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Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

Choosing Between Two Holy Places

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

It’s Saturday morning. I dig through a clump of pink and green plastic princess necklaces as I search for my dove pendant, an image of the Holy Spirit I ritualistically grab to go with the dress I wear to officiate a funeral. I smile because the plastic necklaces are sure signs that someone else has been here today: my feisty two-and-a-half year old. I hear her defiant protest as I finally clasp the dove. “Mama! Come play with me!”

“I can’t sweetheart. Mama’s gotta go to work.”

Today the work I am called away to is a funeral, not altogether surprising work for a pastor. My daughter’s small, protesting voice keeps ringing in my ears and in my heart as her dad tries to distract her with an alluring tea party while I sneak out the door and quickly head to the car.

It is holy work, having the privilege of “marrying and burying,” carrying God’s blessing through the various stages of human existence. Weddings and funerals are a joy of my calling as pastor. But they also tend to fall on Saturdays – days that are typically reserved for my family.

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