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,