\”The Shack\”–and three other books about suffering

\"\"“Have you read The Shack?” If you haven’t been asked that question recently, you probably will be. The book has two claims to fame: it has topped the Globe and Mail fiction best-seller list for eleven weeks and counting—and it is not easy to find at Indigo. The former tells you lots of people are reading it, the latter that (as the conspiracy theory goes) that the book is (shhh) Christian.

1 Making Sense out of Suffering

The Shack is an unusual book, and for me the measure of that is that I have put it on a very short list of helpful books to do with suffering and evil. The list really came about by accident. For years I have felt that the best book I knew on suffering is Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense out of Suffering. It is in Kreeft’s best style: lucidly written, witty, wide ranging (“Seven Clues from the Artists” is a typical chapter heading), and in the form of a dialogue—by which I mean that The Reader frequently interrupts Kreeft with “What on earth do you mean by that?” or “Well, OK, but how do you explain X?” or even “You’ve got to be kidding!”

2 Cry the Beloved Country

Then, more recently, my wife encouraged me to re-read Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s heart-breaking 1948 novel of a black South African pastor’s son who goes to the big city and gets into deadly trouble. As I read it, I thought with amazement (how could I have been so slow?): this is actually a book about the problem of suffering. Probably I hadn’t seen it that way before because, well, I was twenty-five years younger for one thing, but also, I suppose, because we now live in a postmodern world where story is more powerful than proposition. Not that Paton gives you The Answer to the problem of suffering—he hardly even gives you An Answer—but he shows you something more helpful—a man of faith (the pastor, Stephen Kumalo) coping with the most unimaginable evil with grace and patience and love that are both remarkable and totally believable. So that went on the list.

3 The Boys

The other book that’s on my short list, and which speaks of suffering in a narrative kind of way, is by a friend and neighbour of mine, John Terpstra, nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 2004. In 2005, John wrote a book—not poetry this time—simply called The Boys, about his wife’s three younger brothers, who died, one after another in their teens, of muscular dystrophy. The amazing thing about this book, like Cry the Beloved Country—although this is a true story, not fiction—is to watch a family of deep faith dealing with the most outrageous form of suffering possible (to lose one child is inconceivable to most of us—to lose three is beyond words) with resilience and faith, and even humour. And that went on the list.

4 The Shack

And so to The Shack. This is fiction—although it is clear that the author himself, William Young, and his family have endured trials beyond the lot of most people—and it is also about the problem of suffering.

The story opens with the main character—Mack—receiving a note from God, inviting him to meet at the shack. Mack’s youngest daughter Missy was abducted and killed some years earlier at this shack—and now God is inviting Mack to meet him there. If that were not a bizarre enough premise, when Mack arrives, he is greeted affectionately by a large black woman named Papa, Papa’s son Jesus, who looks Middle Eastern, and Sarayu, a mysterious Asian-looking woman. Yes; you guessed it: this is the meeting with God.

Over the course of a weekend with this God, Mack has endless discussions with the three, and has (literally) awesome experiences and encounters which change him, his outlook on life, his feelings towards God . . . and the murder of his daughter.

The book is far more didactic than either Cry the Beloved Country or The Boys—what would you expect in conversations with God?—but on the whole Young’s touch is light and even humorous, and the lessons find their mark. One friend commented, “But he doesn’t answer the question!” And it is true: why do awful things happen in this world? If you surgically extracted the lessons of The Shack, you would probably end up with ten propositions about suffering and evil that are familiar to any thoughtful Christian. On the other hand, the lack of new conclusions shouldn’t surprise or even disappoint us: author after author over millennia—from the Book of Job to, well, Peter Kreeft—has wrestled with the question and done the best that limited human beings are ever going to do. Nobody is going to wake up tomorrow morning and cry, “Eureka! Finally I have it: The Answer to the problem of suffering!”

So, yes, Young traverses familiar ground in terms of the content of what he says about the problem of suffering. What is new is the way he tackles it: in the form of a story that is alternately harsh and whimsical, realistic and mystical. What he says about suffering may not be new, but the way he says it engages the imagination and the heart in such a way as to circumvent what C.S.Lewis calls “the watchful dragons” which keep us from a real encounter with God—the God who made the world, who allows the world to suffer, who suffers along with the world, and who will one day wipe away every tear. A God who might just appear as a large black woman called Papa.