The gender thing

One of The Shack’s big surprises is that Papa (God the Father) is portrayed as a woman. Paul Young has his reasons, and I’m not terribly interested in arguing for or against it.  But I want to mention how it affected my own writing process.

In my early attempts to paraphrase Bible passages in Shack language, it didn’t even occur to me to refer to Papa with feminine pronouns.  But one day I noticed the disconnect between the book and the paraphrase, so I went through and changed the pronouns. 

I was shocked at how much it changed the feel of the text.  I wondered if it was perhaps TOO jarring, and I considered switching back to “he” and “his.”  After all, gender is a prickly topic (in theology as much as everywhere else), and did I really want to give my potential critics such a big easy target?

After all, I do believe gender is theologically relevant. I’m not a body-denying dualist or a gnostic.  Body and soul are one.  My anatomy has something real to say about my personhood, my soul-deep identity.  Besides, I’ve been a parent long enough to know that a father-child relationship is different from a mother-child relationship.  It’s relevant that Jesus prayed to “Father” and not “Mother.” Gender is not a non-issue to me.

But in the end, I decided to keep the feminine pronouns.  Why?  Because the fact that it’s jarring is precisely the point.  We have such deep mental ruts in our thinking about God, it is nearly impossible to get out of them.  Seeing Papa as a woman is SUCH a big shift of mind, it forces us out of the ruts, forces us to start fresh and let go of our preconceptions of what our Papa is like.

That starting-fresh is possibly the most important thing The Shack had to accomplish.  And if the female manifestation of Papa is what achieved it (and I think it really did), then I’m willing to stick with it in my paraphrase.


  1. Secret Sinai says:

    I love how the Shack explains that God is really both genders – “He created humans in His image, male and female He created them” – each gender embodies a unique set of God’s attributes. I would be most comfortable envisioning a male Papa and female Sarayu, but as Papa pointed out in the book, The Shack is about defying what we’ve been comfortable with, so it makes sense that you’re going to jar people this way. I’m looking forward to reading more of your paraphrase! Do you plan on publishing the entire Bible in this style sometime?

    1. I do aim for a Shack New Testament to actually be published one of these days. But for now, the point of it is just for me to go through the pain of repenting (rethinking) all my old toxic beliefs about God, and trying to hear his Word afresh in the Light that is Jesus. And I am so happy that what I’m doing might be useful to you. I always welcome your feedback!

  2. I personally believe the main reason Jesus spoke of “Father” instead of “Mother” was the time in which he lived and the people to whom he spoke. We know that “God is not a man,” and that all masculinity and femininity emanate from God, so, to me, both are equally valid (or, due to human limitations of understanding, equally invalid).

    1. We’re pretty much on the same page there. I like to say that there is nothing of the Feminine that is lacking in God. It’s also interesting to note that Sarayu (ruach) is consistently feminine all through the Old Testament.

  3. Wisdomchaser says:

    When I first read The Shack the presentation of “the father” as a female bothered me. I have since studied many of the scriptures that present God as having a feminine nature as well as a masculine nature. The Bible presents God as giving birth and breastfeeding among other feminine features. Now the idea of Poppa doesn’t bother me so much.

    1. It disturbed me too! And still does, a little. But I come to the same conclusion as you: There is nothing of the Feminine that God lacks.

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