There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
One of the most contentious elements of the upcoming film adaptation of William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack, concerns the way God chooses to reveal Himself within the narrative. He takes the form of a woman—an eminently maternal black woman with a penchant for comforting words and mean recipe for biscuits.
Young is no stranger to this particular controversy—his portrayal of God as a mother-figure in the 2007 publication of The Shack drew fire from some prominent theologians, even as it drew praise from others. Now this issue is already being debated anew as The Shack prepares to open in theaters across the nation.
In the story, God appears to protagonist Mack Phillips, after he receives a mysterious invitation to a place that is inextricably tied to his emotional pain—the shack where his daughter was murdered four years prior. The note is simply signed with “Papa”.
Angry and confused, Mack travels to the shack, expecting to meet his daughter’s murderer.
Instead, he finds God—not at all in the way he expects, but most certainly in the way that he needs.
Played by The Help star Octavia Spencer, this God is the very opposite of the way God is usually depicted in popular culture—the stern, bearded old white man on a distant, cloud-top throne is nowhere to be seen. Although God calls Himself “Papa,” in the film, His motherly attributes are at the forefront throughout—He cooks for, soothes, and comforts Mack at every opportunity.
Mary Kassian, distinguished professor of Women’s Studies at Southern Baptist Seminary, has his to say about this portrayal of God.
“What's the big deal? Why can't we image God as female? The main reason is that God defines who God is and how we are to image him and relate to him. God has chosen to reveal himself with male imagery. Father is HE. Son is HE. Holy Spirit is HE. That's not to say that God is male. He encompasses everything that is good about masculinity and femininity. But that doesn't mean that we have the liberty to think or refer to him as female. That's crossing a line we have no right to cross.”
There is some validity to this argument—after all, the Bible does refer to God with male pronouns throughout, and that portrayal reveals important truths about His nature and His relationship with humankind. It is by comparing God’s role to that of an earthly father within the context of a family unit that we can better understand Him.
But many of the arguments against The Shack’s portrayal of God fail to account for one thing—God’s “male-ness” is symbolic. He is a genderless, spiritual entity. “Father” is a word, an ink-stain in a holy book. God is infinite.
But there is one question that may very well decide this issue: would God be offended at being portrayed as a woman? A quick look at Genesis contains a hint to the answer.
“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Male and female He created them—distinctly, yet both in His own image. All of humankind is created in the image of God, who holds the perfected versions of al l of our attributes, masculine and feminine, alike. He is not man or woman, father or mother, but rather, He is all these things—He is God.
God wants His children to receive Him. Mack, stuck in a place of weakness and utterly destroyed by the horrendous murder of his daughter, didn’t need a father figure. It was the comfort of a mother’s arms that he needed. It was this to which he would be most receptive.
Mack’s father was an abusive, alcoholic churchgoer—in a series of memories, viewers are transported back to Mack’s childhood, and contrasting images of a man who attends church, and then abuses his family for the other six days of the week, flash by. One of the sole sources of comfort, for young Mack, was a—you guessed it—middle-aged, maternal black woman who had a way with a ladle. The image of a Bible-wielding father would have scared Mack rather than comforting him.
The image of a maternal figure, however, was exactly what Mack needed, and what God, in His infinite wisdom, provided. In the end, “Papa” becomes a man only once Mack’s heart is healed—this healing had to happen before this broken man could ever trust a father figure.
The Shack exposes the boxes we put God into—boxes that are woefully inadequate to describe His full character. And all too often, those boxes we use completely neglect God’s feminine attributes.
In Matthew 23:37, for example, Christ laments that He wants to gather His chosen people together “like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” despite the fact that they were not willing. In Isaiah 66:12, God is compared to mother comforting her child. In Hosea 13:8, God is a protective mother bear. Despite the symbolic use of fatherly imagery, there is no shortage of God’s maternal attributes in scripture.
It is these scriptural attributes that God is depicted as revealing in The Shack. This revelation in no way diminishes God’s masculine qualities—the film does not claim that this is a different God than the Father of the Bible. The story simply illustrates an important aspect of God that isn’t often considered.
Paul wrote that he, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he “became all things to all people” in order to win a few over to God. In this lies the beating heart of The Shack—God isn’t confined by our culture and assumptions.
He is, indeed, all things to all people, and within the framework of His perfect love, God meets us in our place of pain—in our Shack—in the exact and perfect way in which we need Him. Against this, there is no argument.