An African American Female “Papa”–Say What?

One of the most striking features of Paul Young’s parable entitled The Shack is his depiction of the Father. This has occasioned criticism at several levels.

[This post is chapter 15 in my book Meeting God at the Shack: A Journey into Spiritual Recovery.]

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 intimacy too chummy, too familiar? Is the holiness—the transcendent distinction of the divine—trumped here?

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 God really loves them. Many, like Young himself, were wounded by their fathers. Mack was physically abused by his father and wants nothing to do with him.

A 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 explain why Young portrays Papa as an African-American woman. Young is not trying to be politically correct or promoting some kind of “goddess” motif. Rather, he writes out of his own experience of love—where he himself felt loved.

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. It functions as a theophany, not a digital photo. It comes in a vision (a dream; Mack had cried himself to sleep on the floor of the shack).

God appears to Mack as an African-American woman because this metaphor or form communicates to Mack how delighted God is to spend time with him. The metaphor overturns some mistaken conceptions of God in Mack’s mind—conceptions 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, communication, and connection.

Theophanies are common in Scripture. God comes as three visitors to Abraham’s tent. God, in human form, wrestles with Jacob. God comes as a dove descending out of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus. God appears as a burning bush. God is even pictured with hands and feet, sitting on a throne in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

I don’t find a theophanic depiction of the Father disturbing. It would be more disturbing (and indebted to Greek philosophy) 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, as incarnation (God coming in the flesh) moves beyond theophanies.

God comes to people in a way that communicates something about the divine identity. This does not mean the form in which God comes is actually who God is. To identify the form with God is idolatry and fails to recognize how God transcends any form in which God appears. A theophany reveals the divine nature through a particular medium, but the divine nature is not limited to that medium.

This is a brilliant move. I know people who cannot connect with the Father’s love because their own fathers were 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 see how God has come to them in a form (theophany, 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 divine love and in ways that we might best experience that love.

That God appears as a woman is not a huge stretch. Jesus himself told a parable that pictured the Father as a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10), analogous to the father who waited for his lost son to appear in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Scripture often uses feminine metaphors to describe God’s love for Israel (cf. Isaiah 49:15; 66:13) and even describes God as both the One who fathers us and the One who gives us birth (Deut. 32:18). Young simply uses the metaphor in an extended way to make the same point biblical authors make. It is a theophany of divine love.

God, of course, is neither African-American nor Asian nor Western. God, of course, is neither male nor female; neither black nor white. God transcends and at the same time encompasses such categories. Masculinity and femininity are both aspects of the divine nature since we—both male and female—were created in the image of God. Whether black or white or red or yellow—as we sing in the children’s song, the diverse ethnicity and colors are also aspects of God’s own diversity (the Trinity) and divine love for the diverse character of the creation. God created diversity! It is part of God’s original intent for the world.

Young recognizes the relative way in which God appears as an African-American woman by changing the form when Papa leads Mack to Missy’s body. On that day Mack needed a father, that is, he needed the human—even male—qualities fathers 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 with him.

The truth is this: God is delighted to meet us at our shacks. Young communicates this through a feminine African-American metaphor for the Father, because it is what Mack needs (and how Young experienced recovery as he connected with those early experiences of love from the indigenous women of New Guinea).

I find it helpful to use different metaphors for God as I envision God’s delight for me and experience the comfort of God’s 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 always do the same thing emotionally and spiritually. My favorite metaphor for the God who greets me at my shack is the image of Joshua sleeping in my arms as he rests on my lap in my big chair.

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 Scripture and sanctified by the Spirit, is an important tool for letting the truth that God loves us sink into our hearts, into our gut. 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 God’s love and letting it settle into their hearts. The Spirit uses our imagination—our dreams, art, and poetry—for that purpose just as the Spirit uses preaching, assembled praise, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as well. The Spirit, through metaphors, images, other people, and the sacraments, impresses our hearts with the truth that the Father loves us and that we are God’s beloved in whom God delights.

5 Responses to “An African American Female “Papa”–Say What?”

  1.   Karen Wood Says:

    I am grateful, John Mark, for this post, excited about your new book, and most appreciative of your continued efforts to point to our loving God through your story (and brilliant theological mind!). Hearing your story changed my story concerning God and suffering. Thank you for that! I am also excited to hear you at the LU Nurture Conference on April 14. Be blessed today in God’s presence!

  2.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Ditto, what Karen said.

  3.   Kacy Green Says:

    Thank you 🙂 This is perfect.

  4.   John Royse Says:

    Go see this movie. You need to cry a little, understand some more….

  5.   cary daniel Says:

    John Mark,
    God bless you Brother. I remember your Joshua well. I’m so thankful to you for sharing so openly your pain and redemptive embrace from God. Your book is full of courage. I pray that you can meet my son Nikolas soon, he turns 13 next week and I would like to give him the present of your book (He’s an avid reader unlike me). I would also like to find a time where you can meet. As a father the greatest gift I can give my son outside of my love for him is to introduce him to the greatest minds I’ve personally encountered. You are number one on my list. Thanks and God bless your insight & imagination as you allow God to fill your cup and bless us with overflow! I love you man!!! RCD

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