Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a chance to read The Shack while I’m home this summer. I first heard about this book in a sermon by Mark Driscoll. Mark, within the larger context of a sermon about God, was discouraging his audience from reading the book because it contains …let’s say erroneous doctrine. One particular fault that Mark brought up as an example was the way in which the author, William Young, represents God the Father in the book.
From what I can gather over at Amazon.com, the main character of the book has a conversation with the Trinity in a shack somewhere in Oregon. God the Father is represented as a black woman named Papa, Jesus appears in the form of a Middle Eastern man and the Spirit appears as an Asian woman. Mark’s issue with the representation of God the Father in this book is the way, from his perspective, it violates the commandment against creating a “graven image”. I think that Mark’s objection doesn’t hold water.
I’m going to trust the scholars behind a couple of different translations and not get bogged down with the original Hebrew. So, here’s Exodus 20:4, the commandment Mark referred to, in 4 separate versions:
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (King James)
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (English Standard-the one Mars Hill Church prefers)
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (New International)
“No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.” (vss 4-6, The Message)
It sounds to me that the commandment is dealing broadly with worshipping other (and therefore false) gods and explicitly with the common practice of making an idol for the purpose of worship. In both contexts the idea that the people are not to worship these idol-gods is central.
Obviously, a literary representation is not a “carved” image or a cast “idol”. If that’s a bit too legalistic or literal of an approach, consider Deut. 4:15-19. Even looking at the fuller expression of the commandment from Deut. 4:15-19, I think that the heart of the issue here is worship. Without any evidence one way or the other, I’m going to assume that the author of The Shack is not inviting his readers to enter into the worship of a black woman called Papa and so I can’t see how Mark can apply this commandment to the character of God the Father from this book. But that doesn’t answer the wider question: is it a sin to represent God the Father as having a body in a piece of literature? As far as I can see today, the answer is no, so long as this literary representation isn’t presented as an object for worship. I suppose it could be argued that “Papa” is being offered an object of worship at which point the author would need to speak up about his intentions and I don’t think he’ll be reading my blog…so, it’s not really germane.
Maybe The Shack is chock-full of doctrinal error, bad theology and out-right heresy. Maybe not. Either way, I’m not discouraged from reading it by Mark’s example simply because I don’t agree with his position and his reasoning.