Why was God depicted as a woman in The Shack?

Various forms of this question were also common last Thursday at Discussions on The Shack. Also the follow up question of – Is this depiction of God okay?

I believe that God was depicted as a woman in this book to provoke strong reactions in people and push the reader out of her or his comfort zone. I know that it served this purpose for me.

Absolutely. I believe that it is fine for God to be depicted as a woman in The Shack. I experienced the descriptions of the persons of the Trinity in The Shack to be helpful in stretching my imagination about God. God exhibits characteristics that as humans we associate with both male and female, mothers and fathers.

While the depiction of God as described in The Shack will likely not be my prevailing image of God, I appreciated the push it provided me to consider other ways of knowing and experiencing God.

What do you think?

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15 thoughts on “Why was God depicted as a woman in The Shack?

  1. I don’t think God was necessarily depicted as a woman. I think that was how “Papa” appeared specifically to Mack because that’s what he needed to see. My feeling is that the portrayal of the Trinity would have changed with the person’s needs.

  2. I appreciated Amy S’s comments on the last post about this. But I agree with Ben that we are better to say that God is not gendered. What does it mean to say that God is male? Do we expect God, in God’s triune fullness, to have a male body? I certainly don’t.

    But then again I believe that gender is a VERY fluid and culturally constructed category among human beings. For those who believe that “male” and “female” are static and fixed with concrete, universal differences, seeing God as woman is a whole different ballgame.

    While I was reading “The Shack” I took it into Starbucks one day and the woman behind the counter (young–under 35) said, “Oh, I’ve read that. Though some things I just don’t agree with. Like God as a woman. God is a man. I know it because the Bible said so.”

    I decided not to launch into a conversation about biblical interpretation with her. She was working the drive-thru too, seemed busy 🙂

    I wonder if anyone found the depiction of Popa (a sappy title that bothered me) racist? I read the book with all white people so we weren’t really in a position to say.

    • AEL – Interesting take on the potential racism in the comments. Again, I have nothing to offer of substance as a white person who presented the discussion to mostly white people.
      Certainly agreed that God is not gendered and that to picture God to have a male body in the fullness of the Trinity certainly does miss the mark.

  3. Some of the best work on this has been done by Ellen Charry of princeton. Two things. One the exclusively male language for God which emerged as a central element of the Monotheistic religions was in direct response to the pagan creating narratives such as the gilgamesh epic, where creation is seen as a birthing from God. The male language was necissary and important to seperating the emerging faith from their pagan surroundings. Charry makes a strong case for the retention of exclusively trinitarian language in the life of the church (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) precisely to continue counteracting the effect of neo-paganism. Some object to God being called father because of the reality that many had horrible fathers even some who experienced abuse at the hands of their fathers. Of course we all recognize that horrible father figures are nothing new to society, and certainly were prevelant in the time of Jesus. We do well to remember that Jesus instruction to his disciples to pray this way “Our Father” was set in a context where calling God Father was to suggest a potential intimacy with God that was anathama to the ruling religious culture. So rather than being overly politically correct and overly concerned with being offensive, we should take the rout of Jesus and work to rehabilitate the image of Father in this culture through the lense of the Great Father of us all. At the same time we must recognize Jesus’ efforts to raise the status of women throughout his ministry and the fact that this concerted effort certainly suggests that the Father imagry he also vigerously promoted was not in the furtherance of Patriarchal dominance, rather it was to promote a view of God that maintainse the balance betwen access (no longer mediated throught the temple), and respect (a key aspect of ancient thought about the father/child relationship).

    As for the suggestion that Gender is a social construct – thats for another day – but needless to say there is much to contend with in the scriptures that would have to be overcome before accepting such a suggestion. My sense is that the idea that Gender is a construct, is in fact a construct of late modernity, rather than being something grounded in any sense of transcendend value.

  4. wow, I have been reading these question and reply’s and am totally amazed, has anyone really read this book? I only have time for three. First, Papa is in no way racial, it was a term used in the late 1800 1900 to describe a beloved father or grandfather, Caucasian second, if you read the book, God clearly explains to Mack why he appears to him as a large black women that loves to cook and take care of people………..and last but not least.

  5. sorry hit the wrong key… God also explains in very clear terms God is God and as humans we can’t ever fathom his powers,or ability’s.Most humans can’t even get past the father, son,and holy spirit being one, in case the Star bucks lady. Sorry but I think a lot of people need to invoke the Holy-spirit and read the book again… Great book, truly take the institutionalism out of religion, and true shines that God only true love is us….

  6. Chuck—That’s a carefully reasoned argument, perhaps I should read Charry to understand the threat of “neo-paganism” but that doesn’t seem like as hot a topic to me as people who have gotten an overly critical, distant and inaccessable view of God as Father. I understand such a view is the result of bad theology but perhaps creative theology is necessary to deconstruct bad theology.

    I find it ridiculously awkward to pray to “Our Mother/Father who art in heaven” As some have suggested, so I don’t. Ever. But I also refuse to refer to God as “he.” Your defense of the word “father” doesn’t, to me, correlate to using male pronouns for God. Father is titular and descriptive of some of God’s characteristics, as you name (access and respect). “HE” is just convenient but limited and in the end meaningless when it comes to describing God.

    I appreciate you saying we need to raise the status of women in Jesus’ ministry. But I think that also means tackling the idea of God as exculsively male. Which is all William Young was doing. Until we understand that God is MORE than male, it is too tempting to think that men somehow represent (in a priestly way) God more fully than women do. And I don’t think that’s true.

  7. Of course AEL God is not male, or female, He (Yes I still us it) is Wholly other. However the use of Gender nuetral language for God is equally problematic in its theological and syntactical expression.

    We will take the latter first, I find the linguistic gymnastics we do in order to avoid saying “HE” at all cost utterly ridiculous. The language games often make pastoral prayers and pronouncements come off as complete nonsense. I’ve heard sentences as convoluted as “God needed to reveal God’s self to Gods people” In any other context a sentence thus constructed would find red marks and notations of redundancy in the margins. It just plain makes things silly.

    Second, and much more important, the personal pronoun in reference to God is of vital theological importance. I take no issue with praying to “Creator God” or “Eternal God” because certainly those are appropriate descriptors of the Almighty. However these descriptors focus on the “Transcendent” nature of God and, without equal time given to God expressed through personal pronouns (and I’m only willing to use He for the reasons mentioned aboved), we mislead people as to the full nature of the persons of the Trinity. God is both Transcendent, and Immanent. It is precisely this Immanence which Jesus came to proclaim and more precisely to enflesh, and so his admonishment to pray “Our Father” and the consequent import of referring to God as “He” is undermined if we do not regularly use the personal pronoun. That is unless we believe that words don’t really matter, in which case none of this really matters, because nothing I have said or anyone has said in this regard has any actual meaning. If I believed that were the case, id just “Eat Drink and Be Merry”! Of course I don’t believe that so I’ll pray this for us all “May the God of all glory, the God of all creation, The God who formed the Heavens and all it contains bless you and keep you, may He make his face to shine upon you, may he draw near to you and bring you peace, In the Name of the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit – Amen.

  8. Chuck–I cringe at the difficult linguisitc gymnastics as much as you. And I don’t do them, they really aren’t necessary if one pays attention, and thinks a little bit.

    If we want to keep personal pronouns, let’s call God, the Father, God: Jesus, the Son, “he”, and the Holy Spirit, “she.”
    That provides good trinitarian balance for me.

  9. I think one critical aspect of the language in the Trinitarian formula is that the terms ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ are not meant to describe the characteristics, attributes or functions of God or the persons within the Trinity, but rather is one of the few times in our theological language about God where we try to consider the nature and relation of the Godhead vis-a-vis God. ‘Father’ is thus not meant to denote, in the case of trinitarian language, God as creator of the world, God’s providence over the world or any other images we may conjure of God vis-a-vis the world or anything else but God. Rather, the ‘Fatherhood’ of the Father is directly related to the ‘Sonship’ of the Son- this describes a relation of ‘being-for’ and ‘being-from’, a gift of self and subsequent reciprocation of the gift of self within the Godhead. The biological analogy was (and is) meant to capture the idea that the Son really is a Son, as the Creed says- true God from true God.

    The difficulty with substituting the ‘Father’ with ‘God’, the ‘Son’ with ‘he’ and the ‘Holy Spirit’ with ‘she’ (in regards to pronouns) is two-fold: Firstly, ‘God’ is not a pronoun. As the term ‘Father’ denotes relation and not attribute, to use a term that points to underlying substance of divinity in relation to the Father alone rather than to a relation obfuscates what is intended to be conveyed by the term ‘God.’ Secondly, as regarding the Trinitarian relations, to use a non-personal non-pronoun in relation to the Father and then a personal pronoun in relation to the Son would obfuscate the idea that is meant to be conveyed vis-a-vis the relation of the Father and Son by employing the language of ‘Father’ and ‘Son.’

  10. No problem deviantmonk. I understand that the relational aspect is very important. So let’s call God “she”, sometimes, and have a Mother/Son relationship, sometimes. The point is that always using male language is a limitation. You have said nothing that argues for exclusively male language.

    To insist that it must be a Father/Son relationship, to say that there is something unique in fathering and soning, (over Mother/Daughter or Father/Daughter or Mother/Son, or Parent/Child), is to prioritize 1/2 the population since some of us never have the chance to embody a father or son role.

  11. AEL,

    Precisley incorrect – Again re-read my earlier rational for the vital importance of male language as a differintiator not formed around gender but around theological distinction. You asked about the need to continue this distinction given our current cultural situation and the reality of the threat from neo-paganism today. I would say NOW MORE THAN EVER. To the extent there is a “Spiritualizing” of our cultural context that has moved away from the traditional Judeo Christian Values, the tendency of this spiritualization is deeply aligned with neo-pagan thought. It comes through in terms like “Be your Best Self” and presents itself primarily in terms of the psychological achievement of self actualization. It is epitomized by the “Oprah” movements like “The Secret” and “New Earth”. These movements are neo-pagan in nature in that they do not reflect paganism precisely, but rather have adopted and extended it in a way that is transformed by our political egalitarianism/constitional liberalism. So we see a strong and growing impact of eastern religion but without the corallary of the cast systems and other elements thought to be to harsh for post enlightenment people. I am convinced that to move into the Mother/Daughter language is a consession to these trends, and I think we should re-articulate the wisdom of the Early Church, and the New Testament peoeple of God in this regard.

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