Imagination, Image and Idolatry
By By Pastor Larry DeBruyn
July 6, 2008
"Mackenzie Allen Philips' youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack's world forever. In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant "The Shack" wrestles with the timeless question, "Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?"
--description of The Shack on www.amazon.com
God is Truth. That He is Truth distinguishes Him from idols which are false. Of the Lord, the prophet declared, “There is none like Thee, O Lord; Thou art great, and great is Thy name in might,” and explained of those who create idols, “But they are altogether stupid and foolish In their discipline of delusion—their idol is wood!” The prophetic commentary which follows then states, “Beaten silver is brought from Tarshish, And gold from Uphaz, The work of a craftsman and of the hands of a goldsmith; Violet and purple are their clothing; They are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God . . .” (Jeremiah 10:6-10, NASB). In this vein, A.W. Tozer once wrote: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
But idols arise out of human imagination. Humanoids make god however they want him/her/it to be. In the description of the declension into idolatry, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” (Emphasis mine, Romans 1:21-23a, KJV). Imagination creates images — even idolatrous images — and the images can either be material or mental, actual or verbal.
Words can create mental pictures. Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. In an image-oriented age where people watch more and read less, this statement makes its point. But words can also create images. Through the mind’s eye, we see. Someone once defined idolatry as thinking wrong thoughts about God. So the question becomes, with the stroke of his verbal brush and in his bestselling novel The Shack, what picture of God does William P. Young create? I am fearful that the book’s painting of God, even though fictional, might promote the wrong image of Him.
The novel tugs at the emotional strings of its readers, and for just that reason the book has become a bestseller in the fiction category. I am therefore aware that I am about to tread where angels might not dare. This pastor realizes he is about to enter the personal and emotional space of the human heart. People feel very deeply about this book and its author. I ask only, as you read Young’s book with an open heart, that you might also read this theological review of the book with an open mind.
We now proceed to look at the theology of The Shack. We turn to the ideas presented in the book about God. The god of The Shack (In this reference, I refuse to spell God with an upper case “G.”) is an imagined hermaphroditic trinity, consisting of a retreat center owner and hostess who goes by the name of “Elousia,” a carpenter-handyman by the name of “Jesus,” and a gardener who goes by the name of “Sarayu.” In order, we consider the three main characters, and another omniscient and sensual lady who goes by the name of “Sophia,” or Wisdom.
THE FIRST PERSON — At first mention, and according to Mack’s wife Nan’s understanding, the first person of the godhead goes by the name of “Papa” (perhaps alluding to the Apostle Paul’s designation of Him as “Abba,” Romans 8:15). But upon Mack’s arrival at The Shack, “Papa” morphs into a large and loving African-American woman named “Elousia” (i.e., a combination of the Hebrew name for God the Creator, “El,” and the Greek word “ousia” suggesting a Platonic meaning of “being” or “existence”). Among other characteristics, “Elousia” describes herself as, “the Creator God who is truly real and the ground of all being.”(The Shack, 111).
This name for God appears to be borrowed from the writings of theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who referred to God as “the Ground of Being.” By so designating deity, Tillich meant that, “God is not a being alongside others or above other but God is Being-itself or the Ground of Being.” Likewise, to Tillich, “God is not a being, not even the highest of all beings; he is being itself, or the ground of being, the internal power or force that causes everything to exist.” This conception of God compliments the conception of deity amongst devotees to the New Age/New Spirituality.
Even though Tillich’s assertions about deity were esoteric and complex, Young presents a Tillich-like scheme of deity who describes herself as “the ground of all being” that dwells “in, around, and through all things . . .” (The Shack, 112). Such a view of God is acknowledged to be panentheistic (i.e., God dwells “through all things”). This may explain why, toward the end of his life, Tillich no longer prayed. He only meditated. To him there existed no personal or transcendental God to pray to. God was immanent only, his “ground of being.” So like an airplane, which is refused take-off for reason mechanical failure, the concept of god in The Shack never gets off the “ground.” However, according to The Shack’s picturing of God, there may be a similarity even more startling.
Having finished reading The Shack, and while surfing the Internet, I was quite smitten when inadvertently, I ran across an internet article by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, The Return of the Black Madonna: A Sign of Our Times or How the Black Madonna is Shaking Us Up for the Twenty-First Century. Fox’s description of the Black Madonna (or the ancient goddess Egyptian Isis as she is alternately understood) included her supposed leading of distressed people to find emotional healing within themselves This description seemed to possess, at first glance, an eerie parallel to the black goddess character (“Elousia”) created by William Young. The comparison upon further reading, study and thought, revealed that their similarity was more than just color. In both writings, two similar personages emerge. I proceed to note a few of the analogies between Fox’s Black Madonna and Young’s “Elousia.”
First, Fox states that, “The Black Madonna invites us into the dark and therefore into our depths. This is what the mystics call the ‘inside’ of things, the essence of things. This is where Divinity lies. It is where the true self lies. It is where illusions are broken apart and the truth lies.”
In The Shack, we note the word “darkness” occurs frequently. It is as if darkness is archetypal to Mack’s Great Sadness. This is especially noticeable in his appearance before “Sophia.” In the chapter “Here Come Da Judge,” darkness is the dominant aura surrounding Mack’s experience. As he entered the cave, “with his hands outstretched in front of him, he ventured a couple of steps into the inky darkness and stopped.” (The Shack, 151). To create Mack’s experience, Young heaps up references to amplify “darkness”—“deep shadows . . . inky blackness . . . dim light . . . darkened room.” Similarly, in Fox’s words, the Black Madonna “invites us to enter into our grief and name it and be there to learn what suffering has to teach us.” By entering the darkness, Mack dealt with his sadness. In contrast, 1 John 1:5 informs us that "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (KJV).
Second, Fox also notes, “The Black Madonna calls us to Grieve. The Black Madonna is the sorrowful mother, the mother who weeps tears for the suffering in the universe, the suffering in the world, the brokenness of our very vulnerable hearts.” Fox goes on to say, “To grieve is to enter what John of the Cross in the sixteenth century called the ‘dark night of the soul.’ We are instructed not to run from this dark night but to stay there to learn what darkness has to teach us.”
In The Shack, at the climactic moment when “Papa” (AKA “Elousia,” the black goddess) enfolded Mack into his/her arms and gently invited him to “Let it all out,” the story records that in a moment of emotional catharsis Mack “closed his eyes as the tears poured out . . . He wept until he had cried out all the darkness, all the longing and all the loss, until there was nothing left.” (The Shack, 226).
Third, Fox explains that “The Black Madonna calls us down to honor our lower charkas [sic] . . . The Black Madonna takes us down, down to the first charkas [sic] including our relationship to the whole (first chakra, as I have explained elsewhere is about picking up the vibrations for sounds from the whole cosmos), our sexuality (second chakra) and our anger and moral outrage (third chakra). European culture in the modern era especially has tried to flee from all these elements . . . in religion . . .The Black Madonna will not tolerate such flights from the earth, flights from the depths.”
To those unacquainted with eastern religion, Fox’s words appear as mumbo-jumbo. But according to Yoga teaching, chakras are, “vortices that penetrate the body and the body’s aura, through which various energies, including the universal life force, are received, transformed, and distributed.” It is believed that there are seven points of entry for the energy; among others, they include,
- “The root (muladhara) [which] is located at the base of the spine and is the seat of kundalini . . .
- The sacral (svadhisthana) [which] lies near the genitals and governs sexuality . . . [and]
- The crown (sahasrara) [which] whirls just above the top of the head.”
The experience of the entrance of energy into the body, which can happen spontaneously, is called kundalini (Sanskrit for “snake” or “serpent power,” named as such because of the belief that it lies coiled within the body ready to strike at any moment). Kundalini describes the mystical experience when energy enters the body and arouses the “sleeping serpent” (Shouldn't we compare this to Genesis 3:1?). When that happens, wham . . .! This transient moment of arousal is defined to include, “physical sensations . . . clairaudience, visions, brilliant lights . . . ecstasy, bliss, and transcendence of self.” With this description in mind, let’s look at one incident in The Shack to see if Mack, the novel’s main character, experienced kundalini.
Upon hearing the sensual Sophia ask him, during his journey into the darkness, “Do you understand why you’re here?” the novel records that, “Mack could almost feel her words (clairaudience) rain down on his head first (the 7th chakra) and melt into his spine (the 1st chakra), sending delicious tingles everywhere (the 2nd chakra). He shivered (physical sensations) and decided that he never wanted to speak again (transcendence of self). He only wanted her to talk (bliss) . . .” (The Shack, 153). What do you think? Did Mack experience kundalini? If so, then it came to him at a spontaneous moment in the darkness via the voice of the goddess-like Sophia.
Fourth, Fox states that, “The Black Madonna calls us to our Divinity which is also our Creativity.” He goes on to state that The Black Madonna “expects nothing less from us than creativity. Hers is a call to create, a call to ignite the imagination.” On the next point Fox again states, “The Black Madonna calls us to Diversity. There is no imagination without diversity — imagination is about inviting disparate elements into soul and culture so that new combinations can make love together and new beings can be birthed.” His Black Madonna calls us to a magical consciousness that has nothing to do with Scripture.
Likewise, when the goddess-like Sophia calls upon Mack to role play as The Judge, to sit in judgment over all other persons including God, she notes his pensiveness about assuming such an awesome responsibility. Sophia says to Mack: “‘Your imagination,’ she interrupted his train of thought, ‘is not serving you well at this moment’.” (The Shack, 160). In the Front Matter of the book, Greg Albrecht informs the potential reader, “You will be captivated by the creativity and imagination of The Shack, and before you know it, you’ll be experiencing God as never before.” Young’s novel itself serves to ignite the imagination, something Fox writes that the returning Black Madonna is also doing.
Other parallels between Fox’s Black Madonna and The Shack’s Elousia — their gender diversity, nurturing of hurting hearts, emphasis upon developing personal relationships, concern for the environment, and so on — form archetypal metaphors around which the mystery of life and suffering can be probed and explained, and upon which transcendent values can be formulated and applied for the social welfare and unity of the world’s diverse and divided population. These ecumenical metaphors are increasingly making their way into the evangelical church, especially via the Emergent Church.
The feminization of deity extends back to time immemorial. The Egyptian goddess Isis, in which Matthew Fox finds his precedence for the return of the Black Madonna, was likely the source for all the female deities of ancient Middle Eastern religion, including the idolatrous “queen of heaven” worshiped by the women and men of ancient Israel (Jeremiah 7:18-20; 44:15-19). The Black Madonna and “Elousia” find themselves in company with an idol goddess that Yahweh could not, and did not, tolerate before His face (Exodus 20:3-4). We now consider the second person of Young’s trinity.
THE SECOND PERSON — The Shack describes Jesus to be a quite human person, a relatively unattractive Middle Eastern Jewish man with a “big nose” who functioned as the retreat center’s repairman. (The Shack, 111). As regards Young’s portrayal of Jesus’ humanity, there is little disagreement. The author’s portrayal of Jesus in a literary symbolic sense seems reasonable and within the bounds of Scripture (See Matthew 1:1-17; Romans 1:3; Isaiah 53:2; Mark 6:3).
Nevertheless, the author leaves the door open for the idea that Jesus originated from “Papa-mama.” In explaining the derivation of woman from man, The Shack's Jesus tells Mack: “We created a circle of relationship, like our own, but for humans. She out of him, and now all males, including me, birthed through her (Eve), and ALL originating from God” (capital emphasis mine, The Shack, 148). Seemingly, this dialog makes Jesus’ birth to be as profane as the rest of humanity, thus calling into question His being the “only begotten of the Father” (meaning unique, or only one of His kind, John 1:14). Theologically, doubt is also aspersed upon Jesus Christ’s eternal generation. After this assertion, the novel pictures Jesus’ desire to join all humans in “their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” (The Shack, 182) In this regard, never once in the novel is Jesus (His human name) ever referred to as “Christ” (His self-chosen messianic and divine name, Matthew 16:16).
Young presents his readers with a very human Jesus who comes up short of being Christ. We turn now to the third member of The Shack’s trinity.
THE THIRD PERSON — Sarayu, the retreat center’s gardener — perhaps referring to Spirit’s production of fruit for Christian living (Galatians 5:22-23) — is the character meant to represent the Holy Spirit. Just after his introduction to her, Mack asks The Shack's Jesus, “Speaking of Sarayu, is she the Holy Spirit?” Jesus answers, “Yes, She is Creativity; she is Action; she is Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit.” Mack responds, “And her name Sarayu?” Jesus explains, “That is a simple name from one of our human languages. It means ‘Wind,’ a common wind actually. She loves that name.”(The Shack, 110)
Sarayu is likely a Sanskrit word (the language that is the most important religious and literary language of India). It might also be construed to compare to the blowing of the wind in the necessary new birth spoken of by Jesus (John 3:8). But by naming the Spirit Sarayu, there seems to be allusion to the Rig Veda, the Hindu scriptures, for Sarayu bears semantic and phonetic resemblance to Vayu. In so naming the Spirit with the Indic word for “wind,” is the author making overture to eastern religion?
Nevertheless, the novel’s impersonation of the Holy Spirit as female contradicts Jesus’ clear statement that the Spirit is neither an “it” nor a “she,” but “He” (John 16:13).
Is there a fourth member of Young’s polymorphous trinity? Maybe . . . we are left to our imagination.
WISDOM — Sophia, though separate from the trinity, but secluded not far away from the resplendent retreat center, is a divine-like lady-judge, who is wise in all the ways in which “Papa” conducts his/her affairs (See Proverbs 8:1-36; 1 Corinthians 1:24.). In her verbal exchanges with Mack, she clearly possesses clairvoyant, if not omniscient, perception. (The Shack, 156, 160)
IN CONCLUSION, The Shack, under the cover of biblical allusion, presents a god which may be likened to a deity of eastern mythology and mysticism. The reader ought to beware lest biblical allusion be used to peddle theological illusion. But you ask, “How can that happen?” How can scriptural allusion promote spiritual delusion? I would point out that Satan used biblical allusion to tempt Jesus. In the second phase of the temptation of Christ, Satan alluded to Psalm 91:11-12, to which Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (See Matthew 4:5-6, KJV.). Presenting a potpourri of spirituality combining biblical allusion with mystical illusion and mythological delusion, The Shack will surely resonate with an Emergent Christian mindset that attempts to flirt with the New Age/New Spirituality of postmodernism. The fact that the novel is fiction makes no difference — it communicates wrong ideas about God. As A.W. Tozer wrote,
"Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.
"Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards decline along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.
"Before the Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is, and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind." 
"But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him." (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)
1. The Apostle Paul also remarked of the reputation of the church at Thessalonica how they, “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (I Thessalonians 1:9). Scripture also records that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also Truth (John 14:6; 1 John 5:7, 20). In this vein, one must note John’s closing word: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
2. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1961) 12.
3. The word “imagination” (Greek, dialogismos) literally means, “the thinking of a man deliberating with himself” (Romans 1:21, KJV). On this point, it is appropriate to note that William P. Young accounts for the origin of his novel for reason of personal and private conversations he had with God on his daily work-commute from Gresham to Portland, Oregon. World magazine reports that, “Young used 80 minutes each day . . . to fill yellow legal pads with imagined conversations with God focused on suffering, pain, and evil.” (See Susan Olasky, “Commuter-driven bestseller,” World, June 28/July 5, 2008, 49.) Paul, the apostle states that idolatry germinates out of people “deliberating” within themselves. This is gnosis spirituality which is ever in contest with the Logos spirituality of the Bible. The Word finds its origin with God (John 1:1, 14). Gnosis, the basis of the New Age/New Spirituality, finds its origin in the mind of man, or perhaps might even be received from demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
4. In that in the Front Matter The Shack book receives rave theological kudos, it is not unfair to investigate and evaluate the book’s theology, especially the doctrine of God known to systematic theologians as the category of Theology Proper.
5. On this point, I find it interesting that the novel has not yet been accused of racial stereotyping, i.e., that God is pictured as being a “large” or “big black woman” (The Shack, 84, 86), and that Jesus comes from a Jewish nation of people with “big noses” (The Shack, 111).
6. John P. Newport, Paul Tillich (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984) 108. Newport also observes that in the “grounding” of God, Tillich “seems to synthesize the pantheistic element of immanence with the theistic element of transcendence in a way that leans toward pantheism.” (110). Newport’s assessment may be too generous. At the end of his life, Tillich might have been an out and out pantheist. Of Tillich’s book, Courage to Be, Erickson remarks that it “appears to have more in common with Hinduism than it does with historic Christianity.” See Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 334.
7. Erickson, Theology, 333.
8. For sake of explanation, pantheism teaches that God is all things while panentheism holds that God dwells in all things. For sake of analogy, a tree is not God (pantheism), but the sap which is the “life force” in the tree is. God is “in” the tree, but the tree is not God. See Erickson, Theology, 333.
9. Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, “The Return of the Black Madonna: A Sign of Our Times or How the Black Madonna Is Shaking Us Up for the Twenty-First Century,” Friends of Creation Spirituality, January 2006, Article Number 1 (http://www.matthewfox.org/sys-tmpl/theblackmadonna/).
10. Ibid. Article Number 8.
13. Ibid. Article Number 3.
14. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, “Chakra,” Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991) 86.
15. Ibid. 86-87.
16. Guiley, “Kundalini,” Encyclopedia, 319.
17. Fox, “The Black Madonna,” Article Number 6.
18. Ibid. Article Number 7.
19. When it acknowledged Jesus to have been “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead,” it might be construed that the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451) allows for a concept that God originated Jesus (See http://www.carm.org/creeds/chalcedonian.htm). However, to imagine the mystery surrounding the Trinity to be analogous to some kind of human begetting (i.e., as in the Mormon doctrine of God) is improper. The relationship of the Father and Son to each other is their personal relationship, and it would be well for us creatures not invade their privacy (i.e., mystery). Their relationship is theirs alone. Though the unity for which Jesus prayed may be compared to that of His with the Father, it is only similar to (“as”), but not the same as their unity (John 17:21).
20. In this regard, one can note the capitalization of “Beloved.” When used in the NASB translation of the Bible, “Beloved” is capitalized as when Paul wrote of the grace God bestowed upon the believer “in the Beloved” (in Christ, Ephesians 1:6, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, 1901 ASV). Thus when the "Jesus " of The Shack said he desires people to be transformed “into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved” (The Shack, 182), it is as if Jesus envisions that humans can achieve a theotic state of “being” that morphs into divinity. While believers are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), we are not consumed of it (Romans 7:14ff.).
21. “Word Mythology Dictionary: Vayu,” Answers.com (http://www.answers.com/topic/vayu-2).
22. A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 9.
Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of Church on the Rise: Why I am not a Purpose-Driven Pastor. This article used with permission.
© 2008 by Discernment Group
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