After I finished writing my guide to the Book of Job, several people told me I ought to read The Shack. I wasn’t that keen. But my Pastor handed me a copy, so how could I resist anymore?
The Shack by William Paul Young (Windblown Media, 2007) is one of those publishing phenomenons à la The Celestine Prophecy, where it seems like everyone has read it or is about to read it. Most people I knew enjoyed The Shack hugely; some weren’t all that thrilled with the writing. I personally found it lightweight but with one essential truth in it, a truth that few who talk forgiveness rarely discuss or even mention.
Young wrote The Shack originally for his children, in obedience to his wife. His imaginative story unfolds in a way that slowly reveals the tragedy that changed the protagonist Mackenzie fundamentally. The tragedy happened in or was traced back to a shack in the middle of the National Reserve wilderness in Oregon. It’s a bleak place of dereliction, loneliness, and loss. Young said in an interview that the shack is a metaphor for a place where we get hurt and stuck. A few years after the tragedy, on a brittle, cold day, Mackenzie is called to go back to the shack through a note. When he later spoke to his wife, he chose not to tell her about this odd note. It’s a telling little detail about how we justify leaving people out when in fact it’s all about our own fear and selfishness.
Up to this point, The Shack is a traditional novel, firmly grounded in reality. The language is ordinary; the emotions evoked not all that powerful. I found for such a tragedy as Mack experienced, I was not all that moved. I think more evocative language, better word usage, less artificiality in the build up to the big reveal, would probably have created a more passionate response. But if the very mention of child and tragedy in the same sentence moves you to tears, then this will do it.
When Mack hikes up to the shack and enters it, all that reality morphs; he enters a fantastical world. He encounters God in three. God is a black woman; Jesus is a carpenter; and the Holy Spirit is a being hard to see and pin down. The setting morphs from bleak and inhospitable to a flourishing summer, an inviting garden, a rather obvious metaphor for what it’s like to be without God and then with God.
Young uses these characters to show the reader how the Trinity works and to challenge the stereotype of God being only male. I’m not sure how well it works as a visual aid to the Trinity; I feel no more enlightened than before. Yet it is a creative way to show the Divine. And he does a good job of illustrating an ideal relationship, such as exists between the three God in one.
Mack spends time with each manifestation of God and finally feels his way through his grief into acceptance of his loss. He comes to regret not telling his wife of the note. Near the end of his time with this entertaining Trinity, Mack receives redeeming gifts that are entirely in the realm of fiction. Us humans would not likely have God descend upon us and show us our dead kin. In that respect, although it was a nice feel-good moment, I found its artificiality, its non-connection to real suffering and how God usually works in our lives, a bit off-putting.
Yet Young goes from that trite scene to a compelling conversation about a truth I so rarely hear today. It’s become commonplace to hear zealous talk about forgiveness, about how we should forgive for our own sake, to make us better, that it has nothing to do with the person we’re forgiving, that’s why we ought to forgive. Gag me. But even leaving aside the idea of making forgiveness palatable to the masses by transforming it into a selfish act, forgiveness is often foisted upon Christians as a must-do, with no acknowledgement that forgiveness is only one-third of the equation. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, and it is not forgetfullness. Yet it’s either portrayed as a selfish act that has nothing to do with mercy or reconciliation or as a way to kiss and make up with your oppressor, the one who harmed you. Neither is forgiveness. Kissing and making up is reconciling and is also only one-third of the equation. The last third that connects the two is the one who harmed you acknowledging the harm and asking for mercy. Forgiveness, asking for mercy, and reconciliation are all about our relationship with the other. They are not supposed to be solitary activities, even though it seems too often one has to forgive in solitude or send a request for mercy off into the void.
“Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation. And sometimes — and this may seem incomprehensible to you right now — that road may even take you to the miracle of fully restored trust.”
“…forgiveness does not excuse anything.” (Page 226, God to Mack.)
The Shack is a pleasant read. Its theology is not to everyone’s taste — as evidenced on YouTube. It ends on a good note; it wraps things up nicely. I often think that the ending of the Book of Job is also a nice wrap up that has no basis in reality. We may often be redeemed in our suffering, but the questions that the tragedy raise remain unanswered and the losses don’t get replaced. Does a book such as this need to end in this way though? There was a feeling awhile ago that for a book to be authentic it has to be realistic. But fiction is also escape. And people who are suffering greatly like nothing better than a happy ending, like Job had, like Mack does. Young gives his readers the happy, neat ending they crave. It is the reason for The Shack’s popularity I’m sure.