The Shack, written by William P. Young, is a fictional Christian story written in an autobiographical narrative. The title of the book is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”, as the author explained in an interview with radio talk show host, Drew Marshall. The Shack “is a metaphor for the places you get stuck, you get hurt, you get damaged…the thing where shame or hurt is centered, it is the “icon of Mack’s deepest pain.”
The story is the tale of Mackenzie Phillips, known as Mack and his family who have suffered the tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of Missy, their youngest child. For 33 years, Mack has been married to Nan, a nurse working with terminal cancer patients. She also lectures about establishing relationships with God when you are dying. They have five children, college aged to elementary.
The book is broken into two parts, before and after the ‘Great Sadness’, which is how Mack describes his painbefore and after the murder of Missy. The author, writes, “Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders.”
Our story begins four years before the Great Sadness when Mack takes his three youngest children camping, Kate and Josh are in a canoe accident and during the rescue, Missy is overlooked, and goes missing, it is determined that she has been abducted. A ladybug pin attached to her coloring book, is the calling card of a serial killer known as the “Little Lady Killer.” After searching the area, they discover a shack where the kidnapper took Missy; her bloody sundress is there, but not her body. Thus, the beginning of the Great Sadness where everything changes for Mack and his family. While the family tries to move forward and Mack attempts to show a brave face and be the strong daddy and husband that he once was, he is lost in the grief of self-blame and what ifs.
We jump forward to present day and during an ice storm, Mack goes to retrieve the mail, and finds a mysterious letter, addressed to him…It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together…Papa, which is Nan’s name for God. Mack assumes it is a joke, but wonders what if it really is from God, without informing his family he decides to go to the shack. When he arrives, everything is the same, even down to the floor still stained with Missy’s blood. He angry with God, who “wouldn’t even let them find her and bury her.” Because Papa never showed up, Mack decides to return home, but upon leaving, everything is beautifully transformed, almost like another world. When he goes back into the shack to investigate he finds God the Father as an African American woman named Elousia, who also goes by Papa; Jesus Christ, a carpenter from the Middle East, and Sarayu, an Asian woman who is the Holy Spirit. God’s reasoning for their appearance is His dislike of religious stereotypes.
Mack’s blame and anger for Missy’s death is directed towards God, and his need for everything to be all better. Mack asks, “How could you let it happen to Missy? ¨, to which God replies, “When all you can see is your pain, you lose sight of me.” He tells Mack that he never believed that God was good, if he did, he would trust and not question the reasoning behind what had happened. Later Sarayu and Mack start cleaning a garden said to be a beautiful mess, signifying Mack’s soul that they were uprooting with a purpose in his heart.
To show him the fact the Mack cannot live in the moment, Jesus has him walk across the water with him and tells him how living for yesterday instead of today means living in the midst of fear. Afterwards, to allow Mack to see how hard it truly is to do God’s work, he meets with Sophia and is asked to pass judgment on others, deciding who should live or die and who deserves forgiveness. He is finally starting to realize that it is not his place to question the Will of God.
When Mack is allowed to see through a waterfall, symbolizing a window to the past, he finds his children, Missy included, playing. Though they cannot see him, she senses his presence and tells him she loves him and that she is fine. He tells Sophia, that he had always blamed and judged himself for not taking care of Missy, but seeing her and knowing she did not blame him, helped lift the weight from his shoulders or as noted above the quilt of the Great Sadness. She tells him, “judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right.”
As God leads Mack to Missy’s body, he questions Him, could He have stopped the fate that befell her? Yes, Papa says, he could have, but instead He has repurposed it for good. To achieve his much-needed closure, Mack must forgive her killer and to love him in spite of what he did. Upon finding Missy’s body, they bury her in the garden, the heart of Mack’s soul.
After all that happened, Mack feels a healing and lightness that he had not experienced in four years and returns home to make a difference. Upon his journey, he is in a serious accident and almost killed, while recovering, he discovers that he was not at the shack all weekend, instead the wreck happened on Friday, the same day he left. When he tells his unbelievable story to Nan and his friend Willie (the author), despite it incredibility, they believe him. He later takes police to find the cave where he and God had retrieved Missy’s body, and she is still there. With the evidence that was found, the other victims were located and the Little Lady Killer was arrested. According to his friend Willie, Mack is hoping for a revolution revolving around Jesus in the world, centered on love and service. He had seen a profound transformation in Mack. The Great Sadness is gone. Mack now lives a life filled with joy and simplicity amidst his community of relationships.
Both Rando and Worden believe that grief is a process and everyone experiences it differently. In her book, Loss and Anticipatory Grief, Therese A. Rando, Ph.D., writes “There is no right or wrong way to grieve; each person’s response to loss will be different. A ‘normal’ mourning will mean successfully completing what she calls The Six R’s. J. William Worden, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School Medical School says, “People dealing with loss need to know that it’s normal to feel abnormal in regard to their grief responses. I often say, “It would be abnormal to feel normal right now.” His book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, he ascertains that “Tasks of Mourning” (1991), can be applied to dealing with loss, but it requires commitment and active participation. Below are the steps that they believe can lead to healing, also, according to both, this journey is not linear and steps may be taken out of order.
Rando’s 6 R’s
1) Recognize the loss
2) React to the separation
3) Recollect and re-experience the deceased and the relationship 4) Relinquish old attachments to the
5) Readjust to move adaptively into the new world without forgetting the old world 6) Reinvest
Worden’s Tasks of Mourning
Task 1: Accepting the reality of the loss.
Task 2: Experiencing the pain of grief.
Task 3: Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing.
Task 4: Withdrawing emotional energy and reinvesting it in another relationship
In The Shack, many of the healing steps of Rando and Worden overlap what Mack has experienced, below are highlights of how he worked through: his mourning and how he by applying their theory’s. #1 Rando and Worden – Mack acknowledges that Missy is gone, but still does not have closure because her body could never be buried. #2 Rando and Worden – The Great Sadness
#3 Rando – remembering the good and bad experiences of their camping trip. #3 Worden – Trying to move on with wife and family, accepting the loss, but unfortunately emotionally shutting down. #4 Rando – Though Mack questioned God’s actions over the tragedy of Missy’s death, to heal he had to learn trust, forgiveness and to relinquish control. #5 Rando and #4 Worden – Once Mack has returned from the shack, he is determined to make a difference in the world around him. #6 Rando –Mack is more open and forgiving with others around him, even his daughter’s killer. He is spending time at the trial and hoping to speak with the accused sometime in the near future.
I would highly recommend The Shack, this the third time I have read it and I always discover new insights each time. I have spoken with others who have experience grief and been told that the book was extremely cathartic. I think that we all grieve differently, but one should realize that healing and moving forward is just a part of the circle and what any loved one would want for us.
Therese A. Rando, Ph.D. Loss and Anticipitory Grief. Lexington Books, 1986. 2014. Worden, J. William. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. 4. Springer publishing Company, Incorporated, 2008. eBook. 2014. www.windrumors.com. n.d. 30 March 2014.
Young, William P. The Drew Marshall Show Drew Marshall. October 2007. Radio.
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