Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reading and Experiencing “The Shack” at the Shack

To begin with, I am not much of a fan of things that are specifically labeled as “Christian,” whether art, or music, or books, or movies, or radio stations, or television channels, or high schools…well, you get the picture.  Most art and music used to be inherently Christian, without having to adopt the moniker.  I think of the beauty of the Sistene Chapel or the novels of Dostoyevsky; neither artist set out to create something specifically “Christian,” so much as to worshipfully compose works that were reflective of the presence of God in the world.  Somewhere along the way, Christianity fell behind the ranks of “secular” artists, and rather than attempt to create something original and beautiful, it decided that imitation is the best form of flattery.  And so came about the rise of Christian rock and inspirational literature, which by and large is fluffy and superficial, taking the best of what’s popular and turning it into a “precious moments” art-lite insufferable mess of God and pop and family friendly kitsch. 

Now certainly there is still Christian innovation in the world of the arts; I think of the music of mewithoutyou, Gungor, and Reed Jones and the visual art created by my good friend Todd Buschur. And it would be faulty of me to say that no good comes out of the paintings of Thomas Kincaid or the “Inspiration” section at Barnes and Noble. 

With all of that in mind, I am especially suspicious of Christian Fiction.  I have a great love for literature and for novelists who over the centuries have been able to weave faith into their writings without sacrificing literary quality.  And I hold a special reprehension for authors who pump out masses of skin-deep pulp Christian books for the sake of a few dollars (I’m thinking of you Tim Lahaye!)  So it was with a great degree of wariness that I picked up and began to read “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young. 

I had heard about this book several years ago from some friends who absolutely raved about it.  But being in my cynical undergraduate stage, I dismissed it.  My dad, however, decided a few years back to purchase copies of “The Shack” for the family, and being the dutiful son that I am, I proceeded to pick it up, read a few chapters, and then put it away on the shelf for safe keeping (and to gather dust). 

This weekend, my wife and I went on a retreat to Maple Ridge Ministries, a stunning pastoral suite located on the back of a minister’s property outside of Zanesfield Ohio.  Outfitted with a deck overlooking the forest, a hot tub, a small but quaint sitting room, a kitchenette, bedroom, and bathroom, and the sounds of nature, we were thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to get away from “the world” and connect with one another on a deeper level.  I brought along with me my copy of “The Shack,” hoping I could blaze through it in time to sell it at the garage sale this coming weekend.  Surprisingly, I have found myself to be totally immersed and engaged in the world that Young created.

For those who have not heard the synopsis of this book, I will try to not spoil too much of the plot.  Suffice it to say, the story centers around a man, Mack, who suffers a horrific tragedy and is left in a great depression.  Upon discovering an anonymous note inviting him to return to the scene of the tragedy, the shack, for the weekend, Mack apprehensively makes the trip.  At the shack, Mack mysteriously encounters the three persons of God, “Papa” who comes in the form of a large, jovial African-American woman, Jesus, a middle-eastern carpenter, and Sarayu, the Holy Spirit in the form of a small, effervescent Asian woman.  Through  various episodic encounters, Mack discovers that his perception of God and God’s interaction with the world has been wrong and is able to work through his deep hurt and anger, which God patiently allows him to voice.

At the risk of sounding unintelligent to my academic friends, the theology contained within “The Shack” is solid.  Young creatively explores the doctrine of Trinity without attempting to systematically explain the nuances and implications of their relationships.  He even talks about them in the sense of a circle of love, which even theologian Clark Pinnock could appreciate.  Along with that, Young discusses the power struggle between God and humankind and how this has affected a multitude of relational structures in the world, including the connection between men and women. 

But, one of the most striking elements of theology that Young attempts to disseminate is the presence of suffering in the world.  And in spectacular fashion, he takes it slowly, allowing both Mack and the reader time to fully digest the character of God in relation to the evil that so affects our lives.  Young was able to express my exact feelings towards the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  That God created humankind and allowed for our freedom because love cannot be true if it is forced, and because of our freedom we chose to sin and invited evil into creation.  And this evil has warped creation so that we today experience all kinds of atrocities, such as murders, rapes, genocide, warfare and diseases.  And none of these events are caused explicitly by God, but rather they are the result of a free world given over to sin.  Of course, this is a simple enough thing to type, but it’s much more difficult to assimilate into our belief systems when we are the ones experiencing hardship and heartache.

But that’s the beauty of “The Shack;” the reader is allowed enough time to empathize with Mack’s emotions and experiences so that by the time this answer is revealed, it does not seem so harsh and cold. It helps too that this response is given not in an academic setting but in a loving relationship to a present God. 

During my reading, there was one particular response that God gives to Mack that struck me hard and fast.  Mack, lamenting over the unnecessary occurrence of the tragedy and his inability to understand its purpose, says “I just can’t imagine any final outcome that would justify all this.”  (129)  Who of us has never asked this question, when a loved one gets diagnosed with terminal cancer or when we lose a job that we’re dependent on to feed our family or when a young child dies in a terrible car accident on a beautiful day?  What possible good could come out of those situations?  How can God justify them?  “Papa” responds to Mack by simply saying, “We’re not justifying it. We are redeeming it.”  (129)

And there’s the answer to our suffering.  God has no need to justify why those things happen because He (or she in this case) did not cause them to happen.  They are a result of a sinful and fallen world.  However, God does not stand idly by at the torment of His creation.  Instead, He mourns alongside of us and seeks to redeem, or to make right, the situation.

I have experienced my own “shacks” in life:  certain situations and events that I wish I could take back but know that I can’t, tragedies that I desire to control but cannot change.  And I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to understand the great question, why?  Why God?  Like David crying out to God over his son Absalom, I have felt a deep and unending despair, wanting to know how God is going to justify all of this. 


It’s not about justification at all; it’s about redemption.  The question was never, “God, how can I change the past?”  It has always been, “God, will you redeem my present?”  And the answer has always been a resounding “YES, just stop trying to control it and let Me take over.”

So now comes the truest and most difficult challenge for all of us; how do we let go of control?

I haven’t yet finished the book, and I look forward to see Mack’s painful journey come to fruition.  In the same way, I am looking forward to seeing the conclusion of my own journey through suffering, and yours as well.  I am experiencing “The Shack” at the shack (which really isn’t a Shack, it’s incredibly nice, Google it.)  And I continue to pray for God’s revelation and my own release. 


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your reflections. I too was deeply moved and "instructed" by this piece of narrative theology. I believe that is has a lot of depth and challenges much of our cultural mythologies about redemption and forgiveness. I've tried to encourage my wife to finish it but so far have been unable to do so. I look forward to talking with you further about the book once you have finished it.