Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer stars in the upcoming film adaptation of the 2007 best-selling book The Shack and White male evangelicals are none too pleased. Spencer plays the role of God in the film about a man who returns to the shack where his young daughter was murdered and meets who the book’s author William P. Young describes as “a large, beaming African-American woman” – the physical manifestation of the Christian God.
Joe Schimmel, the pastor of Simi Valley, California’s Blessed Hope Chapel, has criticized the book in the past and is now adamantly warning Christians against seeing the film.
“Young’s pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, non-judgmental, African American woman called ‘Papa’ – who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ in Hebrews 1:1-3 –…lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry,” Schimmel told the Christian News Network.
Responding to the backlash his comments caused and accusations of racism and sexism, Schimmel released a statement condemning racism and citing a blog post he wrote where he chastised director Ridley Scott for using White actors to portray Egyptians in the film Exodus, and that time his church helped a Black congregant write a speech against the KKK in 1992 as evidence of his religious commitment to equality.
The “dangerous” and “false image of God” has long been in effect, and Schimmel is right to fear it. But that image isn’t the one Octavia Spencer will portray in The Shack. The dangerous false image of God is God’s depiction as White and male. Irrespective of Schimmel’s personal beliefs about racism and sexism, the undeniable truth is that the Christian faith has been used to systemically subjugate women and Black people around the world and in America, specifically, since the country’s inception.
Women in 2017 America are still unable to be seen as full members of many Christian churches—banned from serving as pastors, holding leadership positions above men, and serving on elder and trustee boards that make the most important decisions about church operation—all because of oppressive interpretations of Christianity.
Christian men take their positions of power outside of the church into legislative bodies and work to strip women of their rights of autonomy over their own bodies and equal pay for equal work—all due to men’s belief that women ought not venture beyond men’s God-given control over them.
White Christians plummeted the continent of Africa, bringing diseases and stealing its resources, colonizing the continent and dragging its children in chains to America in the name of Jesus.
Indigenous Americans were ravaged with diseases and White men stole their land from under them due to White men’s belief that the destruction of all other races and cultures was God’s “Manifest Destiny.” When White men throughout history encountered any human being unlike them, their response was to brutalize, enslave and destroy, the image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus smiling down at them not only with approval, but decree.
That hateful, racist, destructive, oppressive image is the “false image” of God that Schimmel and all Christians ought to be decrying. Because Jesus was nowhere near White—Revelation 1:14-15 describes him as having hair of wool and feet of bronze, and Matthew 2 tells us Jesus hid his brown self in Egypt when King Herod was trying to kill him. White Supremacy is the “idolatry” that needs to be destroyed, because Jesus came not to steal, kill and destroy, but to graft every human being into the unmitigated love of God.
Christians ought to celebrate any image of God manifesting as the marginalized. Perhaps if more people go see The Shack, they’ll start to recognize the inherent divinity in Black women as the result of Spencer’s portrayal, instead of the mules of the earth we’ve been relegated to. Perhaps if more people see Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara playing the Holy Spirit in this film, they’ll be more likely to comprehend God’s power and majesty in Asian women.
Perhaps if more people start to recognize that we are all made in the image of God, that God doesn’t just look like them, then Black people won’t be murdered in the streets by the state with impunity. Trans women won’t have to live in fear, impoverished and ostracized. Perhaps then, there will be an end to the oppression of other races, of feminine and non-binary genders, of queer people, poor people and all of the oppressed—and Christians will begin to do what Christ called us to do in the first place: love with no exception the inherent divinity in all people and lay down your life to protect them.
Brooke Obie is an award-winning spiritual life writer and the author of the Black revolution novel ‘Book of Addis‘. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.