God as “a big black woman” in THE SHACK, a new million copy bestseller

Posted by on Jun 9, 2008 in God, Goddess worship | 23 Comments
“Well, Mackenzie, don’t just stand there gawkin’
with your mouth open like your pants are full,”
said the big black woman as she turned
and headed across the deck, talking the whole time.
“Come and talk to me while I get supper on.”
–Elousia/Papa/God in The Shack

If you haven’t yet heard of The Shack, by William P. Young, you probably will soon. This  new novel, written by a Christian who wanted to portray a very personal God, has sold over a million copies in the last year and is currently at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Not only that, The Shack (Windblown Media) has been acquired by Hachette Book Group’s Faith Words division, which will now market the heck out of the little paperback that could. I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon; Hollywood is reportedly knocking on the Shack’s door.
TheShackCover
Here’s an overview: The book tells the story of the spiritual awakening of Mackenzie Phillips, whose daughter is abducted by a serial killer while on a family camping trip. Evidence of the crime is discovered in a rundown old shack in the woods. Years later, a still grieving Mackenzie receives an unusual note inviting him to meet “Papa” at the shack.

Curious, Mackenzie goes and discovers three people: “Papa,” a middle-aged black woman with a Southern accent, who also calls herself Elousia; Jesus, a Middle Eastern young man; and “Sarayu,” a mysterious (and hard to see) Asian woman. These three, who turn out to be God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, invite Mackenzie to spend the weekend in the shack. He does, resulting in the opportunity for long conversations and the chance to ask all of the hard questions revolving around his recent tragedy.

I don’t want to give much away, but there are lots of mystical occurrences, revelations about God’s nature and how the Trinity functions, and a “did it really happen?” twist at the end.
Mark_Driscoll+9+mickey
As you can imagine, The Shack has been pretty controversial in evangelical Christian circles. Reaction is polarized, with gushing praise (“it changed my life and I’m buying a copy for everyone I know”) to passionate denouncements (“it’s heresy; read it and burn”). One of the
most clear and cogent non-endorsements comes from well known Seattle pastor Mark
Driscoll, who has labeled the book as pro-goddess worship.

I just finished reading The Shack, and here’s what I like:

  • God is portrayed as personal, loving, full of grace and forgiveness, and anxious for relationship with Mackenzie. This is a God who repeatedly tells His children, “I’m especially fond of you.”
  • Anyone who’s experienced a tragedy can relate to Mackenzie’s overwhelming grief and anger at God. The book attempts to address the question of evil, and why bad things happen to good people.
  • The author has the guts to tackle a subject that is nigh untouchable in evangelical circles–how to understand a Triune God and how the Trinity might work.
  • Because of the controversial subject matter, Christian publishers wouldn’t take it, and general market publishers were leery of the blatant Christian content. So, the author self-published it! I love that, and that it’s been a success.
  • Much like The Da Vinci Code, the ruckus surrounding the book gives people of faith a chance to talk about what we believe. I’m of the mind that anything that gets us thinking about the character of God and talking about how He works in our lives is a good thing. In the current culture, it’s almost anathema to talk about Jesus outside the walls of the church; it’s as if it’s in poor taste or reveals us as intolerant.

Here’s what I don’t like about The Shack:

  • The “did it happen or not?” dream twist, an overused device that often shows up in tired TV shows.
  • God the father is not a person, but a spirit. He is personified and fully present in Jesus. Period. He can’t be characterized as a black woman, a white woman, or any other kind of woman. It’s just so limiting. I think it’s a very false picture of an all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, holy Creator God. It’s a little something like
    trying to bottle and label a massive forest fire.
  • Further, God is who he is. You can’t just create your own pleasing image (whether it’s a woman, a man, a puppy, or a flower) and force him to conform to that image just to increase your comfort level.
  • Putting words in God’s mouth is foolish. Who are we to put ourselves in God’s place and say what we think he might say? God has already spoken. He took great care to make sure his words were delivered flawlessly through the prophets, through the Bible, and through Jesus himself. Here’s a quote from Annie Dillard on our sometimes too casual approach to God: Helmet
“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists
on a
packaged tour of the Absolute? …
Does anyone have the foggiest idea
what sort of power we blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one
believe a word of it?
…we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
–Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
  • When God has spoken, it’s precise, it’s logical and clear, it’s consistent, and often unexpected. But the God of The Shack is talky, long winded, touchy-feely, and sometimes folksy (a slangy Southern accent comes and goes).
  • The Trinity is portrayed as a “circle of life” type community with no hierarchy. The three are just very, very good friends. The Bible, however, shows Jesus willingly submitting himself to God’s authority. Jesus said repeatedly that he did what God the Father asked him to do. Portraying themselves as Father and Son in Scripture creates a very clear picture of hierarchy.

My pastor read the book and said people who read it need to know their theology. I’d agree; like any other book with spiritual content, read it, but don’t swallow it. The author, after all, is only human and The Shack is not a revelation.

But don’t lose sleep over it either; God doesn’t need us to defend him. He’s already spoken.

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    23 Comments

    1. Joye
      June 20, 2008

      Hi, Susy. I’ve been checking in on your blog periodically. Thanks for an insightful review of The Shack. Although I didn’t get particularly emotional when I read it, I too liked that Young depicted “Papa” as being interested in Mack in a very personal way. But I haven’t been able to accurately convey the author’s portrayal of the Trinity in conversation. Thanks for the help. :)
      I never saw a connection to goddess worship. But there could be a danger of falling into tri-theology if one didn’t have a good theological base while reading it.
      God bless!

    2. Tina
      July 7, 2008

      Susy, thank you for your thoughtful and insightful review. Our church is using the book as the basis for discussion in our adult Sunday school class for the next two weeks. I was feeling a bit of trepidation in expressing some of the same thoughts you have written here. I found your assessment encouraging and affirming and no longer feel narrow-minded in my own grappling with Young’s theological viewpoint. I appreciate the perspective you bring to the topic of women and the church, and your passion for Scriptural integrity. Thank You!

    3. Keri Wyatt Kent
      August 5, 2008

      Interesting and thoughtful analysis, and very helpful. I have not read The Shack yet (i’m probably the only person in America who hasn’t read it, or who hasn’t decided not to read it).
      One thing I’d challenge you on, though, is your hierarchical view of the Trinity. While Jesus does submit to the Father, all three members of the trinity demonstrate biblical mutual submission. They exist in community, indeed, they are a model of community. they all three serve one another, and submit to one another, just as we who are created in the image of God are to do. (Eph.5:21).

    4. Sue Cramer
      August 11, 2008

      Susy,
      Thank you so much for sharing this truth. I have been wondering about this book but didn’t have the time- or real strong desire to read it.
      In general, when the world embraces something so much, I am skeptical right out of the gate.
      I’m linking this today.
      Blessings,
      Sue

    5. Mary Lou
      August 11, 2008

      I agree you really need to have your theology straight. It disturbed me to picture the Trinity in this manner. I’ve listened to people discuss how much it helped them and ministered to them. It is fiction. I could not relate to it at all. I am much too visual and kept having mental pictures of the Trinity that I did not like. He does want an intimate close relationship with us, He is bigger than we realize and I’ve walked with Him for forty years and been taught by some great Biblical scholars and men of God who strictly preach the Word. I could just not put my head and heart around the book and get much out of it. My theology is so simple. If the Bible says it then it’s true, if it’s not in the Bible then I have my doubts if what I hear doesn’t line up with the Word of God. Thanks for posting the review. It helped me.

    6. Kim
      August 11, 2008

      Thanks for your review! I’ve read the book. Some things I struggled with, and a couple of things I thought about and realized I needed to hear it put in that context to further help me see myself! I agree with you about the content “read it, don’t swallow it.” All we need is the Word of God! This was a nice read, but only a read!

    7. Bill
      August 18, 2008

      I’m preaching the Second Commandment this week and was thinking about how the Shack violates the Second Commandment by reducing God to any form, woman or man… some of your thoughts and insights were very valuable and I wanted to thank you.
      Bill Pfister
      Brevard, NC

    8. Victor
      August 28, 2008

      I knew there was something not quite right about that book.
      Look up the words “Sarayu River” it comes from Hinduisim.

    9. Matt Stone
      August 31, 2008

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I haven’t read it yet but it seems you’ve trying to be balanced. I suspect from what i have heard elsewhere that i would come to similar conclusions.

    10. Nonnie
      September 9, 2008

      I had not planned to read The Shack but was asked to do so by an online acquaintance and then to tell him what I thought of the book, so I did. My comments to him were quite lengthy, but I have read the resonses that you have receive here and some of my concerns are not mentioned. I have greatly reduced my comments to these:
      The book puts much emphasis on “relationships”. Certainly God is NOT impersonal and He truly wants to be a part of every facet of our lives, but relationships are not the end of the matter.
      “Papa” says that He wants everyone to have independence. Yet Almighty God will have us to lean on Him. That’s ambiguous.
      Mack does some “flying” in his dreams (page 115-116—“As odd as it sounds, Mack had learned inside his dreams to fly…”) and “Papa” later advises him to continue his “flying” after he returns home. This sounds like “soul travel” as embraced by those that follow Echankar.
      “The Festival of Friends”—chapter 15—describes a big “party on the lawn” that is attended by children and adults that have previously died, as well as many animals, and finally flanked by a myriad of angels —it was beautiful by description and appeals to all of us that one day such a thing might happen. However, only Jesus has ascended to the Father. (John 3:13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.)
      Try every spirit and daily search the scriptures whether these things be so. (Acts 17:11)
      Be careful, little eyes, what you see. We must try every spirit and measure every word we read and hear against the truth of the Word of Almighty God. God does not wink at sin. The enemy will come at us with sweet words and beautiful images of a paradise where everything moves and operates as we would like. But that is not truth. Beginning in the Garden of Eden Satan began to twist the Word and cause mankind to try to remodel the God of the Bible into one they could rule over, rather than to serve. (Gen. 3:1-5) When the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus, His response to them was this:
      John 8:44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
      The “all forgiving, all tolerant” god of The Shack is NOT the Almighty and Holy Only-God-That-Lives of the Bible! Yes, He wants to be an integral part of our lives, but He is also righteous and cannot look on sin. There will be judgment when He comes to judge the living and the dead.

    11. Jinx Clark
      November 10, 2008

      Susy…your review is so helpful. Informative, insightful, and easy to understand. Thanks so much for doing the homework for me. Blessings…Jinx

    12. molly
      November 14, 2008

      Did you hear the interview on Steve Brown Etc of the author, Paul Young? (google it). It’s incredible, and really helps explain his vision and intention for writing the book.
      I wasn’t pleased with this and that in The Shack, but as a whole, I absolutely loved it. What an excellent (though, yes, fully human) picture into who God is and His heart towards us. I can’t tell you how many non-Christians I’ve heard reading it and talking about it. That is truly wonderful!
      Also, I agree on concerns about believing the Trinity operates in hiararchy. No Trinitarian creed (see Nicene, Athanasian, Second Helvetical Confession, etc) says that the Trinity operates in hierarchy. It’s a very new concept to Christendom, now popular but NOT in any sense orthodox.
      Jesus did submit to the Father…*while on earth.* All orthodox believers affirm that. However that was a temporary thing, not an all-eternity-before-and-after thing. The thing about saying that His submission is eternal is that it totally messes with the concept that the three members of the Trinity are all equally God. They can’t be all equally God if one is in charge of the others.
      The early church fathers fought against the idea of a hierarchy, and for good reason. It opens the door to a host of problematic views about God.
      Warmly,
      Molly

    13. Mrs.Flam
      January 7, 2009

      Thank you for writing this article , I have been eying this book for a bit now , didn’t even know what it was really about.
      I am often to pagan to be considered christian , and to christian to be considered pagan , so I like looking at things of this nature.
      I am appreciative.

    14. KR
      February 19, 2009

      Oh! How I wish we could discuss this in person! I didn’t like picturing God as a woman, but I appreciated that Young was trying to demonstrate how loving, gracious and comforting God is. I think, had he depicted God as a man, he wouldn’t have been able to portray those characteristics as well without making the man effeminate. And I really appreciated how he showed his readers that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit love us so completely. So many people, Christians included, think of God as this great big bully in the sky who wants to control us. But what I really, really liked about the book is how Young kind of put the church on its head. Up here, the habits and rituals of church attendance have replaced relationship. People go to church because they’ve always gone to church. Church leadership are put on a pedestal above those they serve. And denominations have segregated the body of Christ. All of these things are a result of man’s sin, man’s arrogance, etc. But many people are hurt in/because of church and then figure if that’s the way God wants it then he isn’t someone they want to know. I loved that Young emphasized relationship. I could go on and on. I liked the book a great deal, but mostly because it reiterated what I already knew to be true.(i.e. God doesn’t care whether you have communion on the 1st Sunday or the 3rd, He cares that you do it at all and with the right spirit) I think that saying the book could link to goddess worship is a bit of a stretch and a reader would ahve to be leaning in that direction already in order to make that leap. One thing that really upset me about the reviews I’ve read is how some Pastors are attacking Young’s character (adultery, etc). To them I say, he who has no sin can cast the first stone.

    15. Kirsten
      February 23, 2009

      so my issues after reading all these posts is this: once again (as in The Da Vinci Code) modern Christians are forgetting that this is FICTION!!!!!
      Did you know that Young wrote this to leave as a legacy for his kids?
      I am impressed!
      *****************
      Hi, Kirsten.
      I think I’m detecting some sarcasm here.
      Of course both books are fiction, but don’t forget that words are powerful and can, and do, change the world. Both books are dealing with life-or-death topics (at least for those of us who center our lives around our faith) and deserve thought, reflection, and discussion.
      They might be fiction, but don’t deserve to be so easily dismissed. Sit down, have a cup of tea, and give us your thoughts. We’d love to hear them.
      Susy
      Unmasking the Goddess

    16. Suzanne
      October 22, 2009

      At first, I was disturbed by thinking about the hierarchy of the trinity, and their physical appearances in such I different way. But by the time I ended the book I respected what it had made me ‘rethink’ about. I didn’t really leave the book thinking about God as a mother-goddess, or as a shape-shifter to meet our needs … but rather the fact that He is so much more than our Papa. He is divine and is not limited to the realities that we are. We’ve personified Him into a finite, human-like being … but I wonder if we won’t all be surprised and in awe when we finally get to see Him, and the wonders He can probably do with very little effort. After all, he’s not just our ‘papa’. He’s our creator – the maker of worlds! Yet, I truly believe He does care about each of us as a proud ‘papa’ would … and grieves with us during tragedy. And that was what the Shack was essentially about. Trying to make sense out of why God can let bad things happen … Worth reading, just because it made you think!

    17. Norris Shannon
      March 26, 2010

      As a Christian I disagreed with many things in this book, however there were things that made me look at my relationship with GOD in a new light. Mainly the love HE has for us. My main problem with the critics though is that GOD can’t possibly be a BLACK WOMAN, not that there is only one road to HIM. I think you saying GOD cant be a woman is what is limiting. How do you place any limits on what GOD can do. I don’t think cant is something you can associate with HIM.

    18. Kelly Conley
      January 16, 2012

      Hi Susy. I’m checking our your blog because I just started one. Regarding the Shack and the black woman portrayed as God, I think it was God himself who presented himself as a woman due to the “father issues” that Mackenzie had. yes, I agree that God is God and He is male. but, I know that He does meet us where we are at. And who knows, maybe God would do this for someone. I know that my understanding of God is limited. I know that He does have both a masculine and feminine side, per the scriptures. Plus at the end, once Mackenzie did deal with his father issues, God then presented himself as a man. I think I saw this book as a true fiction for the most part. I didn’t put too much stock into the “facts” of the book. Although I did love how relational the book made God out to be. My husband and I read it together and I actually cried through the whole book. Thanks for your comments.

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