MY BROTHER DAVE is a hard-core construction boss, a man who can stand toe-to-toe with any bricklayer, outwork his entire Amish-Mennonite crew, and hustle all day pushing wheelbarrows and slinging block.
So I was surprised by the vulnerability he showed when he recently posted on Facebook about the worst moment of his childhood, the moment he lost his beloved dog.
It was devastating. In some ways, it has defined him.
I’d never heard the story before, and we’re close. I quickly discovered what drove him to share — his passion for a very popular novel.
When he first read it, Dave told me, it took him back to his personal holocaust, the worst day of his shabby, scuffed-up childhood. He was the second of four Amish-Mennonite boys, and the fifth child of eight children. At 11, he’d already fought a heart murmur that kept him in bed for months. He hated the strictness of our parochial school.
Then came a blast of hatred from the world.
Dave still can’t forget the shock of that day. As he climbed off the faded yellow school bus and trudged up the lane, Dave looked frantically about for his warm, barking pal who until then had never failed to greet his arrival. But for the first time, Cuddly didn’t meet him.
Cuddly, who looked like Benji from the movies.
So Dave went looking. It didn’t take long. He spotted the dead body just down the road, lying stiff and still, hit by a speeding vehicle who couldn’t be bothered to stop. Cuddly’s eyes were still open, glazed. His fur rippled in the wake of a passing car.
How do you deal with the random, violent death of a pet when you’re barely a teen? How do you lose your best friend? What do you do when those loving eyes go into the ground, brown eyes that always understood you perfectly?
As a fifth-grader who suffered acutely from the social stigma of our family’s poverty, Dave was devastated by the loss of Cuddly. He seriously contemplated suicide.
“Really?” I said. “I had no idea.”
Dave’s pain must have shown on his face and in his body because the next day, his fifth-grade teacher noticed something.
Sister Ruth Emswiler was an outsider in our community, a single, Amish-Mennonite woman who had a gift for empathy. She had written a song, “Tender Love of Jesus,” which I can still sing today from memory. Her life would end tragically at the age of 49 from breast cancer. I don’t know much else about her life, but I think she must have known something about grief.
As a woman in a patriarchal society, Sister Emswiler had no power. But she did know how to pay attention. She took the time to notice Dave. She saw his grief. She asked questions, listened. She nudged my brother into telling her his stories about Cuddly.
Then held him as he cried.
“She was an incarnation of God to me,” my brother said, his voice husky, raw under the lash of memory. “God reached out to me in the form of a woman.”
IT’S MOMENTS LIKE these that make me wonder why my evangelical friends can’t grasp Young’s message in his controversial novel, The Shack. Perhaps I’ve been gone too long.
I have a solid history with the book. After it first came out in 2011 — during one of my visits home from Seattle — my brother Dave handed me the novel, pulling it from a box, the story dark and rich like spiritual espresso.
I read it. I liked it. More than liked it, I was moved to tears. And several nights ago, I watched the film for the first time.
I was impressed with the production values, and quickly sank into the world of the story. The experience recalled the same emotions I’d had in reading the book. Most important, the film highlighted the central premise of Young’s story: that evil is a product of people’s actions, and that God has chosen not to intervene — because to do so would negate our free will.
In the stories of creation, we see God suffering from loneliness, creating humanity in order to enjoy our companionship. To ensure we would be His companions, and not slaves, He gave us the freedom to choose. He gave us the freedom to reject Him.
This is, I believe, because freedom is at the heart of friendship.
Yes, God could eliminate evil. But to do so, He’d have to eliminate choice, turning all of us into His captives.
This God refuses to do.
WHEN I WENT online to see what people thought about the film, I quickly ran into a storm of controversy. The blog titles say it all. “Thirteen Heresies in The Shack.” “Six Major Problems with The Shack.“ “The Shack — The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment.”
I thought the theological arguments might boil down to something simpler. So I called my brother and several of my friends who have remained in the evangelical church. I asked them if they could explain the emotional anger?
Why would a novel about a man going through the stages of grief — clearly written as a fantasy — arouse so much antagonism?
FOR THOSE WHO haven’t yet read the book, it’s the story of a father, Mackenzie Phillips (Sam Worthington), whose five-year-old daughter Missy (Amélie Eve) is kidnapped, brutally raped, and murdered—her blood staining the floor of the murder site, a shack in the midst of a forest.
Broken-hearted, dazed, and unable to deal with his grief, Mack returns home with his devastated wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) and the remaining children, stumbling through life in a daze. He’s numb, he blames God, he’s unable to talk about it to anyone — even his best friend Willie (Tim McGraw).
Certainly not to his wife, whose loving, trusting relationship with God — she calls Him “Papa” — allows her to weather this storm.
Mack is truly lost.
Until, that is, he gets a printed note in his mailbox in the midst of a massive snowstorm when the mail isn’t being delivered.
“It’s been awhile. I’ve missed you,” the note says. “I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.”
There’s a name printed at the bottom.
When Mack finally makes it to that shack several days later, he finds the landscape around it has become a virtual Garden of Eden. Inside the shack, he finds a warm, embracing home, presided over by a literal-in-the-flesh Holy Trinity.
It’s not the image of God I was taught in my white, Amish-Mennonite church.
God is a maternal black woman (Octavia Spencer) and later a Native American (Graham Greene). The Holy Spirit is an Asian dancer named Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara). Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) is an Israeli.
When Mack leaves the shack several days later, he’s a changed man. His spiritual intercourse with the Almighty — in the form of these three persons, no less — has taken him through each of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). The three members of the Godhead even help him bury his missing daughter.
Like Jesus emerging from the desert — albeit in the film by way of an auto accident and a coma that makes the viewer question whether it wasn’t just a fever dream, rather than reality — Mack returns to his family, once again emotionally whole. He’s able to worship God with a renewed enthusiasm and love for “Papa.”
HOW COULD A film about healing after profound grief and a Job-like challenge to God raise the hackles of evangelical Christians everywhere?
It seems to come down to one basic issue.
If you read the book or saw the film, you definitely noticed that God doesn’t appear as a heavenly Santa Claus with a long white beard.
God the Father and God the Holy Spirit — both referred to in the King James Version of the Bible with the male pronoun — are women.
I had forgotten how blasphemous this is in the eyes of many evangelicals.
If you only went to the most critical blogs and sermons, you’d think all evangelicals believe the essence of evangelical faith is that God is a man.
Fortunately, I know that’s not true. Evangelicals know their Bibles, which compares God to a mother hen (“He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou rest”) and bread (“I am the bread of life”) and the sun (“I am the light of the world”) and a lamb (“the marriage of the Lamb”) and a rock (“He is the rock”) and a grape vine (“I am the vine and ye are the branches”) and even a piece of ivory (“the horn of my salvation”).
IT’S HARD FOR me to be neutral about the film. Seeing it came at a critical moment in our family.
My wife and I just lost our beloved furball of a cat Delilah to the fierce scimitar of Lymphoma cancer.
We didn’t think of Lilah as a cat. We thought of her as our child, a soulful creature with soft creamy fur and blue eyes who snuggled up against my wife during every difficult moment of the past 16 years. Her purrs at night made the walls shake. The love shining from her innocent, blue eyes was nothing short of human.
Losing her was … hard to describe.
A Great Sadness descended over our home.
How do you deal with such loss?
We told each other stories aboutLilah’s passage to the Other Side. Our closest friends reassured us that animals have souls. We believed them. We believe that we’ll see Lilah again. We believe that she’s safe.
But the grief we’ve felt is nothing compared to what a father must feel when faced with the reality of child rape, a violent death alone with a ravaging stranger in an abandoned shack in the wilderness. I cannot … cannot imagine the grief.
When I contemplate The Shack, I know Young must have encountered similar sorrow. It infuses the story. The Shack offers an emotional blueprint for other grieving souls.
Through his novel (which he originally wrote only for his family as a Christmas gift), Young found a way through his own grief. It fictionalizes his real-life encounter with the Divine.
Without telling Young’s entire personal story, suffice it to say that his own trauma forced him to rethink his perception of God. Ultimately, he published the novel as a way of “changing the common perception and representation of God.”
According to Young, his work stems from his perception that “much of the pain in the world — in general, and to him throughout his life — has come at the hands of men.”
WHY DO MY fellow evangelicals have such a problem seeing God as a woman?
I believe the secret lies in the fears literalists feel about the story (I was one, once). If you’ve been told all your life that God is a man, it’s hard to look past Young’s feminine take on God. It’s hard to see the Truth found in The Shack.
It’s ironic they miss Young’s point. In an orthodox reading of the Bible, God is far more than a man. He’s more than a woman. According to Scripture, “God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
Young certainly isn’t suggesting that Christianity is a matriarchal faith. At a later point in the story, God changes His form to show up as an American Indian, father figure.
“This morning, for what we’re about to do, you need a father.”
In Young’s story, God is far more than male nor female. God is a spirit. Both forms are simply manifestations of God.
We are limited by human language. Even now, writing this, I wish our language had another pronoun, a special one for God, other than capitalized male pronouns.
I spoke by phone to my closest friend, John Fohner, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. He converted to Mennonite from Methodism when we were both in our early 20s.
According to John, the problem we have is that we’re attempting to grasp the Infinite.
And unfortunately, we have finite minds.
“Whenever we try to portray the infinite,” Fohner told me, “whether with our words or pictures—we are limited by the fact that we are finite. And this may really freak people out, but the Bible has the same problem, using finite words.
“God chose to limit himself.”
THE SHACK FOCUSES on the doubt and pain that devastates your faith when evil appears. Suddenly, we’re Job roaring at the wind, we’re angry at our Creator, we want God to be a magician and stop all evil from happening.
“Where was God?” we ask. “If God is truly good, how could He let this happen?”
Young takes the risk of being misunderstood to explore this question. But he succeeds. In this modern retelling of the book of Job, Mack’s conversations with the Divine cut to the heart of how evil emerged.
The answer lies in God’s quest for friendship with humanity.
It’s easy to forget that God’s greatest need, according to the Scriptures, is meaningful relationships with human beings. Out of God’s loneliness, Adam was created. Out of Adam’s loneliness (“It is not good for man to be alone.”), Eve was created. Jesus, too, called his disciples his “friends.”
WHY DID YOUNG choose a woman to represent God? And why did Young insist that she be a black woman?
I suspect it’s because the African-American woman is a perfect symbol of oppressed humanity. No class of humans has suffered more in American history.
I called Gerald Mast, one of my oldest friends from my undergraduate days. He’s now a PhD, a professor of communications at a small Mennonite college in Bluffton, Ohio. Gerald pointed me toward the book Texts of Terror by biblical scholar Phyllis Trible.
In her book, Trible sheds light on a story I had forgotten.
The story of Hagar, the handmaid of the biblical patriarch, Abraham.
In Genesis 16, we find Hagar pregnant, rejected by her mistress, and fleeing into the desert. Lost and abandoned, she is visited by God, who speaks to her. He tells her to return, promising to “so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”
In gratitude, Hagar actually names God.
This handmaid, this deeply oppressed woman, is the only person in the Bible, man or woman, to be given this privilege.
The word in Hebrew means “The God who sees me.” In other words, God paid attention to her plight. He bore witness to her oppression.
THIS STORY MADE me recall something else my brother Dave told me.
You might remember that women in many evangelical churches are not permitted to preach. This is based on the Apostle Paul’s teachings that he would not allow a woman to teach or assume authority over a man. Many evangelical Christians still take that literally.
Thus, it’s been the men, not the women, who are proclaiming the heresies within Young’s novel. I didn’t find any evangelical women speaking out against the book.
Why is that?
It doesn’t mean women don’t have a voice in the evangelical church. They have their own ways of being heard. If you’re listening, you know that. And as I noted, my brother is very good at listening.
My brother also has an empathetic ear, and so a lot of people tell him their stories.
“I’ve talked to two counselors, Steve, who have listened to the stories of a lot of women,” he told me. “And there’s one thing you should know. A big part of the audience for this book is women, women who have been sexually abused.
“These counselors tell me the women are keeping silent on the threads because they don’t want to be judged. But this book has reached them because it speaks to the pain they’ve gone through, trying to understand how God can allow such evil to happen to them.”
It was a crucial moment of understanding. Things fell together. So I researched Young’s own life trauma. I wasn’t surprised to find he’s a survivor.
“Sexual abuse became part of the tearing apart of my own fabric of the soul,” says Young. “To me, The Shack is a metaphor for the place we hold our pain.”
I know that one of the most powerful things about telling your story, about writing a memoir, about confessing sin — is watching and feeling an audience listen to you attentively. Their affirmation of your story is a necessity.
That’s where the healing comes from.
Being heard. Being understood. Being seen.
“I see you.”
That’s what Hagar felt when El-Roi spoke to her in the wilderness, where she had fled, abandoned and rejected.
“I see you.”
That’s what Mack felt when the Trinity listened and empathized with him at the now-sacred site of his personal holocaust.
“I see you.”
It’s what Wm Paul Young somehow came to understand as he wrote his novel—and touched the abused, beating heart of the world.