Re-Visiting The Shack (2): Forward to Ch.4
Mackenzie Allen Phillips (protagonist of The Shack) seems a pretty ordinary sort of guy, according to his best friend and ghost-writer, Willie. A bit reserved, enough to hide his intelligence from the casual acquaintance, Mack is a good man. A respectable man. Yet also a man hurt and haunted by his past. A violent alcoholic father had driven Mack from home at age thirteen, but not before the young boy had spiked all the liquor in the home with insect poison. And he carries the guilt of that act with him.
Mack, according to Willie, shares our culture’s view of Goddddd to some degree. “. . . he suspects (God) is brooding, distant, and aloof” (10). He has a love-hate relationship with him (10). Mack’s wife, Nan, addresses God as “Papa.” This is too familiar for Mack who calls God “God” and shies away from interacting with him, preferring just to affirm that God knows what he is doing and doesn’t need our worrying or nagging (21-22). Willie characterizes Mack’s relation to God as “wide” while his wife’s Nan’s is “deep” (11).
An insight important to the story and vital to its readers comes when Missy pesters Mack to tell the legend of the Indian maiden who had saved her tribe and her fiancé from mortal illness by sacrificing her life to the Great Spirit at the prescribed place for the life and health of the rest of the tribe. At bedtime Missy asks Mack if the Great Spirit in the legend was God. He allows that is probably true. Then Missy asks: “Then how come he’s so mean?” (31). Why did he make the maiden jump off the cliff to her death?
Mack struggled a bit for an answer. Then he gives a theologically impeccable response: “Sweetheart, Jesus didn’t think his daddy was mean. He thought his daddy was full of love and loved him very much. His daddy didn’t make him die. Jesus chose to die because he and his daddy love you and me and everyone in the world” (31). In other words, Mack affirms that God is no Goddddd! Yet in his gut he really believes he is! Proper theology is no barrier against the theology we actually live by. Unless the two are the same, our actual theology, the one that directs what we really think, feel, and decide to do, will override our theological correctness every time!
The Shack tells the story of Mack’s transformation from merely “wide” to “wide and way deep” (11) in relation to God.
-from Goddddd to Papa.
-from merely believing in God to actually living in and with him.
-from being rooted in Goddddd to rooting out Goddddd and resting in the inexhaustible love of Papa. And the cost of that transformation.
And it begins with a call.
When we meet Mack in the story he is engulfed, entombed might be a better word, in a Great Sadness. It befell him seven years prior to the time of the writing of the story. The abduction and murder of Mack’s youngest daughter Missy on a family camping trip is the cause of the Great Sadness. This matrix of anger, depression, self-recrimination, and frustration became a life-sucking force taking all the color and texture out of life.
One day he finds an envelope in his mailbox with no postmark or return address. The note inside was Papa’s invitation for Mack to meet him at the shack (the “vortex of The Great Sadness,” 74) the next weekend. You can imagine all that that dredged up in Mack!
In the years since Mack had adopted a stoic, unfeeling, attitude toward life and God (not an unusual attitude for adult American males!). This, of course, only further widened the gulf between Mack and God. Mack even rejected Goddddd, Goddddd’s religion, and all the little religious social clubs that made precious little difference in people’s lives and the world (66). He was tired of the God that had been reduced to words (the Bible) and most especially the God who had done him no good when he needed him the most.
Yet this scandalous, hurtful, and possibly even dangerous invitation (it might be Missy’s killer seeking to kill him too!) kept working on Mack. His troubled relation to God remained alive precisely because he refused to settle for Goddddd and was indeed an expression of his search the real God and real relationship with him. This is why the “call” from Papa irresistibly pulled him to go to that terrible place the next weekend. “. . . in spite of his anger and depression, Mack knew that he needed some answers. He realized he was stuck” (66).
If we are made by and for God, our lives are ineradicably marked by our origin. We are indelibly marked by God’s image to live for him and his purpose for us. Even in rebellion against God we do not lose this mark or evade God’s call and claim on us. Neither rebellion, indifference, or misplaced passion separates us from God (as Mack is soon to discover). Our lives are, at bottom, our (often distorted) efforts to come to terms with the dignity an vocation proper for us, an ongoing (even if unacknowledged) conversation with God about our meaning and significance.
Mack has done the best he can a part from a living and growing relationship with God to carve out his place in the world. The Great Sadness of his childhood cast a pall over his life, intensified and dwarfed by the even Greater Sadness of Missy’s abduction and murder. Mack, in mid-life, can no longer stomach Goddddd and the church. But that does not mean he has turned away from Papa and genuine life with him. The death of Godddd opens the possibility of the resurrection of Papa and life with him for Mack. And that’s what the Call is all about.
“How Come God Is So Mean?”
We all live under a Great Sadness, our desire to live apart from God, by ourselves, for ourselves, and through our own power. God never acquiesces in this, however. His relentless pursuit, even of those like C. S. Lewis who devoutly hope never to meet him, constitutes our hope and destiny.
Thus, Papa invites Mack for a weekend together. Mack’s acceptance of Papa’s invite foregrounds the issue that threatens and poisons humanity’s relation to God. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden and as current as the latest counseling session. The snake in the garden insinuated against God’s goodness and it has been at issue ever since.
-Can God be trusted?
-Is God good?
Here is “the” question at the core of our beings, our history, our destiny. It is the “the” question of The Shack as well. It is previewed by Missy’s question to Mack after he retold the children the legend of the Indian maiden (31): “then how come (God’s) so mean?” The rest of the story addresses this question in a variety of ways.