It has been almost ten years since Paul Young stole behind our watchful dragons, as C.S. Lewis would call them, and scandalized our souls with hope, controversy, and risk. The Shack was never even intended to be a real book. It was written as a story for Paul’s children. I think this is critical to the almost unbelievable appeal and reach of the story. On the surface, the simplicity and charm of The Shack derive from the fact that Paul is talking to his kids. It never crossed his mind that it would be published or even be read by more than a handful of others. Now The Shack is an international bestseller, and with over 22 million copies sold is one of the top selling books of all history, soon to be released across the world on the big screen. Everyday, Paul laughs about what he calls “Papa’s joke”.
On a deeper level the compelling power and hope of the book bleed out of Paul’s own trauma and healing. His personal life had collapsed in failure, and he reached the place where he was reduced, as he says, “to a dried-up piece of dung, terrified that the slightest breeze would blow me away forever.” It is one thing to disappoint yourself and try to live with it; it is quite another to be a disappointment. There is nowhere to hide from such emotional torment. Where do you go for relief when your own heart scoffs at you in contempt, and your soul writhes in shame? Paul planned his suicide, down to the details of where and how so his body would not be found by family. But something happened as he stood clothed in self-loathing on the edge of the abyss of nothingness, something astonishing, something real, something too beautiful for words. The Shack is about that something.
In the book, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, while saving his son from drowning, loses his youngest daughter Missy. Kidnapped by a serial killer, she is brutalized before being murdered in an abandoned shack. In the following years, powerlessness, helplessness, and blame transfigure Mack’s inner world into blindness, anger and life-choking sadness. Then a note appears in his mailbox—ostensibly from God.
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.” —Papa
Mackenzie has no idea what to do. Braving the seas of his pain and certainly the fear that he has lost his mind, he decides to make his way back to the shack, the very source of his pain. But God is a no show, at least the God of Mackenzie’s imagination. Mack’s buried anger explodes, as he smashes an old chair and pummels the floor with one of its broken legs. Then he rises, shakes his fist at God, and screams, “I hate you!”
It is not to be missed that only after his rage explodes and after he finally shakes his fist in fury do things change. The snow melts; the flowers of Spring appear. The shack itself transforms into a finely built cabin. Only then does Mackenzie hear laughter from inside. Intrigued, Mack decides to walk back toward the shack. He raises his fist again, this time to knock on the door, but it flies open, and he finds himself face-to-face with a large African-American woman whose smile radiated unearthly love. Before he can even react, she embraces him with a hug as wide as the universe, lifts him off the ground, spinning him around as she shouts his name, Mackenzie Allen Phillips with unknown affection. “My, my, my how I do love you!”
Something very much like this moment happened to Paul Young inside his own shame. This is why this scene and the book itself carries such weight. Paul is not simply writing a good story. He is not theorizing or trying to convince people to agree with a religious position. He is writing for his kids out of his own profound experience so they can know the God of relentless affection that showed up in his hell. (Have you noticed that Mackenzie’s initials form the word MAP?)
But then the story got out, and like all good stories spread across the earth, leaving a trail of liberation and life and sometimes heated controversy behind it. When Papa comes through the door and embraces a broken-down Mackenzie in his great sadness, Paul is putting his finger on the longing of the human soul and throwing us all into enormous crisis at the same time. Who doesn’t want to hear God the Father shouting, “My, my, my how I do love you!” or, “I am especially fond of you”? Who doesn’t want to eat at her table with Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) and be heard and accepted? Yet few of us can seriously believe that God is this good, especially to us in our brokenness. We long to be Mackenzie in Papa’s arms, but we have too many wounds and shadows, too much experience of tragedy, and too many contradictory ideas of God. Besides that, to open our hearts to such relationship and care runs the risk of brutal disappointment. What if it proves a sham? Where would that leave us?
—C. Baxter Kruger, Ph.D., author of the international best seller, The Shack Revisited, and Patmos