Article for St. Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.
One of the great success stories in publishing in recent years is the novel, The Shack, by Canadian author, William P. Young. Originally Young wrote the manuscript as a gift for his six children. Several friends read it and encouraged Young to get his book published, but no religious or secular publisher showed any interest. Young and an associate launched Wind Blown Media to publish this one book, and the marketing plan was simple; a $300 website and high hopes for word-of-mouth recommendations. The hopes were realized beyond expectation, as The Shack achieved number one Best Seller success in less than a year, with one million copies sold. It remained the number one paperback in spiritual fiction on the New York Times Best Seller list from June 2008 to early 2010, with 10 million copies in print, and translations either completed or slated for 15 languages.
What was intended for a small circle of family members has become a spiritual message of hope and forgiveness to millions, and not surprisingly a bone of contention among theologians. “The shack is the house you build out of your own pain… a metaphor of the places you got stuck and got hurt”, the place “where shame or hurt is centered” explains Young. The central figure of the story is Mack, who takes his three children camping and after a tragic accident he notices his youngest daughter Missy is missing. Soon it is discovered she has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer. Her body is never found. The pain is unbearable. A great sadness ensues, and one day Mack receives a note, signed “Papa”, inviting him to a weekend at the shack.
Papa turns out to be Father God, depicted as an African American woman, while Jesus is shown as a Middle Eastern carpenter, and Sarayu, an Asian woman, is the physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit. A series of conversation ensue as Mack seeks to come to terms with the unthinkable tragedy. While millions found solace in the story, including in countries like Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where The Shack became an instant phenomenon, it didn’t take long for controversy to ensue. The Shack was criticized for not being sufficiently doctrinally pure, by such evangelical luminaries as Chuck Colson and Southern Baptist Albert Mohler Jr.
Father God presented as an African American woman was simply too much for some.
So can God be described as a woman? According to the Bible, God is a Spirit being, beyond the distinction of male or female. The apostle Paul described God as a father, but also as a mother “that cherishes her young”. Long before Young, Jesus described our heavenly Father as a woman, when He said: “What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’” (Luke 15:8-9).
The coin, probably the type that made up the strand of coins a Middle eastern woman carried as a necklace, depicts people, while the woman, who made such a fuss about the lost coin, is our heavenly Father, as Jesus indicates in the verse following.
Can you see her? Lamp in one hand, broom in the other, bent over, searching, not giving up, until she finds that one lost coin. It is through the woman’s actions that we realize the immense value of the coin. That reminds me of God, who made a lot of fuss about each one of us by sending Jesus to show us victory over every human tragedy. Finally the coin is restored back in its intended place in the necklace. That’s the Gospel; God sees infinite value in each person, He seeks and restores us to the place of divine love we were intended to enjoy.
Male? Female? Father? Mother? God is infinitely more than any of these words, and this God lovingly reaches for every person. No wonder the story of Mack, the shack and Papa has met such a response. Never mind the theologians.