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Commentary: Finding truth in “The Shack”

Commentary: Finding truth in “The Shack”

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Finding truth in “The Shack”

An e-Review commentary by the Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish | June 1, 2009 {1024}

NOTE: A headshot of Harnish is available at

Ask Paul Young if his surprise bestseller “The Shack” is true and he will say: “Yes. It just didn’t happen.”

The story (Young calls it a parable) of Mack’s encounter with the Trinity in the shack where his young daughter was murdered has its weaknesses, but I found glimpses of truth within it.

Mack experiences God the Father as a large, black woman called “Papa” — a paraphrase of “Abba,” the name with which Jesus addressed God. God the Son is a Middle Eastern laborer in blue jeans and a plaid shirt. The Holy Spirit is a waif-like Asian woman who floats around in shimmering light.

Preachers who go ballistic over Young’s portrayal of God as a black woman miss the point. Papa tells Mack, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature.” That’s straight out of Genesis where God creates both male and female in God’s own image. It gets personal when Papa asks, “Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your father?” (p.93).

The truth is that some of us have human fathers who make it easy to trust God. At the same time, some of us have a hard time trusting God because of the father we had or the one we never had. Mack’s experience of God breaks through his stereotypes while still being consistent with the essential character of God in scripture. Young’s vivid portrayal of the Trinity as a circle of self-giving love in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct and yet live in, through and for each other confirms theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie saying “the Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be enjoyed.”

There’s truth in the way Young deals with the perplexing issue of suffering, evil and freedom. I expected Young to conclude that “God had a reason” for Mack’s daughter’s death. I was relieved to hear Papa say: “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it. … That will only lead to false notions about me,” (p. 185).

I respect fellow Christians who find comfort in believing God providentially orchestrates everything that happens, but I live on the theological branch of the Christian family tree that would agree when Papa says: “All evil flows from independence. … If I were to simply revoke all the choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning. … Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say (p. 190). … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light,” (p. 191).

My father died with cancer at 59 years old, an age that becomes younger to me every year. My brother and I were in his hospital room when a well-meaning friend said, “I guess we have to believe that God has a reason for this.” My brother blurted out: “Maybe you have to believe that, but I don’t. I’m a Methodist.”

Young is a good Methodist on this one. I don’t believe that everything that happens in this world is intentionally micromanaged by God, but I will bet my soul on the assurance that there is nothing that happens that cannot be used by God for God’s redeeming purpose and that God’s grace can bring good out of even the worse that happens to us.

I also found truth in Young’s description of the costly love of God. Mack asks Papa, “How can you really know how I feel?” Papa invites Mack to look at her hands. For the first time, he sees the scars in Papa’s wrists, like the scars of crucifixion that Jesus still carried on his body after the resurrection. Papa says: “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark. … We were there together.” Surprised, Mack asks, “At the cross?” Papa replies, “I never left him, and I have never left you,” (p.95-96).

At its core, “The Shack” is a parable of the discovery of the costly love of God that is with us in the deepest, darkest, most God-forsaken place of our lives. It’s the love that goes to the cross and gives hope of resurrection.

I resisted reading the book until I saw an interview in which Young defined “the shack” as a metaphor for the human heart that has been damaged by past abuse, pain, lies, addictions or lack of approval and love. It’s the house in our soul where we hide from ourselves and from God; the place where we desperately need to experience God’s love and begin a process of healing.

It left me asking, Where’s “the shack” in my life? Where’s the broken place that needs to experience the extravagant love and costly grace of God? Meet God in that shack, and you’ll find the truth.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Harnish is senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla.