If you’re cool with God as a white grandfather, then be cool with God as a black woman. God is neither. God is Spirit.
I have not read The Shack, nor seen the movie (yet). I just don’t get into Christian fiction. The last Christian fiction I read was Ben-Hur and that was in high school. Well, I do read ancient Christian fiction – the apocryphal writings of the first centuries of the Christian movement. But let’s talk about The Shack.
Since the publication of the book I’ve read and heard many discussions about its portrayal of God as a black woman. Since I didn’t read the book I’ve reserved comment. But I’ve been thinking about the images of God in the Bible and in Christian art and iconography.
God forbade graven images – idols. Israel loved them. Beginning with the golden calf at Mt. Sinai and continuing throughout their history the people of Judah and Israel loved the gods of Canaan. Their idol-adultery was the cause of their destruction.
Even so, there are images of God throughout the Bible. We have words for these divine manifestations – theophany and anthropomorphism. The burning bush is a theophany – a physical manifestation of God. To speak of “God’s mighty arm” is anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to God.
Paul wrote, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Romans 1:22-23). But, the image of the Holy Spirit as a descending dove is not idolatry – it’s theophany. The same is true about the images of Christ as the “lamb of God” or as “the lion of the tribe of Judah.”
So, is it heresy to present an image of God the Father as a black woman? Let’s ask another question. Is it heresy to believe that God the Father is a gendered male, with male genitals, who had sex with the Virgin Mary? The answer to the latter question is a resounding, “YES!” But many so-called orthodox Christians hold to such nonsense. Why, because of Christian art which depicts God as an aged, white, grandfather. Some of my friends and colleagues will insist, “But God is Father and that means male.” However, if we insist on such a literalist hermeneutic, then we open ourselves to all sorts of improper beliefs about God. For example, the Hebrew word for “Spirit” and the Greek word for “Spirit” are in the feminine gender. Does this imply that the Holy Spirit is female? If so, does this suggest that the Spirit’s act of generating the Incarnation in the womb of Mary is a lesbian act? NO, the Spirit is not a gendered female. Nor, is the Father a gendered male. NO, the miracle of Incarnation was not a homosexual act, nor was it a heterosexual act. It was a mysterious miracle that transcends explanation.
Jesus reminds us that God is spirit and cannot be adequately represented by any creature or symbol (John 4:24). There is one exception – Jesus himself is the “image of the invisible God” in whom dwells the fullness of God (Colossians 1:15, 19). The writer of Hebrews tells us that Christ is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (1:3). The Gospel of John states, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was indeed a gendered male. But his gender was incidental to the Incarnation. Jesus never had sex, nor children. John’s point is that in Christ, God assumed human flesh and human nature, which transcends human gender. Therefore, in the Incarnation, Jesus represents all humanity, male and female.
So, is it heresy to present God the Father as a black woman? Maybe. If that presentation is meant to define God in terms of ethnicity or gender, then yes, it’s heresy. But, if that presentation is meant as a theophany, or anthropomorphism, then it’s not heresy. However, the temptation to reduce the glory of God to that of creature remains. So, caution is advised. So is good biblical and theological scholarship.