could then the root behaviorial issues be muted.if not elimanated through the developement of this balanced “root” awareness of fellowship,that is expressed through grace by fathfulness.

    consider yourselfs dead to sin and alive unto righteousness.
    rom 6, then the jew rom 7 (personafication?)
    THEN ROM 8
    WHY WOULD YOU think that you are in any way other than righteous in the father’s presence through the Spirit that abides in you and your family(fellowship),never any disconnect because of anything again rom. 8.

    john mark :

    would this not be a root problem in teaching,of our freedom.

    i know how i was taught. how bout you
    and could this be a reason why there is such an deepseated root disconnect and tension in yourself and felloship with our father after all these years for you?


    rom 8:11-`15.

    what the trinity has accomplished through faith,a quickening. if we do our part reciprocating the love of the righteous goodness of a son to our fatherto the end,
    we live and the operative word is not fear or sin or disconect.

    blessings all

    hot dog oh boy

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think there is a difference between intellect and emotional gut for me at times. Connecting the two is difficult.

    Intellectually, I know I am redeemed and that I continue to sin (I am still growing) but there is no condemnation.

    Emotionally, my sin looms large, my baggage clouds my vision, and I sometimes struggle with God’s acceptance.

    It is a progress rather than perfection. God in Jesus is perfect for me; I don’t have to be. I know that and, by God’s grace, it will continue to trickle down into my heart, soul and gut.

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    The series of theopanies in the Hebrew Scriptures were extended into incarnation by the Logos, the Son of God. Now, God in the flesh, is no longer a theopany in the human drama but is a human participant and forerunner/pioneer in the drama itself. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift.

  9.   rich constant Says:

    Emotionally, my sin looms large, my baggage clouds my vision, and I sometimes struggle with God’s acceptance.

    john mark remember what i said about coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms that retard our emotional/spirtuial growth are based in a root emotion of self.and at one time in the past worked, ( our refactive lens for the pain of reality).
    and has now been rewarded with ataboys.
    by your peers for years and has now become a comfortable blind spot in you behavior.

    It is a progress rather than perfection.
    this speaks so loud and you do not see that it is
    non sequitur?

    it is about our progress helping each other through his perfect righteousness. ataining to the sound mind of the spirit faithfully.
    my brother eph. four

  10.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I don’t see the non sequitur. My sanctification is God’s work in process and it progressively (though not always progress because of my own choices, including the baggage of past coping mechanisms as well as the fog of suffering) transforms me into the image of Christ. But I know that my perfection is rooted in what Christ has already done.

    So, while I myself experience–by the power of the Spirit–progress rather than perfection in my inner soul, God has already found me perfect in Christ and received me blamless. Philippians 3. My sanctification is a process of receiving, accepting, believing, trusting and acting on that in my gut, heart and soul.

  11.   rich constant Says:

    It is a progress rather than perfection.
    I don’t see the non sequitur
    i was refering to the,” hear and now” of who we are, in the sanctifing work of thje spirit, christ, and the father.which is compleated and not something that is to be attained… yes i agree with you. it must have been a kneejerk reaction to the program as it effected me. i should have known better i ‘m sorry. 🙂 for lack of a better word antinomianism.

    now then
    the fog of suffering…
    or maybe you could call it falling into the pit of despair the bottomless pit of despair.
    Which creates the coping mechanisms,
    coping mechanisms, generally wind up in compartmentalization of self eventually.
    And depending on how great the despair is, from a subjective point of view. Compulsives a person to be more enjoined to the compartment of safety.
    Which for you was to the exclusion of your family which threw you out of balance which made you unhealthy. Although you were receiving rave reviews from your peers, which valadated The mechanism. a functioning and worth while proposition for you on a personal level, also kept you from dealing with your true emotions.

    AND THEN….. . 🙂
    AND THEN ….
    AND THEN…..
    YOU realize your life is unmanageable
    subjective judement by god.

    51:17 The “sacrifices” God desires are a humble attitude—
    O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject.
    you ask and here we are.
    tossing you a rope into the pit .
    the purpose you might ask? no you wouldn’t…




    WHAT IN THAT context would it mean that God is transcendent???

    John Mark I cut that way short, psychology is just so much crap but it helps it’s a tooL.
    After I found out enough about psychology… you only have four options you can laugh, cry, get mad, or pulll the trigger. :-).

    how bout some more stuff outa the shack.
    i know it will gett better…
    may god contenue to bless us and to be


  12.   Terrell Lee Says:

    John Mark wrote: “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.”

    My children are now 27 and 23, both married (one to a youth minister and one to someone who plans to teach in elementary school), both employed, one granddaughter, etc. I now come to my children in ways different than when they were 7 and 3. I used to approach them in much more of an authoritarian style whereas now it is far more participatory or as an aging sage. The authoritarian appearance worked great 20 years ago; it wouldn’t work great today even though in some ways my children have just as much to learn from me today as when they were more in the curtain-climbing stage of life. My love for them, their need to hear from their dad, combined with our roles in life function to guide me to appear in different ways to them. In this way I can better understand God’s use (Young’s use) of theophany.

  13.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I like your analogy, Terrell. I think it works, and it illustrates how God may progressively relate to us in our understanding of him as we mature and develop…as we are spiritually formed.

  14.   Judy Flatt Says:

    I loved Young’s picturing of God as an African-American woman. First, because it causes many of us to “rock back” and think again. The first thing I did was sit and laugh – not from mockery, but rather from an enjoyment that the author would dare to go, in writing, where many have feared to go, maybe even in their own private thoughts! But I also loved the fact he used someone other than a male figure since Mack had been abused by his father. I thought of all my female friends who were abused by some male authority figure – especially their fathers – and thought how reassuring to them of our Heavenly Father’s ability to relate to each of us in the ways we most need. I, too, picture God as putting me in his lap and holding on to me – in fact, often pray that he will pull me up and put me on his knees, and love on me and talk of his love for me – but I had a loving relationship with my earthly father and that’s what I would do when I needed it – even in my college years.


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