In the coming film adaptation of “The Shack,” a fictional book by William P. Young about a father’s path to renewed faith and healing after his young daughter’s murder, the character of God — as depicted in the novel — is portrayed as a curvy, maternal black woman.
And just as the book earned widespread notoriety and scathing critiques nearly a decade ago, the film is garnering its own praise and condemnation.
At issue is Young’s characterization of the Holy Trinity, seen through the eyes of the story’s main character, who on the four-year anniversary of his daughter’s brutal killing is mysteriously invited by someone named “Papa” — his wife’s affectionate name for God — to the abandoned shack in the Oregon woods where the girl died.
He goes, reluctant and angry, unsure if he’ll be met by his daughter’s murderer.
Instead, he finds this: a Middle Eastern, Jewish carpenter named Jesus; the Holy Spirit embodied in a wispy Asian woman who loves to garden and God (played by “The Help” star Octavia Spencer) as the very opposite of the Gandalf-like grandpa figure modern society is used to seeing.
This depiction — God as a woman despite its gender-less designation in the Bible — has some critics incensed.
“Young’s pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, nonjudgmental, African American woman called ‘Papa’ (who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ — Hebrews 1:1-3), and his depiction of the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with the Hindu name, Sarayu, lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry,” Joe Schimmel, a California pastor and host of the documentary “Hollywood’s War on God,” told Christian News Network this week.
In the same CNS article, James B. DeYoung, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary in Oregon, and the author of a scathing critique called “Burning Down ‘The Shack’: How the ‘Christian’ bestseller is deceiving millions,” said Young’s message strays dangerously far from biblical teachings and promotes “universalism,” or the idea that in the end, all people will go to heaven.
He told CNS that concept is “heresy.”
“If the film is a faithful portrayal of the events and the theology of the book, then every Christian should be gravely alarmed at the further advance of beliefs that smear the evangelical understanding of the truth of the Bible,” DeYoung told CNS.
These criticisms aren’t unfamiliar to fans of the book.
When it first published, “The Shack” was called blasphemous and a “load of crap,” and one scholar opined that Young’s depiction was evidence that evangelicals “were succumbing to the feminist pressure to image God in feminine ways.”
But this dialogue was exactly what Young intended — nudging Christians into an uncomfortable space that forced a reconciliation with how imagery affects faith connections. And his decision to portray God as a black woman is rooted in how the book came to be in the first place.
Young grew up a child of Canadian missionaries. For his first 10 years, Young lived in a tribal village in New Guinea, where he says “sexual abuse was a frequent part” of his childhood — though he has never said publicly who harmed him. The family eventually returned to North America, Young went into the ministry, later met his wife and they had children.
Then, in his late thirties, he had a three-month affair with his wife’s best friend.
It was in this moment — when his wife confronted him about the affair — that Young explains he had a type of awakening. He entered therapy and admitted his indiscretions to the church where he worked, choosing to stay and endure whatever punishment the leadership there deemed necessary, Wayne Jacobsen, an original publisher of “The Shack,” explained during a public talk about the book.
But after several weeks, Jacobsen said, the pastor asked Young and his family to leave the congregation. His actions, the publisher said, were too embarrassing.
A week later, someone pulled into Young’s driveway, a person who the author later claimed was one of the first within whom he saw God — the worship leader of his former church.
She was a curvy, black woman.
“She’s come over and says, ‘I think they’re making a huge mistake with you, I think we need to love you and be in your life,'” Jacobsen said. “And she said, ‘I don’t care what the rest of them do, I’m committed to you and (your wife), and I’m going to be your friends through this.’”
It inspired a rethinking of how he viewed God.
“The wider thing he was saying was that this was not God in the shack, this was God revealing himself through someone,” Jacobsen said. “And it can be a black woman, an Asian woman, a Jewish man.”
He added: “The paternalistic mind-set that a man can reveal God to the world better than a woman can is a mistake, and part of the book is meant to undermine that.”
Spencer echoed a similar explanation in an interview with reporters.
“It’s like ‘Oh, my God! Someone is playing God.'” she told USA Today. “But people have to remember it’s a manifestation of God. How (the film subject) sees God. Not necessarily how or who or what God is.”
Some academics have raised a different concern with the depiction of God as a black woman, contending that rather than break down image barriers, it could reinforce racial stereotypes.
In her book “Feminist Mysticism and Images of God: A Practical Theology,” author Jennie S. Knight explains this dilemma:
. . . many white, European Americans have experienced more unconditional love from an African American woman employed by their parents to take care of them as children than from their own parents. They have developed an image of God as an African American woman in connection with the teachings of their religious tradition that God is unconditionally loving. This image has emerged recently in U.S. popular culture in the novel The Shack, resonating with millions of readers. This raises the question, however, of whether this God-image enables them to challenge their inevitable internalized images of white people as superior in a white supremacist context. Perhaps the image of the less powerful, more loving African American woman coincides with an image of Christ as long-suffering and therefore does not challenge assumptions and inspire action to alleviate the suffering of African American people. Perhaps this image reinforces stereotypes of black women as a mammy or an earth mother, able to give endlessly, with superhuman strength, without challenging the racism of white people.
Knight then goes on to make the counter argument, that images of God associated with black women or men — like Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of God in the movie “Bruce Almighty” — could actually bridge a gap between women or people of color and religion.
Their fear and mistrust of powerful white men and their anger at having been mistreated and seen as less than fully human might lead them to be estranged from the divine as they transfer relational patterns of fear, mistrust, and anger onto the image of the divine.
In the case of Young’s main character in the “The Shack,” the latter argument rings true. The father had an estranged relationship with his own dad, and it was only through the more disarming, maternal relationship he developed with God during his time at the shack that he was able to mend his faith.
Online, the movie, which will hit theaters in March, is already earning praise for its unconventional plotline.
The book has already sold 20 million copies and has been translated into dozens of languages. For nearly two years, it remained on the New York Times bestseller list.
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