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God in the Shack

A commentary on the book, The Shack, by William Young

By midlife, like many of us, Mack Philips’ relationship to God had configured itself into something like a truce. Yes you are Great and Good, and I’ll give you the deference due, but I’ve got this life to live if you’d just kindly stand aside…

Unlike most of us, Mack’s truce with God was also quite an accomplishment, considering he had lost his youngest daughter to a serial killer, crime unsolved, body unfound. Imagine having to live with that for the rest of your life. It was no wonder that Mack, even as he gamely managed his truce, thought of his life as The Great Sadness.

Then one day Mack met God.

It was not in heaven, because Mack didn’t die and go there. It was in Oregon, because God came down to meet him. Of course God has been known to do this sort of thing. The most celebrated incident took place in a stable in Bethlehem many centuries ago. But for him to do it again in a shack in Oregon, well, this takes some getting used to. We Christians will stake our lives (at least we say we would) on the fact that God came as a babe to an unwed teenage girl many centuries ago. But the idea of him coming in our own day as a -- deleted to not spoil the read -- may just be too much of a pill to swallow.

We have theology now; we’ve worked it out so that his next coming will be on schedule. Actually there are several schedules, depending on the dĂ©cor of your doctrine. But no matter which, all these schedules place his coming in the hazy future, safely out of the reach of our Daytimers and Outlook calendars. We have, after all, lives to lead and Bible studies to prepare for.

I read William Young’s The Shack sitting in a hospital waiting room while my wife was under the knife for breast cancer. As the pages flew by, and the tears flowed down, it struck me that Mack’s and my worlds were seamless. I checked myself, as amateur theology buffs do in moments of emotion. It wasn’t sentimentality. It wasn’t good writing (there’s a bumpiness to the prose of Young’s first novel, which I hear was written on a commuter train). It certainly wasn’t my Reformed Theology bona fides – no; it certainly wasn’t that.

It was experience. I am talking about the kind that is usually considered bad; the why-did-this-happen-to-me sort of experience. Why did Mack have to lose his youngest daughter? Why must my wife have breast cancer?

Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry says that big realities like justice, love, or beauty are “distributed.” By this she means that justice and beauty so characterize this creation that we can’t really grasp them. They are, to use another one of her big words, not “sensorial,” like a chair that can be touched or a cat that can be petted. Therefore we reduce justice down to laws we write in books, and beauty down to paintings we lock up in museums. Then we can touch and pet them.

I think we also tend to reduce God down to dogmas and doctrines. By now my Reformed friends are horrified. He’s gone soft. One whacky book and he’s gone emergent. Nothing of the sort. The Shack simply makes me realize the limitations of doctrines I can only touch and pet.

When confronted with tragic experiences we can’t rationally explain, several things can happen to doctrine. It can remain unchallenged while we look to other sources for comfort (in which case its cash value is quite small). Some abandon it altogether (in which case it never had cash value at all). Or in the face of deep hurt and confusion doctrine grows arms and embraces you. Doctrine loses its sensorial-ness as a book on your shelf even as you feel its distributed comforts all over and around you, perhaps for the first time. It is paradoxical. But big things always are.

One weekend in Oregon, Mack Philips experienced those arms in a shack in the woods. The Person (or Persons -- I don’t want to get doctrinally picky here) was big indeed, and that Person said, “I am not what you think I am.” By this I don’t think Young means that tried-and-true Biblical doctrines about God are wrong. I think he means, as J.B. Philips did before him, that our conceptions about God are simply too small.

I also think Young means to say that as Christianity unwittingly works to institutionalize, it loses its ability to scandalize. And the power of the gospel has always been about scandal. The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar uses words like “strange,” “mad,” and “crazy” to describe the historic appearance of the God of the Universe in one man – and as we said, born of an unwed mother – claiming to be the salvation of the world. And yet Balthasar spent his life serving nothing less beautiful than this.

And so have countless thousands of others. No doubt the post-shack Mack Philips is among that number, and probably William Young as well.

David Wang


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