Sex In the Trinity: Wm. Paul Young's The Shack, part1/6

Before reading each article of the series, please take the time to read the (2) disclaimers:

DISCLAIMER #1: The following blog post is NOT theological criticism or a heresy-head hunting game by any stretch of Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack. I am more sympathetic with open & process theisms, so there is no need for this author to scan The Shack for doctrinal errors.

DISCLAIMER #2: Be aware that what I share are from a 2010 joint-presentation I and my friend Adam DJ Brett, a PhD entering his first year of work at Syracuse this fall. Post 5 of this 6 part series will be mostly his research, and his intellectual property. If you wish to use this information, please cite him as the source. Also, given that this setting is a blog, I do not assume that everyone is familiar with the concepts I shall place forth, so, unlike the paper and hopefully forthcoming journal article, I will be making available definitions and sources if need be.

I Found God on an Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix Box

Because Wm. Paul Young’s novel, The Shack is a religiously inspired novel, I have chosen to engage this text with literary criticism, from the perspective of Womanist scholars. Womanist theory is a discipline with the academy which analyzes subject matter from the perspective of the bodies of women of color. According to Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, in her Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, one of the preferred starting points for Womanist religious ethics is to turn to Black Women’s writings as sources of liberation. Black Women’s writings cannot be consider “art for arts sake” but rather literary works with research behind them, specifically in the area of histories of oppression when it comes to race, gender, and class (SFT, page 15). Truth is understood as a narrative, and therefore the line of demarcation where as what is deemed as “historical” and “fictive” are often blurred. Truth, therefore, in Womanist thought is radically subjective; in Christianity, the Truth inhabited a body, and so it is important to examine what are the implications of truth claims as they pertain to the livelihood of human beings.

Ishmael Reed is a black male “postmodern”- a label imposed on him, writer, and he has quite a different representation of black women as such. In his subversive Reckless Eyeballing, the protagonist black male Ian Ball is a playwright who is haunted by his black mother. Ball’s mother is described as “clairvoyant” and “able to look around corners and underneath the ground” (IR, page 4). Ball struggles to escape the accusation of his plays being labeled misogynist by writing a play that supposedly has a more liberating view of women. What has Reed’s Reckless Eyeballing to do with Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack? Two things, first, like the character Ian Ball in Reckless Eyeballing, Young claims that his book is trying to show God as not having the fixed metaphor of father (i.e., evangelical theology)—it is a seemingly earnest attempt to engage critics within a particular audience. And secondly, both Ian Ball and Wm. Paul Young share a vision of black women as the great overbearing cosmic maternal figure who overcompensates for the ineptitude of the criminal, brutal black male. The former image, the same one that appears in The Shack, has a history that we shall explore for our purposes.

While Young’s pursuit is to debunk traditional evangelical theology’s so-called obsession with Father-god prayers (you know, where God is randomly called Father after every petition within a prayer), what Young does is in fact re-enforce the racial stereotypes that are embedded deep within our culture without once acknowledging where these images come from. One could say, in light of the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, that a commentary on God is also a commentary on humanity—what professional theologians call theological anthropology. In capitalist societies, there are roles that need to be played, and for all of its history, corporate-driven capitalist societies, in line with Gayatri Spivak’s notion of overdetermination (see her “Can the Subaltern Speak?”), have depended upon racial and gender stereotypes to determine the roles of groups and individuals within the market. For example, when one sees in comic movies like Iron Man 2 or X-Men 2 that the only Hispanic persons are either farmers or janitors, it is because our images of these communities are engrained in our imagination has having a servile nature. Papa in The Shack speaks in a Southern dialect, cannot seems to articulate American Standard English unless she has something very theologically profound to say (“I gis that’s jis the way I is”), refers to Mack, the main character as “honey,” sings in a high pitched voice, and is described as “radiant,” “glowing,” while cooking in a “long-flowing African-looking garment” with a “vibrant multi-colored headband”(The Shack, 113, 120-121).

Whether Young knows it or not, he is depending heavily upon the mythology of “Mammy” which was popular in the Antebellum South. Mammy was “a well-taken-care-of house servant whose activities in the house of her owners” who personified the possibility of Victorian womanhood for heathen black women. (for more on this, see Delores Williams Sisters in the Wilderness, page 64). Mammies were to be the asexual exemplars of perfect motherhood, loving their white masters’ children as their very own, even to the point of giving up their life for them. Of course, the problem with this notion of maternity is that there is no freedom to choose, for the White Racist God had predetermined beforehand what role black women were to play on the hilltops of the plantations. Papa, in Young’s The Shack, is more than a leftover; she is a re-emergence of a piece of our cultural memory, one that was brought forth out of a history of oppression, i.e., African enslavement.

Next, for part 2, we will look at Jesus in The Shack

Truth and Peace,

0 thoughts on “Sex In the Trinity: Wm. Paul Young's The Shack, part1/6

  1. Bart Breen

    Young’s use of a literary device was based upon the model of a personal relationship that he had with a specific woman in a church of his past with whom he identified more closely than those in the congregation who were white like him. In fact, he tells the story in one of his online podcasts of a sermon address to a church in 2008 that this particular woman once said to him, “Why is it that we get along so well?” and Paul responded to her. “I think it’s because we’re the only black people in this church.

    Young grew up a missionary child in a multicultural context and also was sexually abused both in the context of the tribe he grew up in and the boarding school he went to mandated by the organization his parents minister within.

    The association Young personally had with the image of Papa as he developed the character was, I believe, positive and perhaps enhanced in the direction of the common stereotype in order to strengthen is as a literary device to reveal the cultural and racial stereotyping in the evangelical circles where many of the misconceptions he addresses in the Shack are rooted.

    Young was not the only writer or at least not the sole one in terms of the editing so I don’t doubt that the participation of Wayne Jacobsen for example wouldn’t have had that image discussed and refined with a more full appreciation for the cultural appeals present, so in that sense Young’s personal familiarity with it might well be moot.

    It’s certainly a public work and anyone is welcome to approach it as they wish both in terms of its cultural roots and it’s own resultant impact on the culture. I think you need to factor in Young’s roots outside of mainstream American Culture and also recognize that not all literary devices that appeal to a stereotype are necessarily promoting it.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      “I think you need to factor in Young’s roots outside of mainstream American Culture and also recognize that not all literary devices that appeal to a stereotype are necessarily promoting it.”

      I believe that I am. In fact, the other writer of this project (since its a joint project) comes from an evangelical background and actually had the chance to see William P Young in person. The story goes, as Wm Paul Young was having a q & a session, an African American lady asked him why did he portray Papa as a black woman, in such a fashion as I mentioned, Aunt Jemima, and she asked him if he had any black women as friends. His response was [paraphrased], “No I don’t have any black women friends, and I don’t need them to write a story about one.”

      I will gladly see if my friend who is working on this project can back me up, but I do feel like much of the images of human beings in this work are lacking.

      And in case you were wondering, I do not hold a double standard. I have a number of posts about how much I disagree with Tyler Perry’s Madea:

      1. Bart Breen

        I can’t argue with you about the hearsay of your friend’s report.

        I can, if you need me to, find the podcast where Paul Young shares personally about the friendship he maintained with a black woman in a church he attended and makes the statement I referred to.

        I have no problem with you making literary, social and cultural observations on a best-selling book. That’s fair game. I think some of your comments here, at least to the extent that they’re based upon the hearsay comment of your friend are not fair to Paul Young however and that saddens me. I believe better of him than some of the statements and implications made here.

        1. Rod of Alexandria Post author


          That’s all fine, but again, I have more than just a problem with his portrayal of black women; this was only the first part of 4 parts I have so far out of 6. Also, this is only the first half of my criticism of Papa, there is actually going to be more in part 5.

          My criticism is quite consistent, just as consistent as Young’s gaze. I have serious doubts that he was using parody and sarcasm in his imagery, given the tragic and somber tone of the work The Shack. It’s not like it was an episode of South Park, going over the top or whatever. I can discern between genres.

  2. Bart Breen

    Your criticism is no doubt consistent and again, I have no quarrel with anyone’s right to bring their opinion.

    Knowing a little bit about the background of this book and the thought process of how and why it was written, I can tell you that the choice of character for Papa was in part based upon Paul’s non-American, multi-cultural background, but it was, I believe deliberately targeted toward the cultural biases of American Evangelicalism. The stereotype in that regard was not intended to promote the stereotype so much as it was intended to reveal the stereotype that might be present in the readers, much like Christ used the parable of the Good Samaritan by making a Samaritan, who was among the most despised of the culture he was addressing, the positive protagonist, the use of the stereotype was not used in a way to validate it.

    It’s certainly a matter of opinion as to how effective that literary device was in terms of conveying the underlying spiritual analogy that we allow our own cultural biases to portray God in our image rather that seeing beyond that to where we see the image of God outside our own comfort zones.

    I understand and affirm your right to express and hold to your own opinion. I just think, based on what I’ve read so far, and also based upon your citation of a hearsay comment of Young, that is contrary to what I’ve heard and read of him, that you’ve misjudged both the author and the intent of the metaphor or parable context of the work, or it may be that you’ve seen them and simply disagree with them as expressed and used, and that’s certainly your perogative.

    So, anyway, thanks for the conversation. This is your wall and so I’ll leave the last word to you.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      Hey Bart,

      Yes, literary criticism is quite subjective, you have already argued this. I feel like we are going in circles. Yes yes it’s all about my opinion. Sure Sure, You have already said this. It’s like you posted 3 copies of the same comment. You are arguing that the Shack is both a parable and a contemporary literary device, and thus trying to spiritualize this debate, of which I do not agree one bit. That’s fine if you want to take the spiritual high road, into some other worldly realm. That’s quite alright, but that is far from my concern here. My concern is first and foremost about history, and the history of racial stereotypes in particular.I find both Tyler Perry’s Madea and William P. Young’s Papa in The Shack both equally disgusting, thus I critically engage and critique both.

      So instead of re-answering your comments, I will address the key assumptions you make.

      You spout your knowledge (concerning Young’s background), now let me spout mine. You are working off of the assumption that a “non-American, multi-cultural background” growing up as a child of a missionary distinguishes Young from other evangelicals. Really? It does? What about white evangelicals in the South that encounter blacks and hispanics each day? They too can claim to come from multi-cultural backgrounds. It’s not like there ISN’T a history of Christian racism and imperialism in the missionary field. Being educated in a “progressive” “multicultural” seminary, I can assure you that such multiculturalism is NOT a safeguard against having racial biases.

      Finally, just because Young has a friendship with one black woman, does not give him license to use a negative stereotype that use been used to justify INSTITUTIONAL racism and sexism.

      Thanks for playing.

  3. Bart Breen

    Thanks for the feedback. If nothing else it demonstrates there’s an emotional level to your opinion.

  4. Bart Breen

    My real name is attached. I am no troll. If this is how you handle push-back and disagreement then thanks, but that says more about you, sir.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author


      a lot of commenters on here disagree with me; in fact my friend Tusk is an atheist and we regularly have bouts on here. I’m more libertarian and socialists argue with me on here. I am a pacifist and just warriors argue with me on here. I embrace difference, Bart.

      yet you have gone ahead and accused me of somehow being more “emotional” and some how “less rational” in my argument. It’s funny, especially since I am using the top notch scholarship in literary criticism to arrive at my conclusions At this point you are simply begging the question, esp since I am giving you a personal story from one of my friends as you gave a story from Wm Paul Young.

      You are a troll, not because you disagree, but because you went and made a personal attack, as the other trolls from the Shack bible project did, claiming that I was too “racially sensitive” which is exactly what you are trying to say as well. You are just showing your true colors.

      What your comments suggest to me is you want me to apologize for being anti-racist and anti-colonial (you know, just admit all of this is “just my opinion,” denying that this is based off of scholarship and a paper presentation (something that I already disclosed in the disclaimers); I find your demands laughable.

      Thanks for playing.

  5. Bart Breen

    The only personal comments made on your own. You made a claim based on here-say and have been presented with arguments that you haven’t addressed and then when challenged you infer conclusions based on associations that don’t exist.

    There’s no need to ban me.

    I will not be back and you may keep your associations here to those whom agree with you and don’t challenge your statements or tactics. I’ll address your articles on my own blog and if you wish you may converse with me there where I assure you, you will be treated with more courtesy than has been demonstrated here.

    I was referred to this article by a friend who has subscribed to your blog for 2 years. I am not a troll. I do however know when someone is unable to discourse without playing the troll card which isn’t really all that far from other cards that have been played here but I’ll leave that to others observing this thread, assuming you leave this thread up.

    Thanks for the interaction. You may follow through on your threat to ban or not. I will not be back.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      Hey Bart,

      Of course I keep all threads alive. It’s part of the commenting policy which I figure you have not read.

      I would say that as admin, I do have the right to deem what is appropriate and what is not. When commenters enter this space, which I deem as making it safe for anti-racism scholarship, and then said commenters claim my arguments to be “emotional” out of pure hearsay, I see that as a personal attack, because at that point, the conversation is just going to be falling into whether or not racism exists or not. And this is exactly where you are trying to take this conversation. Thus, your accusation that my worldview comes from “hearsay” in spite my numerous citations. You have yet to even address my arguments, and only attempted to invalidate the way i see things through the use of terms such as “emotional” and “hearsay.”

      I could care less for your response. Apparently you didn’t read any disclaimers and you have already said what you want.

      You are welcome here until you fall short of the commenting guidelines and permissions policies, which you have come close to, and which I do hope you have read by this point.

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