The strength of one's faith
A gripping, emotionally charged account of one man's unbearable bereavement, The Shack makes readers (believers and non-believers) look at, rather into, their own deprivations, as well as their relationships with their creator.
This is the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips' overwhelming guilt compounded with his impotent anger at the injustice dealt out by destiny.
WM Paul Young, a theologian, ghostwrites this story for Mack, his friend, who wanted him to write a narrative through which he could express to his wife and kids "not only the depth of his love, but also to help them understand what had been going on in his inside world. You know that place: where there is just you alone and maybe God, if you believe in him. Of course, God might be there even if you don't believe in him."
Paul Young tells us in his foreword that what we are about to read is something he and Mack had struggled with for many months to put into words, that "It's a little, well……no, it is a lot on the fantastic side".
Mack, an average guy, a responsible, loving husband and father, is suddenly hurled into the depths of despair when he loses a child, his youngest, six-year-old Missy. She has been kidnapped and apparently savagely killed. A terrible predicament, what he terms "The Great Sadness", descends upon him; his whole world is shattered.
This deeply moving, soul-stirring story is about the loss of faith and its reinstatement. Much of the book's contents will read like a man's imagination working overtime, but it is the strength of one's faith that helps to make even the most incredible things seem real.
While on a camping holiday with his children, Mack faces, and averts, a serious crisis when he saves his son from drowning. Unfortunately, another menace is lurking, waiting to wreak havoc. Missy disappears. After a frantic, desperate search, the police come to the conclusion that she has fallen prey to the insane "Little Ladykiller." She is his fifth victim, and just as in the case of the four little girls before her, her body is not found.
When Mack first realizes that his daughter might be dead, he feels "a million years old, almost wishing he could somehow turn himself into a big, unfeeling rock".
Missy's death has an overpowering effect also on her sister, Kate (who thinks the death was in some way due to her carelessness and that her parents hold her responsible). She builds a "fortress around her heart"; "it was as if something had died inside her, and now was slowly infecting her from the inside, spilling out occasionally in bitter words or emotionless silence".
Mack's wife, Nan, stands steadily beside him and tries to reassure him that none of it was his fault. Mack distances himself from God; to him, nothing justifies the cruelty of what has happened. He does, gradually, succeed somewhat in putting his family's needs before his consuming sorrow.
Four years after the dreadful tragedy, Mack receives a note in the mailbox. The envelope has only his first name typed on the outside; there is no stamp, postmark or return address. The note simply says:
It's been a while. I've missed you.
I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.
The mention of the "shack" - where they had found evidence of Missy's murder, causes Mack to undergo a number of emotions all negative. "Papa" is what Nan loves to call God with whom she's always felt very close.
Despite not knowing what to make of the note, Mack does set off for the shack without telling Nan, and feeling totally unsure of what awaits him. Mack's journeying up to the shack and his feelings on reaching the place where he had to confront such suffering, seem to tear his soul apart.
What ensues in the shack, who he meets there, how he spends two days (or so he thinks) there, the places he sees, the experiences he has, will appear even more fanciful, and certainly not as effective, if related by anyone else. It should suffice to say that he meets three characters, who turn out to be Papa (that is, God), Jesus, and Saraya (the holy spirit). It is the persona of each character that impels us to continue reading. We are taken into a realm so beautifully described that we happily go through a "willing suspension of disbelief". We find things hard to believe, we want to believe, and often end up believing. We see how, bit by bit, Mack's wounds hurt less and less, and how his wonder grows and grows.
The Shack looks at individual faith, not at religion as an institution. It ponders over the doubts and questions surrounding the creator's existence and His benevolence and mercy. It is about divine connection, about the purging of the soul, about a healing, about a renewed faith in God; it is about forgiveness and the relief forgiving others brings.
At one point, Jesus tells Mack, "As well-intentioned as it might be, you know that religious machinery can chew up people! An awful lot of what is done in my name has nothing to do with me and is often, even if unintentionally, very contrary to my purposes".
The author informs us in his After Words that Mack's story has changed him significantly, and that Mack, himself, is transformed and now "loves larger than most, is quick to forgive, and even quicker to ask for forgiveness". Mack also succeeds in convincing Kate that she is not at all to blame for what had happened to Missy.
Whether we believe or not, it does us good to know of others who believe so deeply and whole-heartedly. It takes us pretty close to believing that "God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world".