Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Shack

Last night I heard two words on ESPN that made me contemplate my childhood relationship with my dad and how that affected my life on all levels, but especially on a spiritual level. In this case, the catalyst for my deep, spiritual thinking was two words, but spiritual sparks can permeate all areas of our lives in many different forms. One of these forms is tragedy. We often let this tragedy put distance between God and us, but tragedy can also bring God closer to us.

In The Shack, authored by WM. Paul Young, the main character, Mackenzie (referred to from now on as Mack), experiences a horrible tragedy when his youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted and evidence that she was murdered is found in a shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Young leaves no doubt that this tragedy was a catalyst for deep, spiritual thinking on Mack’s part, but ultimately, the tragedy created distance between Mack and God. Mack falls into a time of depression that the storyteller refers to as the Great Sadness.

Four years pass before a note in Mack’s mailbox changes things. The note reads:

It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.

I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.


We know instantly what shack the author of this note is talking about. And, unless you’ve been living in a cocoon for the last year, you know Papa is in fact God and Mack finds God in the shack in the form of a portly, black woman. Mack also finds Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit), both in human form at the shack. Mack is now in the cabin where he had to identify his daughter’s dress, and where her blood used to stain the floor, with the Trinity in human form. This is The Shack’s value, in alluring us to that intriguing prospect of a man who has suffered so much and has the unique chance to ask Papa whatever he wants over a long weekend. We would all love this chance for many, many reasons, but there is no doubt about it, God would be fielding a lot of questions about loss, hurt and tragedies.

I feel it is necessary to address some criticism of the book up front. I had heard the quality of the writing was poor and that Young’s descriptive power was, well, non-existent perhaps. Unfortunately, these are sort of true. Also of note is the similarity between some of the theology in The Shack and The Matrix. In the chapter titled “A Piece of Õ”, Mack gets his first chance to ask some serious questions of God. He is in the kitchen with her while she is baking some delicious creation. The whole chapter closely resembles a scene from The Matrix when Neo first encounters the Oracle in the kitchen of her apartment. She is baking cookies and Neo is confused to find the Oracle an overweight, black lady concerned about cookies in the oven. Young gets no points for originality here, but the similarity between the two scenes probably isn’t an issue for most readers. I wrote my senior paper on The Matrix movies so I have an uncommon closeness to the trilogy. If readers don’t catch this similarity, then it should be blatantly obvious in the chapter, “A Breakfast of Champions”, when Papa says, “It is the human paradigm. It is like water to fish, so prevalent that it goes unseen and unquestioned. It is the matrix; a diabolical scheme in which you are hopelessly trapped even while completely unaware of its existence.” Young doesn’t even try to hide it this time. He even italicizes “is”. Ha, I bet you thought the italics were mine.

Throughout The Shack, I was constantly wording the questions I would be asking God if I were in Mack’s place. Many of them were identical like, “If you couldn’t take care of Missy, how can I trust you to take care of me?” Another one, “Didn’t Missy have the right to be protected?” To this, Sarayu responds, “No, Mack. A child is protected because she is loved, not because she has a right to be protected.” Mack says to Jesus at one point, “There is one thing still bothering me, about Missy. I keep thinking about her, alone in that truck, so terrified…” Jesus responds, “Mack, she was never alone. I never left her; we never left her not for one instant. I could no more abandon her, or you, than I could abandon myself.”

If you aren’t completely satisfied with God’s answers, then you are not alone. Mack gets to ask all the questions and he really does get angry with God during his weekend with the Trinity in the Oregon wilderness. Over that weekend, God’s answers slowly wear away at Mack’s calloused heart. Mack’s healing makes sense because he is literally sitting across the table from God, walking on water with Jesus, and gardening with the Holy Spirit. He not only hears them, but also sees them, and feels them. His vision is supernaturally elevated for a few minutes so he can see people the way God sees them. I too, would probably feel amazing after such a weekend, but the reader interprets God’s answers to Mack’s tough questions in a completely different context. We aren’t in that shack. We are at home, in the coffee shop, in an entirely different world it seems, dark and lifeless compared to Mack’s cartoonish world of that weekend. Although I appreciated much of Young’s interpretation, especially in the chapter, “Here Come Da Judge”, a lot of God’s answers in this book wouldn’t be adequate for me if I had lost a loved one the way Mack lost his daughter. In fact, some of the answers in this book would make me madder at God. I am comforted by the fact that the words in The Shack are merely a human’s guess at what God might say. God’s answers to these questions are impossible to accurately predict and they are probably different for each individual’s suffering. I have the feeling that for Young, what God says in The Shack, is exactly what God has said to Young in order to heal his heart and it is okay that some of those words fall short of what I imagine it would take to heal my heart in a similar circumstance.

The Shack is amazingly successful, now with over two million copies in print. I approached it with cynicism, but also with an open heart, having faith that it holds the potential to teach me something about God. This is the same way I approach most wildly popular Christian books and movies. Some things really come through, like Blue Like Jazz and Velvet Elvis. Others don’t, like the Left Behind series and a Joel Osteen book (which I haven’t read, but just know it wouldn’t deliver).

The Shack had a lot to live up to. It didn’t deliver in ways previous books have, a.k.a., it didn’t blow me out of the water, but I was pleasantly surprised by its radical and progressive message. At one point Mack asks, “You are not too fond of religion and institutions?” God answers, “I don’t create institutions—never have, never will.” Institutions are a product of humans, not a product of God. Rules and expectations are also products of the human world that limit the relationship we have with one another and with God. At one point God also says that the world is messed up because men are in charge. These are delightful tirades to find in the most popular Christian book out there right now. Whether you agree with them or not, Young actually speaks his mind and challenges many rules, expectations and institutions, which in turn forces discussion and debate.

This story also jumbled up the way I think about God, mostly making my view of God perhaps a bit more childish, which is a very good thing. Kids really understand the idea of an omnipresent God. I feel this is a trait of God’s that we easily forget as we age and become familiar with the varying grotesqueries of our world. I find myself praying for God to be with someone on a certain day or during a certain event. The Shack helped me realize how foolish such a prayer is. Whether I am praying it or not, God is with everyone I know and don’t know all the time. Papa never leaves us and is constantly trying to talk to us and love us. Instead of praying for God to be with someone, I need to be praying for that person to recognize God’s presence in their life. I should pray for them to see, hear, and feel God.

Similar to praying for God to be with someone is the prayer for God to give someone courage, understanding, compassion, etc. I often pray for these things, but The Shack reminded me that I have been given all that I need in Jesus’ love. It is just a matter of recognizing those gifts. They have already been given; people just need the eyes, ears, and heart to receive them.

Someone was praying for Mack to hear God’s voice. If Mack’s heart weren’t in the right place, the letter from Papa wouldn’t have acted as a catalyst. He could have easily written it off as a bad joke and done nothing about it, but he had within him what Young calls a “suprarationality: reason beyond the normal definitions of fact or data-based logic; something that only makes sense if you can see a bigger picture of reality. Maybe that is where faith fits in.” That’s where it fit for Mack. That’s what brought Mack to the shack, the bigger picture that Mack was still aware of, a bigger picture that God is always a part of, no matter if we see that or not.

It is childish of me to have a desire for a God that might try reaching me through a couple of words during a football game on ESPN, but Young gives a voice to that desire in a lot of us, and reminds us that that desire is truly childish, but right for all ages because it makes God smile.

1 comment:

Jarrod Renaud said...

i enjoyed this. good written review. it flows