The Genius of the Shack
It has been almost ten years since Paul Young stole behind our watchful dragons, as C.S. Lewis would call them, and scandalized our souls with hope, controversy, and risk. The Shack was never even intended to be a real book. It was written as a story for Paul’s children. I think this is critical to the almost unbelievable appeal and reach of the story. On the surface, the simplicity and charm of The Shack derive from the fact that Paul is talking to his kids. It never crossed his mind that it would be published or even be read by more than a handful of others. Now The Shack is an international bestseller, and with over 22 million copies sold is one of the top selling books of all history, soon to be released across the world on the big screen. Everyday, Paul laughs about what he calls “Papa’s joke”.
On a deeper level the compelling power and hope of the book bleed out of Paul’s own trauma and healing. His personal life had collapsed in failure, and he reached the place where he was reduced, as he says, “to a dried-up piece of dung, terrified that the slightest breeze would blow me away forever.” It is one thing to disappoint yourself and try to live with it; it is quite another to be a disappointment. There is nowhere to hide from such emotional torment. Where do you go for relief when your own heart scoffs at you in contempt, and your soul writhes in shame? Paul planned his suicide, down to the details of where and how so his body would not be found by family. But something happened as he stood clothed in self-loathing on the edge of the abyss of nothingness, something astonishing, something real, something too beautiful for words. The Shack is about that something.
In the book, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, while saving his son from drowning, loses his youngest daughter Missy. Kidnapped by a serial killer, she is brutalized before being murdered in an abandoned shack. In the following years, powerlessness, helplessness, and blame transfigure Mack’s inner world into blindness, anger and life-choking sadness. Then a note appears in his mailbox—ostensibly from God.
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.” —Papa
Mackenzie has no idea what to do. Braving the seas of his pain and certainly the fear that he has lost his mind, he decides to make his way back to the shack, the very source of his pain. But God is a no show, at least the God of Mackenzie’s imagination. Mack’s buried anger explodes, as he smashes an old chair and pummels the floor with one of its broken legs. Then he rises, shakes his fist at God, and screams, “I hate you!”
It is not to be missed that only after his rage explodes and after he finally shakes his fist in fury do things change. The snow melts; the flowers of Spring appear. The shack itself transforms into a finely built cabin. Only then does Mackenzie hear laughter from inside. Intrigued, Mack decides to walk back toward the shack. He raises his fist again, this time to knock on the door, but it flies open, and he finds himself face-to-face with a large African-American woman whose smile radiated unearthly love. Before he can even react, she embraces him with a hug as wide as the universe, lifts him off the ground, spinning him around as she shouts his name, Mackenzie Allen Phillips with unknown affection. “My, my, my how I do love you!”
Something very much like this moment happened to Paul Young inside his own shame. This is why this scene and the book itself carries such weight. Paul is not simply writing a good story. He is not theorizing or trying to convince people to agree with a religious position. He is writing for his kids out of his own profound experience so they can know the God of relentless affection that showed up in his hell. (Have you noticed that Mackenzie’s initials form the word MAP?)
But then the story got out, and like all good stories spread across the earth, leaving a trail of liberation and life and sometimes heated controversy behind it. When Papa comes through the door and embraces a broken-down Mackenzie in his great sadness, Paul is putting his finger on the longing of the human soul and throwing us all into enormous crisis at the same time. Who doesn’t want to hear God the Father shouting, “My, my, my how I do love you!” or, “I am especially fond of you”? Who doesn’t want to eat at her table with Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) and be heard and accepted? Yet few of us can seriously believe that God is this good, especially to us in our brokenness. We long to be Mackenzie in Papa’s arms, but we have too many wounds and shadows, too much experience of tragedy, and too many contradictory ideas of God. Besides that, to open our hearts to such relationship and care runs the risk of brutal disappointment. What if it proves a sham? Where would that leave us?
Paul did not intend a large-scale challenge of Western Christianity. He intended to help his children see through the disastrous vision of God that he himself had been taught and to help them see in a story that God is Love, real love, all the time, forever, meeting us all in the pit of our self-destruction. But as the book traveled far and wide it stirred up a crisis for many, even as it liberated millions who experienced, in reading, the same encounter with the Father as Paul in real life and Mack in the story. Some were enraged at Paul’s daring presentation of the gospel, accusing him of heresy, universalism, even modalism, among other things. When I read The Shack I thought of the early church and of St. Athanasius, who wrote in the fourth century, “The God of all is Good, and supremely noble by nature, therefore He is the lover of the human race.”
The momentous scene of Papa’s embrace and then the equally powerful one of Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) meeting Mackenzie in the garden, (which turns out to be his soul and the sinful mess Mack had made of himself), give all broken people staggering hope. It also raised red flags for others. For me, these scenes force into the open two irreconcilable visions of God that inhabit the Western mind. The one is the faceless, nameless, unapproachable omni-being who watches us like a hawk from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart. This God is angry, eager to find fault, uncommitted, arbitrary, and incapable of love. This is Mackenzie’s God, the God of our fallen imaginations, and for many of us is the God we were taught from Scripture. Yet, who wants to be hugged by this God? Truly, does anyone want to go to this God’s heaven, or hear him shout her or his name? The other vision is expressed in Paul Young’s Papa, exceptionally played in the movie by Octavia Spencer. This Papa/Father loves Mack and us all with the same love that she loves Jesus and Sarayu, always good all the time, gracious, quick to forgive, eager to bless, and fiercely opposed to everything that keeps us from being alive. The is the ancient church’s vision of the blessed Trinity.
In both visions, no one will get away with anything, but for completely different reasons. The first God is bent on punishing every sin in the universe, whether anyone survives or not. The other is determined that everyone be delivered from all hints of evil and shame. Paul’s point to his children is that the brooding, disgusted God is neither real nor capable of helping in our darkness. To experience healing, Mackenzie has to face the fact that his vision of God was wrong, and let it go.
The genius of The Shack is that Papa’s embrace and Mackenzie’s experience of her love, stirs our longing to find ‘home’ right there in that circle, and this longing speaks on different levels at the same time. First, it stares our religious inheritance in the face asking why you have not led us to this life? It is a simple question, but one that is loaded with passion. Whatever else we have in our religious systems, most of us have not found what Mackenzie does, or Paul. If the God that Young discovered in his sin and self-loathing is real— the God embodied in Papa’s astonishing love and healing affection—then, like Mackenzie, our vision has misled us, perhaps profoundly so. Who is willing to face this fact and get down to the serious work of reformation? It seems to me that the larger, spiritual question of our times has shifted from who can put forward the best theological argument with the most proof texts, to who can lead us to experience the abounding life that Jesus promised. Mackenzie’s journey, and behind him Paul’s own life speak directly to this shift. The Shack addresses the human heart in its perplexing pain and longing with news that our lives can be very different. Does not our longing, touched by Mackenzie’s healing demand an understanding of the truth that leads us into the experience of authentic and indeed abounding life?
Second, our longing asks us all a deeply personal question. Are we prepared to risk opening ourselves to relationship? A return to the theological vision of the early Church will surely help our way of seeing, but not if our hearts are closed. The God of The Shack is not going to wave a magical wand and make everything better. This God loves relentlessly, meets us in our trauma, and summons us to participate in our healing. This is real relationship. Are we willing to allow ourselves to be known and loved in the embrace of Papa’s bewildering affection? Mackenzie not only had to change his fundamental notions of God, he also had to trust the God who met him in his pain.
With the continued spread of the book, and now the advent of the movie, which is largely faithful to the story, the religious and personal challenges are not going away. Thank God. As Luther unwittingly started a revolution when he nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door, Paul Young may well have done the same when he wrote a little story for his kids. We will see.
—C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D., author of the international best seller, The Shack Revisited, and Patmos