Authoritarian systems thrive on hierarchy. Everyone must be arranged into groups, and from there they must all be ranked and rated. Someone must be superior; everyone else must be inferior. The real surprise isn’t that there might be a lot of racism in a system devoted to a holy book that proclaims that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” in their group, because its emphasis on hierarchy and top-down authority tells you right off the bat that this ideal will never, ever happen in reality, but that it’s not worse than it is.
The Shack, the latest in a long line of Christian glurge movies and books, lives in that weird middle ground where Christians think they’re being progressive and yet turn out to be as locked in systemic racism as any of their peers.
“Well, First Off, She’s Black.”
When the main character (Mack) ends up at the titular shack where his young daughter was murdered, he meets the Christian god–split into three characters, an echo of the Trinity as many Christians understand it. This conceptualization itself is up for much discussion; most Christians really don’t understand the Trinity and chances are good that this convoluted contrivance is probably deeply heretical all by itself. But just thinking about the arguments that have probably arisen among Christians over this book’s characterization of the Trinity reminds me of listening to ten-year-olds arguing about Batman’s cloak, so let’s just roll with it for now.
“God the Father” is depicted for much of the movie as “Papa,” an older black lady of size. (“Papa” is Mack’s wife’s nickname for the Christian god; yes, it’s almost certainly supposed to sound like that “Daddy God” bullshit that was popularized a few years ago among evangelicals.) She says she’s incarnating as a woman because Mack has “Daddy issues.”
And yeah, I mean, sure, we could spend some time here talking about how often it is that individual Christians create for themselves a conceptualization of deity that fits whatever they need most. It’s not a sign of their god’s power and love that he appears to so many different people in so many vastly different forms; it’s a sign that what they believe isn’t actually really true and real. The more mythology builds around a person, the less certain we can be that any characterization of that person is actually what they are or were really like. That’s because that person’s identity gets caught up in and mangled by different ideological factions–all of whom have their reasons for accepting one part of that person’s characterization but rejecting another–and creating still another out of whole cloth. Without the greatest of care being taken to support our ideas about a person–especially a famous or important person–we run a serious risk of completely mischaracterizing them.
Indeed, the author of The Shack has his “Papa” sharing nothing whatsoever in common with the wrathful, jealous, vengeful god of the Bible. She’s a kindhearted matron who keeps house and cooks good food and dispenses wisdom that is meant to propel Mack toward resolution of his personal issues.
It’s not Papa’s total lack of resemblance to the Christian god that’s the real problem here. Quite a few Christians pat themselves on the back for being urbane and sophisticated enough to recognize that the Bible isn’t literally true 100% of the time (their cookies are in the mail). It’s that the author uses a tired old trope to advance his ideas–but one that his audience will understand completely and respond to. Papa is the personification of the Magical Negro: a black servant who is only part of the story to bring enlightenment to a white character. As that TVTropes link makes clear (and this is your warning that it’s TVTropes), Papa is also a Mammy archetype: a nonsexual, non-threatening obese black woman who has lots of folksy expressions under her extra-large belt and a heaping dose of common sense to shower upon the white protagonist.
The author can’t actually claim not to have any idea that this archetype is not only old but unwelcome. It’s not like it’s hard to find all kinds of commentary on exactly this trope and the accidentally-racist ones that surround it. Adam Howard of NBC notes that “Hollywood has a long history of portraying people of color as preternaturally wise or exoticized figures whose only function is to assuage white guilt or make pithy statements about our collective humanity, but in the last few decades there appears to have been an uptick in these sorts of films.”
Watching an incredible, multi-award-winning actress like Octavia Spencer get thrown away on this racist bullshit is like watching, well, someone talented being humiliated by material far beneath her. Ms. Spencer herself is an evangelical Christian, so her indoctrination may be (pardon the phrase) coloring her perception of the role she was given. I still just cringe at the sight of her in this role. It’s like her entire character exists as it does in this movie because the book’s author heard that old and very dumb joke about someone meeting the Christian god and discovering “first off, she’s black.”
Words fail me sometimes.
God the Non-Threatening Brown Son.
Jesus, of course, appears as a friendly Near Eastern fellow. We’ve come a long way from the blond, blue-eyed hippie Jesuses of years past; audiences have been used to seeing Jesus as a brown person for many years. Portrayed by Israeli actor Avraham Avid Alush, this movie’s Jesus looks about as non-threatening as anybody of that ethnicity really can get to a white American Christian.
And he acts about as non-threatening as any Jesus we’ve ever seen could ever get in cinema.
This Jesus is of the Buddy!Jesus variety. He races Mack on water and burbles about wanting friends instead of followers. As you can see right away, the Jesus who hangs out in the Shack bears very little resemblance to the slavery-condoning, violence-threatening, mystery-religion-raving, abuse-advocating, dishonest, thieving, sponging, racist, sexist piece of shit Jesus we encounter in the actual Bible.
That said, the way Jesus is portrayed in this movie probably comes a lot closer to the image of Jesus that most white American Christians carry in their heads. Most Christians have no clue what the Bible actually says about Jesus. The verses that tell us every single thing we actually know about the character, history, and opinions of Jesus have been filtered through centuries of wishful thinking and ideologically-motivated historical revisionism.
Even as a Christian myself, I noticed that people warped the character of Jesus to fulfill their deepest, most unmet emotional needs. The Shack isn’t doing anything new here–it’s just doing it in a more blatant and obvious way than most Christian glurge does.
God the Hot Super-Spiritual Asian Spirit.
We’ve seen God the Father incarnated as a matronly magical black woman and God the Son incarnated as a totally non-threatening athletic Near Eastern guy. Now we meet God the Holy Ghost/Spirit, who is a super-hot young Asian woman.
Played by Sumire, a popular Japanese pop singer, the character is named Sarayu. Sarayu is the name of a river in India (I guess “Denial” wasn’t TRUE CHRISTIAN™ enough). In Sanskrit, which is officially the most mystical and mysterious language ever, the word sarayu itself means streaming air or wind.
It’s not hard to see a Christian characterizing the Holy Spirit in this way. The Bible uses much the same sort of language, as one study guide for this glurge makes sure to tell us.
Eastern spirituality is one of the bugbears of modern fundagelicals–much as Wicca was one of the bugbears of Christians back in my day. Mark Driscoll rails about yoga; other Christians act so weird around the idea of martial arts that I wonder if they think that the krotty teacher is actually showing kids how to summon demons like Christians used to think D&D books did in the 1980s.
But at the same time they’re wetting their pants over the idea of accidentally summoning demons, American Christians have this vague idea of Japan as this super-spiritual place and a vague conception of Japanese people as super-spiritual. Thus, it’s no accident that Sarayu is played by a Japanese woman.
Nor is it an accident that Sarayu talks exactly like you’d expect a super-spiritual Japanese spirit-guide to talk (as filtered through a Christian with little experience with other religions). Most reviewers characterize her as sounding higher than a Tibetan prayer kite, and I’d have to concur. Others wonder if she’s supposed to be the Holy Ghost or Mother Nature, and that too is a very fair question. (Sample dialogue: “I have a great fondness for uncertainty.” Yes, that’ll make fundagelicals very happy.)
Regardless of exactly what her creator intended her to sound like, Sarayu is yet another non-white person who exists to help a white protagonist move along the path of enlightenment.
Judgment/Wisdom, the Beautiful Latina Woman.
Alice Braga comes in as Sophia, the spirit of wisdom and judgment. She talks to Mack about how he blames “God” for the death of his little daughter. (We’ll be talking a lot more about Sophia’s role in the story later–it’s that bad.) Ms. Braga is Brazilian, and I’m sure that this casting decision, too, was no accident. American cinema/television in particular tends to gravitate toward Latino characters as part of the justice system–or those prosecuted by it.
Sophia doesn’t identify herself to Mack at first, but Jesus tells him her name later on and informs him that she is “a personification of Papa’s wisdom.” Sophia does actually mean wisdom in Greek, and apparently–according to Christian Answers for the New Age, at least–a lot of modern churches are starting to get really excited about the idea of Sophia as a sort of divine quality.
And Sophia exists, just as the other characters do, purely to move Mack through his grief and usher him back into faith.
(When I first heard about this character and what she does in the story, I seriously thought that someone was having a laugh at everyone’s expense. I guess that’s about as good a statement as any about Sophia.)
When Creationists Attack.
I knew that The Shack was going to be fun to review when I noticed that hardcore Creationists were totally upset with it. In “Staying Outside the Shack,” an Answers in Genesis blogger Roger Patterson informs us that he’s got some big problems with this story.
After dispensing summarily with the boilerplate “but but but it’s not the Bible itself and why aren’t Christians reading and talking about the Bible itself, waaah,” which I think fundagelicals are required by law to invoke in any examination of Christian media, Mr. Patterson goes on to the theology he’s got trouble with. He mentions only in passing the weird fact of the incarnation of the Christian god into three racially-appropriate people–his main issue is that two of the manifestations of “God” are female, not that they are racist as all get-out.
Nothing makes Christians of this stripe more uncomfortable than the idea that someone could believe in the same basic stuff they do but come out of it with such totally different theology. They’re acutely aware of the problem with a god who can basically appear as anything to anybody and who tailors his (or her) form to something that their targets will understand and like.
The Creationist crowd isn’t the only group of Christians who are upset with the ideas in this book/movie, of course. Shocked denunciations of the low Christianity found therein abound. They’re just the funniest in their spluttering outrage.
Considering that evangelicals themselves do not allow ignorance to be much of an excuse for anybody, it’s weird that the author of The Shack pleads ignorance when people bring up the racism in his work. I’ve read numerous interviews with him in which he tries to claim, all wide-eyed innocence, that he grew up with missionary parents in the field with super-primitive people of color, and just had nooooooo idea about all that racism stuff.
Remember I was joking the other day about how one Christian treated relationships with non-Christians the same way that the hero of Airplane! treated the fictional Malombo tribe? Well, William P. Young acts like one might expect the child of those aid workers to behave. He’s just SHOCKED YES SHOCKED HE IS to discover that some meaniepie poopypants critics and naysayers are somehow finding racist tropes in his writing.
The problem is, he didn’t just wake up one day and write the book, publish it, and get stinky rich and land a movie deal. Dozens of Christians along the way read this book–and none of them apparently mentioned this problem. Dozens of Christians discussed publishing this book–and none of them suggested he maybe tone down the Magical Negro overtones of “Papa.” Dozens of Christians helped distribute this book–and nobody said that it was offensive to cast the Holy Spirit as a hot Asian woman spouting quasi-mystical deepities or to have a Latina woman personifying the Christian god’s judgment.
The results are, in the words of one popular review site, so “absolutely bugnuts insane” that they felt they were “forced to add a ‘what in the actual fuck’ category to this website.”
And you know what? I think that sounds like a fine idea for this one too.
See you next time, when we look at Sophia’s false dilemma!