God the Father: A Name Is More Than a Metaphor

Leaving aside the problems of presenting the Father bodily (Ex. 20:4), the manifestations of the Father seen in The Shack are carefully calibrated in order to meet the perceived needs of Mack.

The themes of the book are heavy, at times harrowing, and inescapably theological, though they are presented in such a way that the reader can forget it is indeed a work of theology. The theological themes touched on include the character of the church, the problem of evil (theodicy), the nature of revelation, the depiction of God, and our understanding of the Trinity. I want to speak to an element of this last theme because the novel assumes something we are all tempted to assume: in reference to God, ”Father” is ultimately a metaphor and, as such, can be manipulated to fit the needs of a situation. But is that true?

 

Author’s Note: This is the first of three posts where I seek to draw out teaching on the Fatherhood of God. In this post, I will look at the Trinity and the revelation of the Father’s name. In the second post, I will look at the Fatherhood of God in our salvation. And finally, in the third post, I will look at how God is our Father in the course of the Christian life.

A little over ten years ago, the book The Shack became an unexpected best seller, sparking debate and garnering appreciation from across the evangelical landscape. Though originally written for the author’s children and copied at Kinko’s, the book reached number one on the New York Times fiction best-seller list after its release. It hit number one again in 2017 after a major motion picture was released based on the book.

The themes of the book are heavy, at times harrowing, and inescapably theological, though they are presented in such a way that the reader can forget it is indeed a work of theology. The theological themes touched on include the character of the church, the problem of evil (theodicy), the nature of revelation, the depiction of God, and our understanding of the Trinity. I want to speak to an element of this last theme because the novel assumes something we are all tempted to assume: in reference to God, ”Father” is ultimately a metaphor and, as such, can be manipulated to fit the needs of a situation. But is that true?

The plotline of The Shack brings its main character, Mack, to a shack in the woods where each member of the Trinity appears in bodily form. God the Father is referred to as “Papa” and appears first as a large, matronly African American woman and later as a pony-tailed gray-haired man. Leaving aside the problems of presenting the Father bodily (Ex. 20:4), these manifestations of the Father are carefully calibrated in order to meet the perceived needs of Mack. Papa himself explains this to him:

If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me “Papa” is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning. . . . Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?1

There is a strong impulse in popular theological thought, as well as in a more philosophically informed postmodern theology, that gives full support to this malleable presentation of members of the Godhead in order to meet the needs of any given situation. Indeed, postmodern theologians Carl and Susan Raschke explain in The Engendering God: Male and Female Faces of God:

The idea of a God that is disclosed exclusively in terms of gender must strike us somehow as a little hard to swallow. But we must remember that classical theology always allowed God the prerogative of self-revelation in whatever ways were appropriate to the historical situation. The notion advanced at times by both traditionalists and fundamentalists that there are certain inalterable concepts or figurations to represent the God-head—and these signifiers happen to be male—is not only idolatrous, it is quite unbiblical, if not blasphemous. . . .

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