Can God Be A Black Woman? Spending Some Time in “The Shack”


I just watched the movie, The Shack. It is a story of a man who suffers the brutal abduction and murder of his daughter. He cannot get over his loss, blaming it on God, who did nothing to stop it, until God invites him to a shack near the spot where his daughter was killed. His weekend spent with God changes his conception of him and starts him on a new life path.

The story is somewhat autobiographical, as he reveals in his testimony, given here. The author, Paul Young, depicts himself in the leading character: a man broken, having lost everything and contemplating suicide. Along his journey to forgive himself for ruining his marriage by committing adultery, he wrote a story. That story turned into the best-selling book, The Shack. The book has stirred a lot of controversy in Christian circles, not for the portrayal of the leading character, but over the portrayal of God as a black woman. Are the criticisms justified? Does the Bible ever God as feminine?

Some argue that the divine name, El Shaddai depicts femininity, calling him the all-breasted one, i.e., a mother who nurses her children. But this is almost certainly not the origin of the term El Shaddai, as Michael Brown has demonstrated on this YouTube video. So this term for God is not a portrayal of God as a female.

But in other places God is compared to females. We can start with the creation narrative. In Genesis 1:27 Moses tells us: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This verse tells us that it is only with the creation of both male and female that we have the image of God depicted in mankind. This is further supported by Genesis 2:18, which reflects the time before the woman was created. Here, God says: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” It is startling to see God declaring his own creation “not good” before sin has entered the picture. But this is the case because God is not finished creating. If he stops now, it is not good, and man does not fully reflect the image of God. Only after he creates Eve can it be said, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen 1:31).

Biblical metaphors also compare God to females, including a mother comforting her child (Isa 66:3), a mother remembering her nursing child (Isa 49:15), a midwife caring for a baby (Psa 22:9-10; 71:6; Isa 66:9), a mother hen caring for her chicks (Lk 13:34), a mother bear robbed of her cubs (Hos 13:8), and a mother eagle caring for her young (Deut 32:10-11). Writing for Moody Church, Eric Naus argues that the reason for this is that some of God’s attributes are best expressed by women:

“When we think of God’s love for those who are reconciled to him in Jesus, we not only think of a strong, protective and wise father, but we can also bask in his tender, nurturing, comforting care seen most beautifully in a mother’s love for her child. What a dynamic God we worship!”[1]

As is true of all metaphors and similes, these comparisons are to characteristics and behavior, not to physical appearance or body parts. For example, portraying God with wings and feathers in Psalm 91:4, is to show a God who protects his people who trust in him. God does not literally have wings or feathers.

But if it is just attributes of a female that are meant by these metaphors, and not the body parts, then isn’t it still wrong to portray God as a woman?

The question is: how do we portray God visually using written descriptions that compare God to females? Again, I see three options before us: (1) we can portray God always as a man and only show him expressing his female attributes in a masculine way, (2) we can portray him always as male but able to express his female attributes in the way a woman would, or (3) we can occasionally portray God as female.

The first option seems to do injustice to the metaphors, which cause the reader to picture a woman nursing, caring for, and protecting her young. These are the mages that the inspired authors want us to imagine as we read their metaphorical descriptions.

The second option would probably be highly objectionable to Christians. Any director portraying a male figure acting feminine would immediately be accused of creating a gay God, and a boycott would soon follow. That leaves us with only the third option.

So before criticizing the author or the director of The Shack, you might ask yourself, if you wanted to visibly portray God’s nurturing and caring of the people he loves dearly, how would you do it? If the author only intended to use the metaphor that best expresses the divine attributes that he wanted to highlight in his book, how is that worse than some of the metaphors of mothers and midwives that already exist in our Bibles?

I find it intriguing that Christians can turn out in groves to read or watch the Chronicles of Narnia, which depict God as a dangerous lion, and no controversy ensues. But as soon as God is depicted as a woman, there is a firestorm of controversy. If it is okay to portray God as a lower life form, which is an “unreasoning animal” and a “creature of instinct” (2 Pet 2:12), then is it really worse to portray him as a human being made in God’s image? Truly, to portray God as a human, part of this creation, is scandalous in the highest degree, and a horrible misrepresentation of God’s attributes, such as his eternity, omnipotence, and omniscience. Before the coming of Jesus, such a thought would have been mercilessly criticized by people wanting to protect the integrity of God and of Scripture. But God sent Jesus, portraying himself as a man, so we accept it. Considering the great scandal of God becoming a man, the scandal of moving the portrayal of God from that of  a man to a woman pales in comparison.

Finally, I will give three advantages to accepting the portrayal of God as a woman in The Shack. (1) The movie effectively corrects false conceptions of God, namely conceptions that he does not really love us or that he is not good. These false conceptions of God are far more harmful to people than the idea that God can be represented in female form. (2) God is spirit and spirit is not gendered. So expressing him as male may be just as inaccurate as expressing him as female. Perhaps the correct biblical viewpoint is to ignore the gender altogether and just see God’s characteristics. (3) The movie has a powerful evangelist thrust that will appeal to unbelievers. The church today is largely seen by the world as misogynistic and bigoted. Whether these charges are accurate or not, they are a barrier to people responding to the gospel. A God who is both black and female breaks through those barriers, opening the door for thousands of people to be exposed to the film’s gospel message who might otherwise have never seen the movie.

Perhaps we can find a way to look past the controversy and invite a friend, especially one who has suffered a tragedy, to come and watch this movie with you. It might open the door for you to minister the love of Jesus to that hurting person.

[1] Rev. Eric D. Naus, “God’s Feminine Attributes,” blog on Crossroads: the University Ministry of Moody Church, www.moodychurch.org, http://www.moodychurch.org/crossroads/blog/gods-feminine-attributes/, (July 12, 2011), last accessed July 27, 2017.

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