You’ve probably seen the trailer for the film adaptation of William Paul Young’s wildly popular novel The Shack recently going around the internet. As is probably expected, the movie, which hits theaters this week, is reigniting the controversy surrounding the book.
If you’ve been around Christian circles long, you know this controversy isn’t new. But if you may not know—especially if the controversy is news to you—what exactly all the fuss is about.
In the book, as in the new movie, a grieving father meets God in the form of three individuals who make up the Trinity: a Jewish carpenter (Jesus), an Asian woman (Holy Spirit) and an African-American woman (Father—played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer).
And that’s where things get controversial. Here’s a look at the problems critics see—and what some even call “heresy.”
God as three individuals.
In the novel, Mack, the main character, goes to the shack and sees three individuals and immediately assumes that they represent the Trinity, but is surprised when he asks for God and all three of them answer. This reignited the controversy behind the theology of modalism, which says that God is one individual that presents itself in three different ways, but is ultimately still one person.
He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.” [Page 87]
The novel also goes on to describe the three God individuals as all submitting to one another and to Mack—and presumably every individual human—an idea many fear could easily become dangerous and lead into idolatry.
God as a woman.
In the novel, “Papa” is only different from the way God is biblically characterized in gender—Papa is compassionate, loving and fully invested in Mack.
However, we refer to God almost exclusively using masculine pronouns. The Bible also refers to God using masculine pronouns, but also talks about God being beyond gender.
The book’s original publisher, Wayne Jacobsen, has explained that the decision to see God as a woman—and as non-white—was to show that God can reveal himself and work through anyone.
“The paternalistic mind-set that a man can reveal God to the world better than a woman can is a mistake, and part of the book is meant to undermine that,” he told the Washington Post last year.
Williams Paul Young’s Response
As we reported earlier, William Paul Young explained in an interview last year with GoodReads that he wanted to challenge people’s ideas about the character and nature of God with his work of fiction.
The word “mercy” is from the same root in Hebrew as the word “womb,” and so every time you read “mercy” you are dealing with the maternal nature of God …
We need to have a conversation that deepens our understanding of, and appreciation for, what being human is all about and that everybody, in my view, every single human being is a unique expression of the spectrum of both the masculine and feminine, because God is neither male nor female.
He also seemed to welcome the controversy—and conversation—the has book caused, saying, he liked the “visceral response way more than I appreciate ambivalence,” explaining,
At least with an angry person you can have a conversation, because when people are upset, something in them is being challenged enough to raise their ire, and that’s an engaged process and opens up the possibility of really great conversation. I love the questions, I love the conversation, and I think it’s our way forward.
Regardless of your take on The Shack, there’s no denying its renewed buzz is sure to stir up some interesting conversations.