Reading “The Shack”

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A bestseller prompts us to rethink God

The Shack has been #1 on the New York Times bestseller list since last June. You can buy the book at most bookstores including Borders and Barnes & Noble, even at Wal-Mart and Costco. Current estimates are that the book has sold over one million copies.

William P. Young, the author, is the son of Canadian missionaries who lived and worked on the island of New Guinea. He was raised among a Stone Age tribe where he never seemed to fit in. Young suffered serious trauma as a child at boarding school and felt disconnected from his parents, who had no clue what he was experiencing. Then as a young adult Young self-inflicted more damage. It took him 11 years to work through the destruction and hurt he felt. This book is Young’s attempt to explain the process of healing and of finding forgiveness.

The Shack is a work of fiction. The story revolves around a father named Mack whose youngest daughter goes missing during a family camping trip. Evidence in a wilderness shack points to the possibility of a brutal murder, but there is no body. For four years Mack struggles with this "great darkness." Then one day he receives a note from God asking him to come back to that awful shack for a weekend. Reluctantly he does so and walks back into a world of nightmares and deep anxiety. However, Mack's experience as he encounters, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit change his world forever.

Early attempts to have the book published by an established publishing company were not successful. Christian publishers found it too controversial, “too edgy.” Secular publishers thought it was too Christian, “too much Jesus.” Together with several friends, Young self-published the book.

I first came across The Shack while visiting family in Canada. My sister-in-law told me that the book had been extremely helpful as she came to terms with her brother’s sudden and unexpected death. When I picked up the book, I was impressed by Eugene Petersen’s endorsement on the front cover: “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”

Since I had time, I began to read and found the book hard to put down. Later that week I found a local Christian bookstore that had a table piled high with copies and bought several to take back home with me.Yes, in one sense the book is controversial. During my first reading I came to sections where I would say, “Oh-oh, some people aren’t going to like this!” I’ve decided this book is not for people who have all their theological ducks in a certain order and therefore are not open to being challenged by new ways of thinking about God.

For example, some people object to God being portrayed as a black woman. When asked why he did this, Young says that he wants people to reconsider their preconceptions of God. It certainly made me do that. Now sometimes when I think of God, the image of Ethel Waters comes to mind, and I remember her singing, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for me,” at a Billy Graham crusade.

At another level, I keep wondering why so many people find the book to be so helpful. Obviously it strikes a chord, a deep need, for many. I’ve read The Shack several times. Each time it gives me a new understanding of how God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit work together in helping us get through the tough times in our lives. It is reassuring to know that we have such a caring and loving support system available to us at all times. It is comforting to know that when we experience darkness, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

When asked what the shack in the story represents, Young answers: “It is a metaphor, really, for the decrepit house of the soul that we build over time. It’s where we hide our pain, our lostness, our secrets and our addictions. Our lies are the fabric that holds the house together and we decorate it with the façade that we want other people to see.”

The book brings the message that God loves us in spite of our shortcomings and failures. God cares for and invites us to come into his presence to experience the power of his forgiveness, healing and restoration. Maybe that’s why the book is so popular.

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