Talking about the nature of God is always good
The Shack, a novel by William P. Young, is being made into a movie and it isn’t surprising that many Christians are up in arms about it. I read the book a few years back and found it fascinating, but I missed out on the controversy that came with it when it was first published in 2007.
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 [sic] in the Bible — has some critics incensed.
Does anyone remember how God appeared to the ancient Israelites in Exodus 13:21?
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.
And in Psalm 91:4, God appears to take on the characteristics of an avian.
[The Most High] shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Appearance, solid existence, and what each of those concepts mean seem to be the key issue when it comes to this controversy, but the problem is much more simple than that.
Even many Christians cannot not quite wrap their minds around the sovereignty of God and, therefore, around His omnipotence. He can appear as a cloud, a pillar of fire, or as a female member of the species He created. And, in this context, we might consider one of the names of God: El Shaddai.
El is another name that is translated as “God” and can be used in conjunction with other words to designate various aspects of God’s character. Another word much like Shaddai, and from which many believe it derived, is shad meaning “breast” in Hebrew (some other scholars believe that the name is derived from an Akkadian word Šadu, meaning “mountain,” suggesting strength and power). This refers to God completely nourishing, satisfying, and supplying His people with all their needs as a mother would her child. Connected with the word for God, El, this denotes a God who freely gives nourishment and blessing, He is our sustainer.
(Emphasis mine.) This does not mean that God is a woman.
Omnipotence and sovereignty–much less all the other attributes of God listed in the Bible–are hard pills to swallow, even for some of us four-dimensional beings who acknowledge that there is a whole aspect of reality that, because of our human limitations, is nearly inconceivable and, usually, imperceptible.
There is another simple problem with criticism of the novel; Young never says or intimates through the plot of the novel that God the father is a black woman or that the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. In fact, he goes out of his way to demonstrate the opposite by contrasting “their”[i] nature with that of Jeshua, who, in the novel and the movie, both appears as and is a Middle Eastern human male.
Like any good novelist, Young gives his audience credit for being able to figure this out by reading the book instead of taking what other say about it as…ahem…gospel truth.
Simple. And fundamental. I plan on seeing this movie.
Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah!
[i] As a human being with attendant limitations, I am content with not being able to entirely understand the concept of God’s triunity.
Juliette Akinyi Ochieng blogs at baldilocks. (Her older blog is located here.) Her first novel, Tale of the Tigers: Love is Not a Game, was published in 2012. Her second novel will be done one day soon! Follow her on Twitter.
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