Book Club Discussion: A God who both transcends and inhabits all pronouns

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

How would you respond if, for just one Sunday, your pastor consistently referred to God as “Them” throughout his sermon? (“For They so loved the world,” “Surrender your life to Them,” etc.) And what if the words to your favorite hymn were changed on the overhead to read “to God be the glory great things She hath done!” Do you think this would enhance or distract you from your worship? Would it help you think about God outside of the box, or simply place Him/Her into another one? 

I pose the question because I think that William P. Young does an excellent job of messing with common perceptions of God’s nature in his book The Shack. When Young’s protagonist, Mackenzie, encounters God in the shack, he experiences God as both male and female in the form of the Trinity. Rather than interacting with a single male father-figure, Mackenzie interacts with 1) Papa (a big black woman who represents God the Father), 2) Jesus (an ordinary-looking Jewish man who obviously represents Christ), and 3) Sarayu (an ethereal female presence who represents the Holy Spirit). 

When Mackenzie puzzles at these unexpected incarnations, Papa, responds, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning…To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.” 

I love that Young portrays God in this way, particularly for Mackenzie, a character who struggles with bad memories of his earthly father. I also loved the constant reminder of the existence of the Trinity. I sometimes feel like The Holy Spirit gets neglected a bit when we talk about God, and I welcomed the reminder of His/Her presence. 

It reminds me of how, when Moses asked for God’s name, God responded “I AM who I AM…Tell the Israelites you were sent by ‘I AM,’ the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” 

Sometimes I think we need reminders that God is not who we expect Him/Her to be, that He/She is wholly other,  both transcending and inhabiting our pronouns. It’s not about being politically correct; it’s about confronting the ways in which we have made God in our image.  For that reason, I don’t think it would hurt to spend a Sunday or two reflecting a bit on the mysterious nature of our God - Her goodness and mercy, Their holiness and might.

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