Author of The Shack responds to critics
‘Do I actually believe that God is a large black African American woman? Of course not,’ says William Paul Young
Controversial film The Shack has already hit US cinemas and is forecast to reach Australian shores later this year.
Based on the 2007 book of the same name, The Shack follows the journey of Mack, who after the abduction and presumed death of his youngest daughter, Missy, receives a letter and suspects it is from God, asking him to return to The Shack where Missy may have been murdered. While there, he has an encounter with God that changes his life. The book remains one of the most successful Christian books ever published.
Critics have trashed the film, but it has still done reasonably well at the box office.
In 2008 Sheridan Voysey, former host of Open House on Hope 103.2 (which will relaunch this week after an 18-month hiatus), caught up with the author of The Shack, William Paul Young, to find out why he wrote the book and how he has responded to some of the critics. He gave Eternity permission to republish portions of that interview.
SHERIDAN VOYSEY: You say in the book that you want to get the movie out because you want to give ‘an accurate understanding of God’s character and nature’. With all the theological questions that have been raised about it could you be inaccurate in any way in The Shack?
WILLAM PAUL YOUNG: Of course.
People are saying the book introduced them both back to scripture and back to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. – William Paul Young
SV: Would you then change any of it?
WPY: No. Because it’s a book written by a human being. It’s obviously flawed, I wrote it. So the point is not to change it to try to get it to conform to somebody’s understanding of orthodoxy… Let it become what causes or promotes a conversation, because that’s what’s happening and it’s happening from the grass roots up. I get about 100 emails a day and they’re not emails saying that The Shack was a nice read but now they’re going to find something else. They’re saying that their relationship with God has been absolutely transformed. They’re from people who have had their own great sadness, their own great loss. People are saying the book introduced them both back to scripture and back to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and I’m talking about people who are coming from an atheist point of view. Frankly, reading the atheist literature, I don’t believe that God exists either. I’m with them for the most part because they’re attacking the religious God that I’m attacking.
SV: And you’re getting people to talk about God, which is great.
WPY: I had a guy who stood up recently in a Q&A session, tears running down his face. He was in his forties and said, ‘I just got a phone call from my mother. She’s been a devout atheist her whole life and she just called me and said, “I’ve finished The Shack. I now believe that there is a God and that Jesus is the Son of God.”’ I take one email like that and I don’t care about all the controversy, what people are upset about, or how it’s running up against people’s paradigms. I don’t care. It’s worth it all.
If we get the character of God wrong from the get go, everything else spills in the wrong direction. – William Paul Young
SV: In The Shack, you’ve picked up the two big questions of life really: one, the very nature of God – who really is this God? And two, the goodness of God – where is he in a world of evil and suffering?
WPY: In this world of uncertainty we can’t even seem to be able to get God to be certain in his behaviour, so where are we going to put our feet in terms of certainty? It has to be the character of God. If we get the character of God wrong from the get go, everything else spills in the wrong direction. Frankly, a lot of us who’ve grown up in a religious system – and I’m a missionary’s kid and a preacher’s kid – the God that we began to believe in was largely our own fathers.
I painted the face of God with the face of my father for many, many years and that was a God who is distant, angry, the deistic G-O-D ‘out there’ who was looking for an opportunity to hurt us, punish us, or whatever. So we end up with a theology that is basically that we need to find a way to please God.
Pain is going to be a part of our world; where is God in the middle of it? – William Paul Young
SV: You present the lead character Mack as this deeply troubled guy who feels guilt as well as grief over the loss of his daughter Missy. I don’t think anybody can read that part of the story, or indeed probably the rest of the story, without a tear in the eye. I think the characterisation of grief you’ve incorporated there is quite powerful.
WPY: I wanted to portray the deepest kind of pain, which I think is the relationship of a parent to a child. That deep pain asks the best questions and those are the questions I don’t want to avoid with my own children. Pain is going to be a part of our world; where is God in the middle of it?
I wanted to attack the ‘white grandfather Gandalf with an attitude’ paradigm of God. I don’t want my kids just thinking of God that way. – William Paul Young
SV: Mack meets God. Christians understand that there is one God and yet in some mysterious way that God is actually made up of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And your portrayal of the trinity is certainly creative. You call the Father Papa, and you present Papa as an African American woman. You have Jesus as a middle eastern carpenter. And you portray the Holy Spirit as this wispy, colourful Asian-looking woman called Sarayu.
WPY: It’s a Hindi word that means ‘the common wind that catches you by surprise’. I love the wind as a metaphor [for the Holy Spirit]; it’s all through scripture.
The trinity, you have to understand, is so central to what I believe because it embeds relationship directly in the nature of God. To me that’s essential.
SV: Why this portrayal though? Why portray God the Father—Papa—as an African American woman?
WPY: There are different layers as to why. One is that I wanted to attack the ‘white grandfather Gandalf with an attitude’ paradigm of God. I don’t want my kids just thinking of God that way.
The second reason is that it fit the story. McKenzie [Mack] has a huge issue with his father and he relates to God as father from the neck up, as it were—intellectually and theologically but he doesn’t allow that to penetrate to his heart. Like me (because McKenzie is me), he’s basically painted the nature and character of God with the face of his own father and he has a very difficult history with his own dad.
Any imagery [for God] is going to be inadequate. – William Paul Young
The third is that I wanted to watch God build a bridge to Mack’s heart that bypassed the bias Mack had against God as father. When I was looking for someone in western culture who exhibited some of those nurturing, loving, in-your-face-but-I’m-absolutely-committed-to-you-unconditionally kind of qualities, a large black African American woman fit. I come from a black culture, even though I’m white. I didn’t know I was white until I went to boarding school and it was a huge disappointment.
But from day one, when I’m thinking about doing this for my kids, that was there. Theologically it was to push the paradigms. Any imagery [for God] is going to be inadequate. I don’t care if it’s male or female. There are lots of female names and descriptions of God in scripture. That part I’m fine with. I just wanted to tackle it.
SV: What other misconceptions about God, in your mind, were you trying to clear up then through writing The Shack?
WPY: The fact that relationship is central to the heart of God, as opposed to religion. Religion is you performing your way to try and get into the heart of God. It has this sense that God planned how to make us as miserable as he possibly could, whereas what I think Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done is invite us into their relationship. That invitation was planned for and accomplished through the person of Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the earth—Ephesians 1:5.
This whole scenario of relationship is really important to me. When you look at the religious systems of the world most of the time you have a singularity, a monad, as a God. In Islam, for example, you don’t have a God who loves. You have a God who is compassionate because he can perform the activity of compassion, but he cannot love because for a monad, a singularity, to love he would need to have that subject/object. But within Father, Son and Holy Spirit the love is already there. There is this other-centeredness, this other-relatedness…
McKenzie point blank asks God, ‘So do all roads lead to Papa?’ and Jesus laughs and says, ‘No, most roads don’t lead anywhere. But I will tell you this: I will go down any road to find you.’ – William Paul Young
I don’t think God came in Christ to set up a new religion called Christianity to compete with all the other ones that existed. I think he came to destroy religion at its base by introducing a relationship, by reaching to us. See, that’s another point that’s got me into a little trouble too. There’s a scene where McKenzie point blank asks God, ‘So do all roads lead to Papa?’ and Jesus laughs and says, ‘No, most roads don’t lead anywhere. But I will tell you this: I will go down any road to find you.’ Because people hear me use the phrase ‘any road’ they suddenly think I’m sort kind of a universalist. That’s just the incarnation; that is ‘I am the good shepherd’ and ‘I leave the 99 to go find the one lost sheep’. This is the God who says, ‘I know you are so lost in all your darkness and inability to see so I’m coming to you.’ That’s Papa coming through the door in a way that McKenzie can embrace him, even though it’s a struggle for him. It builds a bridge.
Overall, I am so positive about the controversy because it’s an example of people bringing to the table what they have. – William Paul Young
SV: You come across as a very approachable guy so I don’t feel too bad in running some of the criticisms of the book past you. There are many websites dedicated to them. There have been some significant questions raised about the theology of the book, some of which you’ve already touched on.
WPY: Well, that’s par for the course. Just let me say this. Overall, I am so positive about the controversy because it’s an example of people bringing to the table what they have. It’s one thing to bring your emotional history to the table—you know, if you’ve been hurt by your father your tendency will be to look at God as distance. Well, theological paradigms are just as binding, if not more so sometimes. As far as I’m concerned, people bringing their theological paradigms is part of the conversation. I wish some of them would actually read the book. That would be helpful.
Do I actually believe that God is a large black African American woman? Of course not. – William Paul Young
SV: Some would say that portraying God in any image is moving close to breaking the second commandment of not having any idol before us.
WPY: Which is an absurd argument as far as I’m concerned. I mean, are we going to say that the Sistine Chapel is blasphemous because these incredible artists—Michelangelo and DaVinci and all these guys—portrayed God in imagery? The issue with imagery [in the Bible] is worship. Do I actually believe that God is a large black African American woman? Of course not.
SV: I don’t think anybody would believe that God the Father is an African American woman, but the some might say you’re portraying him as the same ‘touchy feely’ kind of personality that you’ve portrayed Papa to be, to use a line out of the book.
WPY: What about his Ezekiel? What about the man who is God, who is walking along the side of the road and he sees a baby that’s recently been born and thrown away in the ditch. He rescues this baby, raises her as his own daughter, falls in love with her, marries her and then she turns out to be an adulteress. This is Ezekiel writing the very character and nature of God into imagery. It’s in the Psalms. If you want to put together a whole person you can start with Psalm 2 where you’ve got nostrils. You can go to other passages where you’ve got the eye of God, the arm of God, the finger of God; you can get a whole composite image out of all the parts if you like.
Some people have felt—including my own mom—that this [portrayal of God in The Shack] was demeaning; that we were dragging God from his holiness and from his otherness. To me it doesn’t at all. Who do we think Jesus is if he’s not God?
Imagery is imagery, if you want to worship that imagery then you’re dealing with breaking the commandment, not that the commandment isn’t broken in our own hearts in many respects. How many people are worshiping money and looking to that for security instead of God? Well that’s imagery. That’s putting something centre and competing with the heart of God. I mean, if you’re afraid because the economy is falling apart and politicians aren’t doing what they’re supposed to, you’ve got something else in the centre of your world and that’s idolatry. I’m not saying that as a value judgment but as an observation and I think that’s what scripture does too.
Some people have felt—including my own mom—that this [portrayal of God in The Shack] was demeaning; that we were dragging God from his holiness and from his otherness. To me it doesn’t at all. Who do we think Jesus is if he’s not God? And he has come into our world and he has been involved in work and sweat and tears and laughter and all these things. That is God. Holiness existed before there was sin and the otherness of God is wrapped up in his love, not in his reaction to sin.
William Paul Young spoke to Sheridan Voysey on Hope 103.2’s Open House program in 2008; the interview was also published in the book Open House Volume 2: Sheridan Voysey in