In March 2008 I took a picture of my wife, my son and some friends while we were all attending the International Soul Winning Workshop in Tulsa, Okla. I could not have known that in just two short months our son would no longer be with us. He was taken from us suddenly in a tragic accident at age 18, just a few days before his high school graduation.
A few weeks later various friends gently suggested that I read a book called “The Shack.” I really did not know how reading a book could be of any use to us in our pain. While spending many hours poring over pictures of our son, I came across the group picture from Tulsa. There in my son’s hand was the very book that had been recommended to me several times. It became a new priority to read “The Shack.”
The book is about Mackenzie Allen Phillips (“Mack”), who is struggling to come to grips with the kidnapping and subsequent murder of his young daughter, Missy. Mack describes his dark journey of grief as The Great Sadness.
William Paul Young writes, “Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders.”
Sometime after the disappearance of his daughter, Mack receives a typewritten message in the mailbox inviting him to come to a shack. The name at the end of the message was Papa, a name by which Mack’s wife, Nan, refers to God. Not knowing if it was a prank, a message from Missy’s killer or an actual letter from God, Mack proceeds to make his way to the shack. Once there, Mack has an extended encounter with God in three persons. Throughout his conversations and time spent with God, Mack questions Missy’s death, his great sadness and why God allowed this tragedy to happen.
Young, the author, is the son of Canadian missionaries to New Guinea. He wrote “The Shack” for his children, not intending it to be published.
As someone who was living my own Great Sadness, I deeply identified with Mack. He asked questions I was asking. He longed for the things I long for. His conversations with Papa were not always nice and flowery, and neither were mine.
Over and over as I read I wept aloud because of the intersection of my own real-life horror and that through which Mack was living.
There was a resonance with the pain expressed that drew me into the book in a vivid manner. It was as if somehow I was asking those questions hoping to gain some insight from God. It helped to know that these questions of the soul about the loss of my son at such a young age were not unique to me, but were the searchings of every bereaved parent, perhaps every grieving person.
Although many have praised the volume, the book has also received criticism. An excellent help in discerning some of the underlying concepts of the book is Roger E. Olson’s “Finding God in the Shack.” Olson interacts with “The Shack” using a series of questions that arise from the story. Where is God in senseless, innocent suffering? Does God forgive everyone unconditionally? How should we respond to “The Shack?”
I appreciate Olson’s biblical stand on the issues he addresses. He does not blame God for all of the evils of the world, nor does he remove God’s presence from them.
Although some Christian teachers have taken Young to task for his theological “heresy,” Olson does a great job of dealing with the concepts, finding agreement where he can, gently offering alternatives where he cannot. Olson says, “It’s important not to confuse imagery with doctrine. Just because some of the imagery used in ‘The Shack’ is unconventional does not mean it is heretical.”
“The Shack” is Christian fiction. It expresses some glorious things about God. However, it is not a systematic theology. “The Shack” remains high on my recommended reading list. I believe it is a positive expression of God’s mercy and care for us during times of extreme darkness. It paints a picture of hope and of eternal life. The story walks us through a painful experience and does not try to offer meaningless platitudes of positivism.
I suggest that “The Shack” and “Finding God in the Shack” be purchased together. (Note that there is another book by the same title by Randal Rouser.) Read “The Shack” first and then read through Olson’s treatment of its themes. Olson’s book also can be used in a class or group setting since it includes a study guide at the end. Olson’s clarifications are excellent.
Perhaps because of the tragedy my family experienced, I felt a connection to “The Shack.” The experiences related in its pages ministered to my soul in a special way. I realize that not all readers will view the book from that perspective, but at some point we all must come to grips with the losses of life.
I believe that “The Shack” presents some thoughts and concepts that will bless us in our search for answers.
“Finding God in the Shack” will give us additional biblical information to keep us grounded in our faith.
JOHN DOBBS is minister for the Forsythe Avenue church in Monroe, La. He maintains a blog at johndobbs.com