Abigail offers a personal response to the novel The Shack. While confounding influences tainted her lasting appreciation of the book, she was uniquely fed by it at a time when she was sincerely hungry. -Editor
I first read The Shack early in 2009. I had been married less than a year, and since getting married my Mom had died, I had miscarried a pregnancy at ten weeks, and I was at a loss as to the direction I was supposed to be heading with my life. Oh, and my husband was in his second year of Theological School, and in the daily practice of examining religious texts and wrestling with doctrine.
I was vulnerable and hurting. He was thinking critically as a theology student. We started the book together, but before long decided that I would continue it on my own. Malcolm couldn’t get past the questions he had about the presented doctrine, especially the presentation of the trinity and the human representation of God that is a major part of the plot. He felt mainly critical about the book, while I felt like it was teaching me things about the Lord and religion that I needed to hear.
I won’t give you a comprehensive plot summary, but you can read some here. Here’s a short version (spoiler alert): the main movement of the book follows Mack, a man who goes to meet God at the shack where his young daughter was murdered years before, and through his time there discovers the power of God’s love, trust, and forgiveness.
After what had been a difficult couple of years for my Mom, and wondering about how and why the Lord could allow such difficult things as death and miscarriage, the topics in the book felt particularly relevant to me. I felt like I was reading words from the Lord, meant to help me understand the questions and grief I was dealing with. So I didn’t respond well when Malcolm felt primarily critical of those same words. I had a lot of hurt feelings from our interactions about the book. So as I read the book and found it incredibly powerful and meaningful in my life, I didn’t really talk to anyone about it for fear of getting criticism rather than appreciation.
To add to the complexity of the situation, when I first read the book I was under the impression that it was a true story that was being questioned by church organizations and individuals as a false and heretical story. My impression was that people were trying to make it seem like a novel when it was actually a real person’s story. Let me be clear: it is a work of fiction. Mack and his family are not living people. I don’t remember exactly where I got the impression that they were real. My recollection is that I heard an interview on the radio—probably only a snippit of it—but I went to buy the book believing it was factual. I admit, I don’t look at every bit of print on the cover of a book, and The Shack is clearly labeled a novel, in the category of fiction. I didn’t see this, however, and when I read the introduction it confirmed my impression. The forward is “written” by a “friend” of Mack’s who has agreed to ghost-write the story. It very convincingly asks readers to put aside their disbelief and listen to one man’s experience and beliefs. It isn’t stated anywhere that this forward is actually a part of the novel. The friend’s name is Willie, and William is also the first name of the author of the book. The presentation seems to be suggesting that the real author, W. Paul Young, wrote a forward about his friend’s story, signing the forward Willie, and went on to write his friend’s story for him.
While I don’t blame the author and his publishers (two friends who started a publishing company expressly to publish his novel) for presenting it this way, I was hurt and embarrassed when I realized my mistake just months ago, almost three years after first reading the book. And while their website is very clear that it is a novel, I can’t help but believe they intended for people to make this mistake. The author actually goes by his middle name, Paul, but on the website they refer to him as Willie. The link from the book’s website to the author’s website is the text “Willie’s blog” but on the blog he refers to himself as Paul. It seems to me this can only be intended to prolong the confusion in people like me. In looking at websites and blogs trying to find an answer about the book’s veracity I found many people commenting on blog posts, surprised, embarrassed, and hurt as I was. I think the original hype about the book (it spiked quickly to the top of the best seller’s list) was in part due to this confusion. People like me want to share this amazing man’s story—mainly because of the power of the “true” story.
I re-read the book over the last few weeks, and found the book has lost some of its power for me. I think part of the power it held for me when I believed it was true was the realization and what felt then like a strong belief (now wounded) that the Lord doesn’t hold back in loving humans. Why wouldn’t God invite an injured and grieving person to such an intimate meeting where the hurts of the past could be healed through real one on one interaction? I wanted to believe that through reading Mack’s experience I was reading the Lord’s words to me about how much I am loved by the Lord; about how powerful forgiveness is (an issue I was dealing with in connection with my Mom’s last years); and about why the Lord allows bad things to happen (like having miscarriages). I wanted to read these words, take them in as a message to me from the Lord, and know that I could defend that point of view, because this was a real man’s experience, and who are we to question him? Who are we to limit the things God might do to reach even just one person?
While the influence of this belief certainly affected my first reading of the book, I found that even without it these messages about love and forgiveness were still very powerfully presented in the novel. It isn’t as powerful without the Truth behind it, but it leaves me free to criticize the parts of the story and doctrine that don’t make sense to me or fit with the teachings found in the Writings much the way Malcolm first read it. When reading I still felt the power of the words—the idea that the Lord loves us so completely we will always be forgiven, always be reached out to, always supported and taken care of—particularly as I connected the ideas back to passages from the Bible and the Writings that say these same things but do have the Truth behind them.
It is interesting to me that a somewhat simply written novel can cause so much healing and pain all at once. When it was first published it caused a lot of anxiety among various churches and pastors as they worried after the bits and pieces of “heretical” ideas and doctrine that this novel was espousing. It took quite a beating from most churches while many individuals spoke to its powerful influence. There are more discussions and forums and posts than are really worth linking to here, but they are easy to find, and some worth the read. I identify mostly with the commenters who express frustration and hurt that there wasn’t more effort at clarity. My reading of the book will always be tainted by the feeling that the author and publishers led me to my mistake. I am trying to let go of what may or may not have been the creators' intentions and instead hold on to the powerful shift that took place in my trust of the Lord as I read this book.
I am left feeling conflicted about the book. I don’t have a thorough enough New Church doctrinal knowledge to easily go through and point out the doctrinal differences, but I can see the point of view of those churches who criticized the “doctrine” presented. The author undoubtedly has Biblical knowledge, but he jumps to ideas that are sometimes hard to take in their entirety. While some of the ideas presented are powerful and real, it is hard not to question the authority behind them when the book is categorized as a work of fiction. Add to that the confusion around the veracity of the story and the lack of clarity from the author and publishers, and it is hard to sort it all out. As I read the book a second time I felt more aware of these questions, but was also reminded of the shift I felt reading it the first time. Despite the conflict it is powerful to read the words of God in the book and take them as a personal message. I believe that the Lord loves me unconditionally and that that is evident from teachings in the Bible and the Writings, but it is a different thing to read the words articulated in a very familiar and direct language. Reading the book changed my thinking and opened up my understanding of the ways in which the Lord cares for me. That is a shift I am grateful for regardless of how it came about.
As a point of interest, below is an excerpt from Young’s blog, from a post about his process of writing the novel:
“So, I didn’t have to follow any normal rules about writing something. Actually, I didn’t even really know or care about what the normal rules might be…never thought about it. I wanted my kids to enjoy a story and through the story to understand their own father better and the God that their father is so in love with. I even had this brilliant idea to have Willie (me) ghost-write the story for Mack, and so on my very first Title Page, it said, The Shack, written by Mackenzie Allen Phillips, with William P Young. I thought it was clever and that the kids would get a laugh out of it.
This means that Mack, of course, is not a ‘real’ person. My children would recognize that Mack is mostly me, that Nan is a lot like Kim, my wife, that Missy and Kate and the other characters often resemble our family members and friends. So it was no big deal…until the first version of the loose leaf book sort of ‘got out’ (because people kept passing it to their friends), and I find out that somebody in California and somebody in Canada think seriously about buying plane tickets to come to Oregon to meet and talk to Mack. Now that would have been a little embarrassing, don’t you think? So we removed Mack as the author, but I kept the ghost-writer idea as a story element…which is still causing some problems but not near what could have happened the other way.”