Monday, April 27, 2009

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part One: The Mother Returns

The Outhouse: Reflections on The Shack, Part One: The Mother Returns

[The Shack by William Young is a major bestseller and worthy of comment. This is the first of five quick looks at The Shack from my perspective.]

Here is the plot: Mack a married father of three who grew up in an abusive home, struggles with faith when his youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered. Mack blames God and himself for Missy’s death and is enshrouded by a Great Sadness. One day Mack receives a note in his mailbox urging him to return to the shack where his daughter’s bloody dress was found. The note is signed "Papa," the name Missy called God. Mack goes to the shack and finds Papa, who is in fact a large and jolly black woman, Jesus, and another woman named Sarayu who turns out to the be the Holy Spirit.

Representing God as a black woman seems like the punch line of an old joke, but I think it is exciting that The Shack has two of the three Gods of the Trinity manifest in female form. The classic Trinity is all male, and The Shack brings some needed balance to this. To picture the Trinity as the divine version of the seventy’s comedy Three’s Company may begin a process of gender modification much needed in western Christianity.

Making the Holy Spirit a woman is closer to the Jewish roots of the idea. In Judaism the Presence of God is called Shekhinah, a feminine gendered noun, suggesting that the intimate experience of the immanent God is somehow “feminine.”

The fact that a black woman is called Papa is even more enticing. Young is clearly muddying the gender issue. Perhaps taking God’s self revelation to Moses in Exodus, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be whatever I will be,” seriously, Young is telling us that God can appear to us as either a Father or a Mother.

As anyone who has read my book The Divine Feminine knows, the return of the Mother is an integral part of the spiritual maturation of humankind. While some religions, notably the many faces of Hinduism, never lost contact with the Mother, and while mystical Judaism makes much of the Feminine, western religion in general (Protestant Christianity and Islam especially) have relegated the Divine Feminine to the background at best. Catholicism has Mary and the cult that has grown up around her, but Protestant Christianity stripped itself of the Mother. Such an imbalance leads (as we see in Jewish, Protestant and Islamic militants) to a religion of armed adolescents (both chronological and intellectual) whose faith in God is limited to and strengthened by a warrior mentality. The fact that The Shack is a book aimed at and capturing the hearts of Protestant Christians is a very exciting sign of a quiet and deeply promising spiritual evolution in that tradition.

Once Southern Baptists take to the idea that Papa is also Mama (and Big Black Mama at that) who knows what will happen to both women’s stature in the church and civil rights in the society at large. While I do have nits to pick with The Shack, this isn’t one of them.


C. Sam Smith said...

As a former Southern Baptist--left the denomination in 1990, and now a progressive baptist--and a "friend of OOOW"--I read this commentary/post with great interest...and pleasure.
The SBC cannot be so open minded, Rabbi. Openness is not a value held by the SBC, so although I would also love to see the day when they grasp the beauty of this possibility...of God the Father actually being manifested as a black woman!
The SBC's current leadership, I am afraid, have their peripheral vision restricted and only see in the narrow band of traditional exegesis.
Once more, I very much appreciate your perspective.

AaronHerschel said...

Not to be too much of a nayser or anything, but isn't the image of a fat black momma goddess a little, I dunno, Aunt Jemima? Should we be a bit disturbed by the fact that progressive religious iconography has to dress up as kitschy racism?

AaronHerschel said...