"The moment the word 'why' crosses your lips, you are doing theology."
—When Life & Beliefs Collide                

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Shack

There's a rickety old shack in the Oscar winning movie, Forest Gump, where Forest's best friend Jenny grew up. Jenny's shack is also the place that hides her darkest, most painful memories—early years of sexual abuse.

After they reach adulthood, Forest and Jenny revisit the shack. It is a powerfully wrenching scene when Jenny, enraged by the memories she cannot shake, hurls fistfuls of rocks at the hated shack. Later, Forest finishes the job by flattening it with a bulldozer. But the ill-effects of childhood suffering are able to withstand Forest's demolitions efforts.
Paul Young’s runaway bestselling novel, The Shack, takes up a similar theme.

The shack in Young’s tale is the site where Missy, the beloved young daughter of the main character Mack, is brutally murdered by a sexual predator. The impact of her brutal death on Mack is, as you can imagine, utterly devastating. Like Forest’s friend Jenny, Mack lives a tormented life because of what happened to his little girl in the shack. The shack casts a dark and terrible shadow over his life that he can’t escape.

The shack—that dilapidated vacant old eyesore—comes to represent unspeakable loss and an open wound in Mack’s soul. Just like Jenny, Mack returns to the place most abhorrent to him, drawn by a note in his mailbox signed “Papa”—the name his wife Nan uses most often for God. But unlike Jenny’s story, Mack’s story doesn’t include a bulldozer scene. Instead of trying to destroy the shack, Mack enters it alone. He is angry, skeptical, fearful, and filled with revulsion.

Yet it is in returning to the place that pains him most that Mack has a life-altering, redemptive encounter with God.

Young's novel has attracted an enormous readership which, in itself, would be reason enough to discuss his book here. He has also drawn fierce criticism from Christians for his portrayal of the Trinity and for his theological views which he is audacious enough to put into the mouth of God.

From my vantage point, it seems counterproductive to debate, when Young is serving up to us on a platter an amazing opportunity for deep conversations and real ministry with so many people. We may not like every detail of the book or agree with every theological statement it contains. (And in all fairness, Young’s critics should also inspect C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, not to mention their own views, under the same theological microscope.) But Young is doing here what most people do every day. He’s asking the tough theological questions that hound every wounded soul. (If you’re not in that demographic, sooner or later you will be, so this is for you too.)

Why do bad things happen—not just in the abstract, but to me? Does God really care about me? Why is my life such a mess, if God is truly good?

And here’s one to ponder: How do we present God as Father to this father-starved generation and call them to draw near to Him, when the mention of “father” conjures up images that are uncaring, distant, and (in more cases than we’d like to admit) abusive? Young tackles that question head on by starting in the kitchen with “Papa” represented as a warm, embracing African-American woman and leading Mack from there to know “Papa” as Father who will shepherd him gently through the hardest stretches of his journey.

I suspect one explanation for the skyrocketing sales of this book is that there are a lot of hurting people in this world who long for an honest discussion of the big questions they are already asking. Young is giving them that discussion.

I read and discussed The Shack with six highly respected, theologically minded people. All seven of us are seminary graduates with years of experience in theology, biblical studies, and pastoral concerns. You may be surprised to learn that our discussion touched only briefly on the theological controversy and then went in another direction. Yes, we are all seminary graduates capable of wading into the controversy. But we have another thing in common which changed our reading of Young’s book.

We all have shacks.

If you’re hurting—if there’s a painful, immovable fixture on the landscape of your life—this book will touch you in your deepest place. It did that for all of us. Frank and I felt a deep connection between Mack's struggles and the shack we are dealing with in the aftermath of his brother Kelly's death in the snow cave on Mount Hood.

The Shack is about revisiting the hard places—the shacks—of our lives and wrestling honestly with God there (instead of avoiding, ignoring, or trying to bulldoze it). Somehow God meets us in our shacks. This is the consistent story of God’s people all through the Bible: Job, Abraham and Sarah, Naomi, Hannah, David, and Jeremiah, to name a few.

The Shack is about being reassured of God’s relentless love for you in the presence of your greatest reason to doubt Him. How ironic for Mack to come to grips with God’s love at the murder scene of his daughter where God’s love seemed so wholly absent. I’ve always said, I’d rather hear about God’s love from someone who believed they had lost it, than from someone whose rosy life never forced them to doubt.

The Shack is about the importance of the hard places in our lives. In our victorious, prosperity-obsessed, air-brushed Christianity, we completely miss this. There’s a lot of truth to the charge coming from people who are leaving the church that we are not honest about the shape of our lives and the state of our faith. In the church, shacks are secrets unless something unforseen blows your cover. Shacks are shameful. And the doubts they produce are signs of spiritual failure, not the path to growth.

I don’t necessarily advocate full public disclosure of our deeply private struggles, but there surely is a place for us to acknowledge to one another that we all have spiritual struggles, we wrestle with doubts about God, and we all have our shacks.

Biblical sufferers offer us that kind of honesty, and we should be grateful that Paul Young has been that honest too.

Have you read The Shack? What was your response?



Note: If you’re interested in reading a thoughtful review, here’s a more extensive analysis by Professor John Stackhouse, who personally interacted with the author at Regent College, Vancouver, BC:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Flip-Flopping

The selection of Alaska’s Governor Sarah Palin to the GOP presidential ticket has put a working mom in the headlines. This mother of five has not only galvanized her party’s ticket, she’s created a stir that isn’t exactly what you might expect.

Democrats are suddenly questioning how a working mom can take on the vice presidency and still do justice to her family. Republicans insist it’s no big deal and are applauding her choice to run. Politicians are often accused of flip-flopping, but this is a doozy!

Working moms and stay-at-home moms who are familiar with this discussion can’t help feeling a bit disoriented by the surprising reversal of opinions. I must admit it has taken me aback. Costly sacrifices made by both groups of moms, nights of complete exhaustion, endless multi-tasking, a firm resolve to steward our gifts and callings, unswerving commitment to family, and a determination to tackle head-on the demands of the unique personal circumstances God places before us—suddenly seem thrown into a chasm of confusion.

Whatever else you might say about Sarah Barracuda, the hockey mom from Alaska, she has turned family values upside down. Liberals are taking up the cause of stay-at-home moms. Conservatives are advocating for working mothers. What is the world coming to? Whichever side of the divide you’re on, you’ve been betrayed by those you thought were cheering for you.

My own life as a mom has never fit neatly into either category. At times I’ve been fulltime in the corporate world. At others I’ve blended work and home, career and family. I’ve even taken a turn as a home schooling mom. In every stage of my life, there have been solid reasons for my choices. But, like a lot of other women, every choice has been accompanied by that nagging sense (reinforced by raised eyebrows and comments I’ve heard along the way) that I’m “not doing things right.”

As a mom who worked to support my husband’s academic career, I recall looking wistfully out the window of our third floor Oxford flat at moms who were getting together with their little ones. I felt torn between my longings to be part of that group and the project deadline facing me that would put food on the table. But there were also wonderful reminders of the importance of what I was doing. Once, during a business meeting, I reached into my briefcase and pulled out a miniature Elmo that my preschool daughter had tucked inside to keep me company.

Governor Palin—standing at the podium with her husband in the bleachers cradling their infant son in his arms—has unintentionally reshuffled the deck and forced on us questions about God’s calling on women’s lives in a rather public way. Only this time we aren’t asking on behalf of women, like my mother, whose days of active mothering are over. Nor are we asking for single and childless women who have yet to be admitted to the mom’s club (although we need to ask questions for them too). This time we’re asking for a mom who has major challenges at home and yet is answering a call to be doing something above and beyond traditional roles.

I keep coming back to the ezer-warrior, who leads us beyond this political flip-flopping. (If the ezer-warrior concept is new to you, go here.) In embracing the ezer as my identity as a woman, I find the courage and the freedom I need to embrace the particular life God is giving me—whatever that might be.

So far, the first ezer is the only woman to be born (so to speak) into a perfect world. The rest of us have had to cope with unexpected changes, catastrophic tragedies, fluctuating economies, disappointments, opportunities, and a lot of messiness. Walking into life armed with a tightly scripted formula for how a woman ought to live her life doesn’t equip us for the contingencies we encounter. In fact, it often ties our hands behind our backs just when we need to step up and fight a battle we never expected to face.

We need a compass that enables us to embrace God’s purposes for our lives today—no matter what particular complexities we face. By embracing our calling as ezer-warriors, we can cheer each other on, instead of splitting into hopelessly divided camps.

So, what do you think?