Verbs and nouns
“You don’t really have to eat, do you?” Mack asked. “We don’t have to eat anything,” Papa replied. “Then why do you eat?” Mack inquired. “To be with you, honey. You need to eat, so what better excuse to be together.”1 In this story, “Papa” is God – who is a big, black woman. If you find the picture of God as a female to be distasteful, you might not have acquired a taste for heaven. That’s because God might be a verb rather than a noun.
Mack’s conversation with Papa can be found in The Shack, written by William Young. It’s the story of Mackenzie (“Mack”) Allen Phillips, a devoted dad who takes his three younger children camping one weekend. Happiness turns to horror when their youngest, Missy, is murdered by a serial killer. Police only find Missy’s bloodied dress in a nearby shack. Her death extinguishes the flame of Mack’s faith. He grows indifferent about faith because God seemed to be indifferent about Missy’s fate. Yet the real problem is that Mack imagines God more as a noun.
“Nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead,” Papa tells Mack. Buckminster Fuller, never known for orthodoxy, suggested that God is a verb. He might have been on to something. “I am a verb,” Papa continues. “I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb.” Okay, take a breath test: does this leave a bad taste in your mouth? If so, how do you think eternity ought to taste?
The problem here is that we’re finite beings imagining an infinite being that resides in eternity (whew, that’s easier to write than imagine). The fact is, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9). Our mental models of God and eternity are inevitably cramped. It is the contribution of faith that yields “a certain widening of the imagination,” Luci Shaw said.2 How does that happen? In Luke 24, it’s as simple as sharing a meal.
Luke starts the story when a few women came to Jesus’ tomb. They were expecting him to be dead as a doornail. The women were looking for a body, a noun. Two angels instead quiz them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Notice that the angels use verbs like living. The women tell the men, but they don’t get it (let’s not go there) “because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (24:11). The men imagine God as a noun. Later that day, Jesus comes alongside two of them going to Emmaus and the noun guys urge Jesus to stay with them. As they share a meal, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (24:31).
What was it about a meal that widened their imagination? If you read the Bible with a wide-angle lens, one of the most remarkable themes threaded from Genesis to Revelation is take and eat. In Genesis, God invites Adam and Eve to take and eat. The serpent corrupts this good setting by urging them to take and eat what was forbidden. In restoring creation, Jesus brought his followers together around a table and invited them to take and eat. In the new heavens and new earth, there is a grand feast where we take and eat (Mt. 22:1-14). So, what’s remarkable about take and eat? It’s this: God simply enjoys being with – with each other and with us. Period. When Mack asks Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (a Middle Eastern laborer complete with tool belt and gloves – yes, the Holy Spirit) why they’re eating with him, Papa replies, “To be with you, honey. You need to eat, so what better excuse to be together.” To be with you…
“Heaven,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “is an acquired taste.”3 If God is a noun, then he’s a person. If he’s a person, then gender is worth wrangling over. This probably accounts for why some people are upset about God being a woman in The Shack. But Papa cautions Mack: “there is far more going on here than you have the ability to perceive. Let me assure you all of this is real, far more real than life as you’ve known it.” If eye has not seen nor has ear heard nor has it even entered our mind what eternity is like, then getting into a fender bender over God’s gender probably misses the entire point – just like the disciples in Luke 24. God is love. Love is a verb. God is a being. Being is a verb.
The best thing about The Shack is that it reminds us of a mind-blowing reality – that God enjoys “being with” – plain and simple. Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu take pleasure in hanging out with each other and with people like you and me. Put The Shack on your summer reading list along with Luke 24 and see whether you acquire more of a taste for heaven.
1 William Young, The Shack (Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007).
2 C.f. Luci Shaw, “Art and Christian Spirituality: Companions in the Way,” Direction Journal, Fall 1998, Vol. 27 No. 2, pp. 109-122.
3 Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. W. H. Lewis (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1966), p. 164.