Best-selling novel and upcoming film The Shack invites us to reassess how we interpret the holy trinity and to recognise the inclusivity and compassion that it represents
Central to the theology of what are called the ‘three great’ (Abrahamic) monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is the declaration: “The Lord our God (Jehovah; Allah) is One.” While the belief that there is only one God is essential to all three religious identities, Christianity has always had an added conundrum, insisting that God is ‘Three-in-One’, traditionally depicted as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is known in theology as the Trinity which, while not a word actually used in Hebrew or Christian scriptures, was used from about the 4th-century onwards. If true, then it should have made of ‘Christianity’ a revolutionary, authentic, world-changing way of life and the fulfilment of the entire direction of Judaism towards the revelation of the long-awaited Messiah (or “Christ” from the Greek χριστος christos). Indeed, for a minority from among the Jews and then non-Jews (“Gentiles”) for the first three centuries following the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, it was so. However, for the last 1,700 years, this has clearly not been the case.
In his classic study The Trinity, Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit, writes: “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists.’ We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious [Christian] literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”
This seems largely true, notwithstanding fervent claims by certain movements such as the Pentecostal and Charismatic wings of the Evangelical denominations to have re-appropriated the power and ‘person’ of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity may well have remained a misunderstood pre-occupation within a Christian enclave had a certain William Paul Young not written what has become an all-time best-selling novel (over 20 million copies sold to date), The Shack.
For the first time since the 4th-century Cappadocian Fathers (from Cappadocia, in modern day south-eastern Turkey), the Trinity has become the inspirational topic of dinner table dialogue and cappuccino conversations. Ten years since its publication, The Shack continues to inspire, excite, enrage or transform its readers, to varying degrees.
First, the book: what is all the fuss about? The Shack is published as fiction and tells the story of one man’s “Great Sadness” which is turned into a Great Hope. Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter is abducted during a family holiday and all the evidence points to her having been savagely murdered in a remote and derelict lake-side shack. Four years after the tragedy, Mack receives a bizarre note in his mailbox inviting him to return to the shack for a weekend. Even more curiously, the note is signed “Papa” – the very personal name that Mack’s wife, Nana, uses for God.
Upon arrival, Mack encounters the Papa of the note in the person of a large, black, African-American woman. He then gets to meet the ‘other’ aspects of God: Jesus, the son, depicted as a not-especially-handsome, brown man of Middle-Eastern origin, and Sarayu, an Asian woman, typifying the Holy Spirit. As the story unfolds, Young, through Mack, asks the big questions, like: “Where is God in the midst of human tragedy, unspeakable pain and suffering?” The answers he gets and which are played out in the book are astounding and, according to thousands of verifiable testimonies, absolutely life-changing.
Even so, the book’s implications concerning the identity and persons of God have divided Christian opinion – the fundamentalist, Evangelical wing of the Christian church in particular – with many taking issue with the presentation of God the Father as a woman and, ‘worse’, a black woman. In addition, depicting the Holy Spirit also as a woman has further challenged traditional interpretation and exposed the corporate ignorance of just who this third person is supposed to be.
In fact, the Holy Spirit as female is a fundamental element of Hebrew Scripture and has been since, literally, the beginning. This identification has been hiding in plain sight. Indeed, the Hebrew book, Genesis, opens with these famous lines: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving [literally, ‘brooding’] over the surface of the water.” The Hebrew word throughout the Old Testament for Spirit is Ruach, a feminine noun. Furthermore, the Genesis account goes on to state, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness,’…God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”
While traditional doctrine rightly states that God is neither male nor female (but both male and female) no observer of Judaism, Islam or Christianity can fail to notice the vehemently patriarchal nature of these three religions and the absence of any female element in the portrayal of God.
Repeatedly quizzed about the ‘shocking’ depiction of God the Father (Papa) as an African-American woman, author Young explains that words are metaphors and that he was seeking to avoid common stereotypes about the person and nature of God. Most of all, he was eager to avoid what he calls the “Gandalf-with-attitude” image of a stern, distant, difficult-to-please and demanding, white Father figure. He is also aware from his own experience of just how traumatic and loaded the term ‘Father’ is for so many of us today.
While The Shack clearly tackles our image and understanding of God from an arguably Christian perspective, its themes are not meant to be exclusive, or even Christian. In a conversation with “Jesus” in the book, Mack is struggling to understand what being a Christian means. “‘Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian,’” Jesus replies, pointedly. He goes on to explain: “‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.’”
Mack then asks if he means that all roads lead to him. “‘Not at all,’ smiled Jesus… Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.’”
Because of the above scene (among others), Young has been accused of ‘Pluralism’, by which it is argued that all religions lead to the one, true God. The above quotation suggests otherwise, but does imply a second charge brought against the book which is of ‘Universalism’. To this criticism, Young accedes, insofar as Christian Universalists hope and believe in the ultimate redemption of all mankind. Crucial to this idea is that God’s judgements are not retributive, as both Catholic and Protestant (especially Evangelical fundamentalist) traditions have always claimed, but restorative.
Not only does The Shack aim to enlarge our vision of who God is, but also how much more there is to God than our feeble metaphors or allegories can grasp and iterate. Since the publication of the book, a lot has happened in modern Christian theology and practice, not least of which is the way that a totally new understanding and interpretation of what was always supposed to be a Trinitarian faith: God as Three-in-One, is ‘hot’ news again. In fact, a number of commentators have realised that it is not a new understanding so much as a recovered one. Indeed, there has emerged a whole new dimension of modern theology being promulgated by people described as “The New Trinitarians”.
One independent theologian had been grappling for years with Trinitarian theology and the implications of what he saw as the traditional misrepresentation of the Gospel by all organised Christian traditions, when he was urged to read The Shack and recognised in it the ideas he had been working through.
Dr. C. Baxter Kruger is founder of the Perichoresis groups in America and Australia. The group name comes from the 4th-century Cappadocian Fathers who coined it as a description of the nature of the relationship among the Trinity. Perichoresis (from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, “rotation”) is a term referring to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another. We get the word ‘choreography’ from it and, in addition, the relationship has been called The Great Dance (see Baxter Kruger, The Great Dance) and The Divine Dance (see Fr Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance).
So impressed was Kruger by the themes explored in The Shack that he wrote a theological study, titled The Shack Revisited. At one point he explains: “that this triune God, in amazing and lavish love, determined to open the circle and share the Trinitarian life with others. This is the one, eternal and abiding reason for the creation of the world and of human life. There is no other God, no other will of God, no second plan, no hidden agenda for human beings. Before the creation of the world, the Father, Son and Spirit set their love upon us and planned to bring us to share and know and experience the Trinitarian life itself. Unto this end the cosmos was called into being, and the human race was fashioned, and Adam and Eve were given a place in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son himself, in and through whom the dream of our adoption would be accomplished.”
Rather than our traditional monarchist view of God, whereby there is a pyramidal, hierarchic chain of command (even among the trinity), The Shack offers a completely new paradigm. In another theological exploration of the book, Finding God in The Shack, Randal Rauser, associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada, summarises this alternative (page 15): “The question here concerns whether the Father is ultimately in charge of the Trinity so that the Son and the Spirit eternally submit to him. Or could it be that the Father is as submitted to the Son and Spirit as they are to him? Deciding whether there is authority and submission or mutual submission within God could have radical implications for how we organize our relationships here on earth…The view of The Shack is that all the divine persons are submitted to one another and to the creation, and so all human persons should also be submitted.”
Regardless of the theological implications and the often-heated discussions surrounding The Shack, it has clearly had a huge impact on the over 20 million readers, not only of Christian persuasion, but of all faiths and none. In the Foreword to The Shack Revisited, Paul Young explains: “The Shack was never intended to be a systematic theology or another book of pragmatic proof texts useful for badgering unwitting unbelievers into religious submission. It is fiction and it is a story. It is an utterly human tale, rife with the mystery of journey and failure, of loss and uncertainty, of deep and precious desires and questions.”
Not only have the book’s sales been stratospheric, but its message is about to gain an even wider audience. Liongate have now finished making and editing the film, The Shack, directed by Stuart Hazeldene (Life of Pi and The Blind Side), and starring Sam Worthington (Mack), Octavia Spencer (Papa), Aviv Alush (Jesus) and Tim McGraw (Mack’s friend, Willie), due for release next month.
Whatever one gets from reading The Shack, or through experiencing the (text-faithful) film version, it is through the eyes of our spirits and the ears of our hearts that revelation comes, rather than our limited intellect. As Randal Rauser concludes (page 160): “Perhaps the most we can hope for is to attain glimpses of the beauty, harmony, and unconditional love at the heart of God.” There can, surely, be no better hope for our beleaguered world.
Book: The Shack by William P Young (Hodder & Stoughton General Division, 2007)
Film: The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldene – US release date 3rd March 2017
Image from: http://bit.ly/2lLn2tC
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