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Yes, God Is Real, but What Does God Look Like?: Social Imagination and Construction of God in William P. Young’s The Shack

The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.” This quote from Rob Bell’s highly unorthodox introductory “manual” to Christianity, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (2005), embodies many of the issues Christians, non-believers, and those somewhere in between on their faith journeys wrestle with, relative to humans’ conceptualization of God. One of the aspects of God humans attempt to ration is God’s appearance, or image. With much of human knowledge rooted in an anthropocentric understanding of phenomenon, especially that of the spiritual, questions surrounding the image, construction, and nature of God pervade human collective thought. Does God exist in the Unitarian or Trinitarian? Is God raced? Is God gendered? Since the inception of the Christian Church, an insatiable desire for visualizing God as a tangible being resulted in the socialization of religion. Androcentric, or male-dominated, spiritual and worldviews governed social interactions and cultural configurations, thereby eventually infiltrating the realm of religion. The conflation of church and state allowed for the simultaneous suppression of women (and overtly feminine men) and persons who lacked culturally favored phenotypic traits (i.e. fair skin complexion). However, contemporary exegesis of sacred texts and interpretations of doctrine in the Abrahamic religions provide a myriad of worldviews of God’s “image.”  In an attempt to further complicate and offer explanations to these theological queries, William P. Young explores the social imagination and construction of God in his novel, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (2007).

Young refutes the widely held assertion of God’s singular identity as an old, White, heterosexual man, by creating depictions of the Almighty as a triune deity manifested as a large, older Black woman named Elousia (God, the “Father”), a Middle Eastern, middle-aged muscular man named Jesus (God, the Son), and an Asian, middle-aged woman named Sarayu (God, the Holy Spirit). By portraying God as three persons, yet fully one united body, Young accepts the Christian construction of God as a “Holy Trinity.”  Young’s re-appropriation of the image of God, the “Father,” as a woman of African descent provokes readers to deconstruct the constraints (and restraints) placed on God’s appearance and image, due to the prevalence of Eurocentric ideals and social values. “Papa,” one of Young’s alternate names for God, is neither male or female, which begins to incorporate the Afrocentric worldview of a supreme, creator being as an unsexed, multi-gendered spirit that intercedes in the necessary capacities of the spiritual adorer (Akbar, 1984). In the following excerpt, the protagonist Mackenzie Phillips questions the widespread notion of God as a father figure versus a more maternalistic authority:

“[W]hy is there such an emphasis on you being a Father?…“Well, responded Papa…“there are many reasons for that, and some of them go very deep. Let me say for now that we knew once the creation was broken, true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering. Don’t misunderstand me, both are needed—but an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence” (Young 79). 

Though Young insinuates the dominant view of God as “masculine” as an accurate conceptualization, he offers rationale behind the supposed necessity for a traditionally envisioned father figure. The societal expectations and structures created by humankind (mostly by European/Euro-American men) crafted men as being incapable of nurturing and emotionally supportive, but as experts in protection and making material provisions for loved ones. However, non-western religious traditions, especially pre-colonial West Africa religions, emphasized the fluid nature of sexual and gender expression among deities (Kambon, 1998). Since those deities, much like the Christian God, are more perfect extensions of the human spirit, we may presume if humans were truly made in the “image” and “likeness” of God, then character traits lack gender, and the introduction of social constructs and values into religious expression taint the purity of the spiritual experience. To make this point more applicable, consider the nature of birth within the Christian context. Birth requires the participation of both sexes. Women physically give birth to humankind, while re-birth in the Spirit occurs at the hand of Jesus, the Christ, who appeared as a man while on Earth. Therefore, the physical and spiritual phenomena of birth require dialogic intersections of the feminine and masculine, respectively. God is an unsexed, multi-gendered entity who acts in whatever capacities that are necessary for humans (Young 83).

To borrow the concept of Afrocentric philosopher and scholar-activist, Marimba Ani, the process of “cultural othering” occurs when differences among the collective are made salient, thereby creating factions and false notions of self-appointed power in a formerly co-equal and consubstantial space—the place where God abides, be it physical or spiritual (Ani, 1994). Communalistic, not nomadic, attitudes accomplish the love of God, according to Young’s God, Elousia. Particular love, i.e. God’s love, is an interdependent event, and its success is contingent upon the genuine contribution of all humans. In contrast, abstract love, i.e. the philosophical notion of love often applied by humans in spiritual encounters with God, enables certain people to further themselves from reality into a more ethereal state where humans are expendable, and God’s love is compartmentalized for use and adoration at their leisure. The pervasiveness of abstract love, instead of particular love, also contributes to this singular identity construction of God. Young explores the idea of “collective difference for greater benefit” when Mack begs the question of the need for variance among humans. Elouisa/God responds by saying, “To reveal myself to you as a very, large white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes” (Young 78). Because of a predominant Eurocentric orientation, Christians often categorize or impose a hierarchy of authority, relative to the Trinitarian God—God, the Father is first and most dominant, God the Son is second and most closely associated with the lived human experience, and God, the Holy Spirit is third, esoteric, and holds the least value and place in more refined Christian practices. The linearity of this imagination of God reinforces notions of anthropocentric modes of power and authority; thereby, religion becomes a socializing tool of its practitioners. Mack’s apparent discomfort with God’s revelation as a Black woman addresses a larger issue of acceptance (not just tolerance) of all God’s people, irrespective of gender, race, class, age, etc.

 Furthermore, some readers may question Young’s decision to use Mack, the White, Christian [or nominally so], heterosexual, middle-class male protagonist, as the individual “privileged” to this pre-death, vis-à-vis encounter with God. Some may think that Young’s choice may reinforce, or perpetuate the notion that God only loves and accepts those who are, at once, White, Christian, heterosexual, male and belong to the middle or upper class. However, Young’s character needed to be, characteristically, the aforementioned in order to illustrate the ill-constructed and unequal social values generated and sustained by members of this ruling order. By no means do I insinuate that White men are evil or not God-like, but if we think about modern society as a large, majestic oak tree, many of its roots, especially the religious ones, are grounded in White supremacist and patriarchal ideals. Young’s Elousia/God remarks that humankind’s “Fall from Grace…divorced the spiritual and the physical,” which introduced notions of separating subjectivity and objectivity, or cognitive from affective, when in essence, the two were originally designed to work in tandem with each another (Young 189).

 William Young’s The Shack boasts a great deal of theological debates regarding God’s image and nature that have plagued theologians, both academic and lay, for centuries. A theme constant throughout his book is how religion becomes subjected to socialization, and how it acts as a socialization tool. Humans construct personal images of God based on lived experiences, and no malice or harm occurs until that personal construction becomes imposed on others with the intent of “othering” the cultural systems and belief undergirding the imposee’s perception of God. The most important message Young makes clear in his book is that the uniform image of God should be one of love, truth, and respect. Envisioning God through human faculties evolves into a level of complexity in which God often abides in the periphery. Therefore, we should “see” God as love and love, only. 

  • 20 January 2012
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