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June 7, 2009

Papa, Yeshua and Sarayu

Since 2007, sales of William P. Young's The Shack have led to over a million copies being printed in at least 17 different languages. Young says he wrote the book to explain his own journey of healing with God to his six children. The book is a spiritual autobiography cast in an alternative world, an imaginative attempt to condense 11 years into a weekend of conversations.


But the story has elicited strong reaction, ranging from effusive praise to scathing critiques. Most of the story consists of conversations between a beat-down, middle-aged man named Mack(enzie) and God. The conversations take place in a remote shack in eastern Oregon, the exact spot of the greatest tragedy in Mack's life.


Because this is a work of fiction, it's tricky to speak of the book’s theology. The Shack clearly does theological work on topics such as forgiveness, grace, atonement, evil, truth, wisdom and the church. The dialogue between Mack and God is bold and brutally honest. Theologically attuned readers of all persuasions are likely to find themselves cheering sometimes and cringing at others.


I don’t have time to go into all the theological implications of The Shack. Parts I liked and some I totally disagreed with. But today is Trinity Sunday and I want to talk about the book’s unusual depiction of the Trinity.


When Mack arrives at the shack he meets Jesus, a Jewish laborer, the Holy Spirit, an ethereal Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for "wind"), and Papa, who is . . . complicated. Papa is a large African American woman, like a domesticated Queen Latifah, who bakes pies, sings along with the radio, and feeds Mack pancakes and fried potatoes ,collard greens, and grace.


The book reads:

Mack struggled to figure out what to do. Was one of these people God? What if they were hallucinations or angels, or God was coming later? Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white?...


“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. (p. 87)

God, in a Trinitarian view, didn’t come into being until the year 325 at what was called the Council of Nicaea. The Christians were all getting confused about how God could be three yet also one (not much has changed has it?). There were some who fell into a tritheism understanding of God; a belief in three gods. Others were modalists, believing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three modes of God, who is one person. Still others had no clue at all what to think about God. So at the Council of Nicaea, it was determined that: God is one divine substance and three distinct persons—one what and three whos. That clears everything up doesn’t it?


In The Shack the Trinity is viewed first and foremost as a complex relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They share one another’s pain in a mysterious way,

Papa even bears scars on her wrists, as Jesus does.


What’s more, the relationship between the three is one of perfectly proportioned power, a “circle of relationship” rather than Mack’s conception of a hierarchical chain of command (p. 122). This Trinity is a confederation of equals, and astonishingly enough, they desire that human beings join in their circle (p. 146).


Papa tells Mack, “Life takes a bit of time and a lot of relationship.” Relationships require a deep commitment of love to last. It is why the Trinity is described as this “circle of love”. Papa explains that love, which God is, cannot be alone. Love requires relationship. God could not love perfectly without being in relationship with someone else. So God is in relationship with Jesus and the Spirit. God is alive, dynamic, and moving, creating opportunities for relationship.


The doctrine of the Trinity is in that sense a doctrine about what it is to be human.


Since we are made in the image of God, and God, is a communion of persons, what does that say about us?


We want to stand alone as free individuals, and at the same time, we want to be in a freely chosen relationship with others. We want two things at once. We want individuality without domination from another. But we also want intimacy and community. The doctrine of the Trinity – God as three yet one – is a way of putting into words this experience.


Whether you are reading The Shack or Calvin’s Institutes, ultimately we are not dealing with definitions but with mysteries, and a doctrine, properly understood, isn’t the last word on a subject but the first – simply a starting point.


The best thing The Shack does is the same thing scripture does. That is to portray God as an infinite being, infinite in expressions, infinite in relationships and infinite in love for all of us.


The book is a reminder, that “God is especially fond of you.” (p.242)




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