From time to time one of my books goes missing. I usually fail to write it down when someone borrows one of my books. Occasionally a borrower may forget to return it. (I must admit that I also have a few books in my library that I borrowed, and that I have forgotten whom to return them to. And from time to time some books must be recycled to make place for new books.
I do not remember what happened to The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. Some ten years ago I bought this book in a Christian bookstore in Sidney. I may have lend it to someone after I had read it. Anyway, it was not longer there when I looked for it. But early last month I happened to see it in Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the USA, and, as I write, the book lies on my desk in front of me. Worldwide some 25 million copies of the book have been sold. The Dutch edition sold over 25 thousand copies.
The book begins with the story of a little girl that is abducted during a family camping vacation. The police finds evidence that she was murdered in a deserted shack, somewhere in Oregon. Four years later Mack, the father, who still mourns his little girl, receives a letter inviting him to return to the shack. It seems that the letter comes from God himself. Very hesitatingly Mack returns to the shack, where he finds three persons: a black woman, an Arabic-looking young man and an Asian young woman. They present themselves as the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God in a totally different form from what Mack imagined God to be. In the long conversations that take up much of the book the three try to bring Mack to some new insights about God and to reconcile him with the terribly event that had happened.
The reviews of the book vary from ‘rubbish’ to ‘absolutely amazing’. Many readers felt the book was blasphemous, while many others say the book has immensely enriched their spiritual life. I am somewhere in between. I do not believe the book has significant literary qualities, but it has given me food for thought. The theme of human suffering remains relevant for all of us, and is addressed in this book in a creative and meaningful way. But the special value of this book is the way in which God is pictured.
It is perhaps not very shocking to see Jesus presented as a young Arab, even though most people are more familiar with pictures of Jesus as a white European of American young man. Of course, this is not what Jesus looked like when he was on earth. The Holy Spirit as a young Asian woman—what do we make of that? Most people do not have any mental picture of the Spirit. It remains mostly very vague who and what the Spirit is. In early Christianity the Spirit was often spoken of in female terms. However, God the Father as a beautiful black woman of about forty—for many readers this is simply a bridge too far. This is the total opposite from the way they picture God the Vader. Inspired by medieval paintings they imagine God as an old, white (!) male (!), with a long white beard. But why would it be all right to think of God as a white man, and not as a black woman?
A theology professor at an Adventist university once told me that, when he teaches a class about the Doctrine of God, and specifically about the Trinity, he tells his students that—beside several heavy theological books—they must read The Shack. He believes it is essential that students realize it is possible to picture the triune God in many different ways, but we can never get beyond human images. God is so infinitely different from us that we can never define him (?). Even when we say that God is a ‘person’, we do not really know what we mean. The problem is that we can never describe the Indescribable One with our limited human vocabulary. We must carefully search for words and images that will lift us above our own human level, but as soon as we have said something about God we must take a step back and admit that it was no more than human stammering and that we have not penetrated into the mystery of God.
No, God the Father is not a black woman, but neither is he a gray-haired old man. He is God. He/she is my God, who in some mysterious way gives meaning and future to my life. And let us realize that, if we are looking for an image of God, as something concrete that we can hold on to, this image never represents the divine reality. For God does not live in our human ‘shack’, but in heaven (whatever that word may mean).