Never read the novel The Shack? Here’s a Chapter-by-Chapter summary by Stacey Tuttle. The film is currently showing in cinemas. We went to see it on Saturday and it’s brilliant.
The Shack is a fictional story (although presented as truth) about a man, Mack, whose daughter is abducted and presumably brutally murdered (though her death isn’t confirmed for years). Four years after Missy’s abduction, he receives a note from ‘Papa’ (his wife’s name for God) asking Mack to meet him at the shack where evidence of his daughter’s murder was found. It is here where Mack has an encounter with the triune Godhead through which he is able to come to peace about some of the deeper questions that have plagued his life and faith, Missy’s death and his own painful childhood of abuse.
This book was written for the author’s family without any original thought of publishing. His wife and children would have known that Mack wasn’t real and would have seen the resemblances between the characters and themselves. He originally intended to list himself and Mack as co-authors on the cover, but when a few copies got spread around to friends and he heard that people were wanting to fly to town just to discuss the events from the story with Mack and Willie, Willie decided to at least remove the co-authorship from the cover. There are deeply autobiographical elements in the story, but the story is itself fiction. Perhaps the best explanation for why he wrote the story is in the foreword where he states, “he wanted a narrative to help him express to [his family] not only the depth of his love, but also to help them understand what had been going on in his inside world.” You can go to the author’s webpage to learn more here.
The foreword explains the history of the main character, Mack, which is critical to the actual story.
Mack and his family were horribly abused by his drunken, church-going, religious father. At the age of 13, he put poison in his father’s beer bottles, a note under his mother’s pillow asking her to forgive him, and ran away from home. He carries a lot of guilt for not helping protect his mother through the years of abuse and for killing his father, mixed with lingering anger, bitterness and resentment.
The foreword presents this as a true story. Mack and Willie (the author) are apparently close friends and Willie goes into great detail describing their history of friendship and the personality and character of Mack and his wife and kids. To further the impression that this is biographical, he states that Mack “asked if I would ghost write this story” and comments, “What you are about to read is something that Mack and I have struggled with for many months to put into words.” However, he also has some disclaimers hidden in there as well. “Whether some parts of [the story] are actually true or not, I [Willie] won’t be the judge…I confess to you that I desperately want everything … to be true.”
Mack is home alone during an ice storm and goes to check the mail. He finds in it an envelope with his name on it, with no postage, no postmark, no return address. Inside the message simply said:
It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.
Curious and angry about the mysterious letter, Mack was able to discover nothing of its origin but wondered if it was some cruel joke. Papa was his wife’s, Nan’s, favorite name for God. Mack falls asleep holding a picture of a little girl and hoping to avoid nightmares for once.
Nan and the children return home, but Mack says nothing to them of the mysterious note.
The back-story of The Great Sadness in Mack’s life, Missy’s disappearance, is revealed. Mack took the kids camping (Nan was unable to go) over Labor Day weekend. Missy, who was 6, begged for her Daddy to tell one of her favorite stories – the legend of the beautiful Indian maid who was a voluntary sacrifice for her people and the man she loved. It was through her willing death that the lives of her people and her true love were saved. Normally Missy loved this story of redemption, but this time it sparked deep questions and reflections. Missy made the connection between this story and the one of Jesus’ death and wanted to know why God was so mean as to ask his children to die. Mack pointed out that they (Jesus and the Indian princess) weren’t forced to die, but did so out of their love for their people. Missy also asked if God was ever going to ask her to die for someone else.
The back-story of the campout continues. Mack and his kids became friends with 2 other families they met camping: the Ducettes who have kids about the same ages, and the Madissons, a couple who really penetrates through Mack’s defenses and get him to share about his painful childhood and his beloved wife and her relationship with “Papa”.
The final morning, Kate and Josh took out the canoe. The canoe flipped and Josh’s lifejacket got pinned to the canoe trapping him underwater. Mack was eventually able to rescue his son from the canoe and after CPR, Josh revived.
As soon as Mack recovered from Josh’s rescue, he realized that Missy was no longer at the table where she had been coloring a picture of the Indian princess when he left her to rescue Josh. The search for Missy quickly escalated. Evidence of a struggle, a witness who saw a man driving out of the campsite with Missy, and a ladybug pin left at the crime scene led to a strong suspicion that a serial killer known as the Little Ladykiller had abducted Missy. The ladybug had 5 dots on its back indicating this was abduction #5. He specialized in abducting little girls and none of the previous victims’ bodies had ever been found.
Eventually a lead led Mack and the police to a little shack in the woods where Missy’s red dress was found, torn and blood-soaked. Missy’s body was never found. The trail on the killer turned cold; there were no other leads.
The story resumes with present day, nearly 4 years later. Mack muses why the God would, if the note was real, ask to meet him at the place of Mack’s deepest pain – why not somewhere else?
As Mack had his reservations about telling Nan and the kids about the note from “Papa”, he was relieved to find that Nan wanted to take the kids to visit her sister for a few days, which gave him the freedom to go to the shack undetected. The only person Mack did tell about the trip was his friend Willie, whom he had to tell in order to borrow Willie’s four-wheel drive jeep for the trip.
Arriving at the shack, Mack found it unaltered. Missy’s blood still staining the floor, and no one was there. After erupting in rage and despair, Mack collapsed on the floor and wept next to the bloodstains until he fell asleep.
As Mack awoke and started to leave, feeling stupid for even coming, the forest surrounding the shack behind him was suddenly enveloped in warmth and the winter unfurled into spring even as the rundown shack was transformed into a lovely log cabin. A large, radiant African American woman came from inside and wrapped Mack in a huge bear-hug, all the while calling out his full name with the feeling of a long-lost love suddenly reunited. Also in the cabin were an Asian woman who shimmered and whose hair blew about as if in the wind, though there was no wind inside, and a Hebrew man who appeared to be a laborer. The African American introduced herself as the cook and housekeeper whose name was Elousia, but said Mack could call her ‘Papa’. The man, who appeared to be in his thirties introduced himself as Jesus and said he likes to keep things fixed up around the place. The Asian woman tended the gardens and said her name was Sarayu. All three said, in unison, that they were God.
Mack and Papa have a discussion in the kitchen, starting with the fact that Papa listens to funk among other kinds of music, and not just the music, but the heart behind it. She reminds Mack that she loves those musicians. They also discuss his problems with calling her Papa – it’s too familiar, Papa appears as a woman and his own papa was such a horrible memory. Papa reminds Mack that she is neither male nor female and explains that she reveals herself to Mack as an African American woman in order to keep from encouraging his religious stereotypes. Papa wants Mack to get to know her as the being she is, which is better done without the religious boxes he has kept her in. She also realizes that Mack has never been able to embrace a father figure, nor could he now. They also discuss the matter of choice, or free will, the trinity and Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
After dinner, Jesus calls for a time of devotion, during which he praises Papa and tells her how much he appreciates various things she had done that day. Afterward, Mack and Jesus go to the dock to watch the stars and talk about creation, the Trinity and the transcendence of being over appearance. Overall they share an evening of bonding, friendship and laughter.
Over breakfast, Mack discusses with Jesus, Sarayu and Papa the hierarchy of the Trinity, only to learn there isn’t one. They are in a circle of relationship and choose to serve each other above themselves. In perfect unity there is no need for authority. This transitions to a discussion about how God works in the world in general – with the ultimate question in Mack’s mind being how God could allow his daughter to die while He yet talks of love. Papa explained that the real problem for Mack was that he didn’t really think God was good; because if he did, he would be able to trust God even when he didn’t understand what God was doing. Also, Sarayu said that Mack couldn’t trust God because he didn’t really believe that God loved him – when he did, trust would result. Mack said he couldn’t believe that any end result would justify losing his daughter, but Papa corrected him – justifying it isn’t the point, redeeming it is.
Sarayu asked for Mack’s help in the garden – a garden which was both beautiful and a mess. While they uprooted a lovely section of the garden, they discussed whether God created poisonous plants, and whether they should be considered good or bad. Sarayu pointed out that some of the most poisonous plants also have great healing properties. This led to a discussion of the garden of Eden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and mankind’s judgments of good and evil in general. Ultimately, Sarayu challenged Mack to give up his independence and his “rights” which only serve to separate him from the God who is Life. At the end of this painful discussion, Sarayu revealed that the garden was Mack’s soul and that they had been working together, uprooting with a purpose, in his heart.
Jesus invited Mack to come for a walk with him across the water to the other side of the lake. Mack’s fear about stepping onto the water leads to a discussion about fear in general and how imagination can living in the future or past vs. living in the present can lead to fear. Jesus explained that fear is in opposition to the fact that God is good and he loves us – as Mack’s belief that God is good and loves him increases, his fear will decrease. They also discussed creation and the relationship that God intended man and woman to share and how the fall affected that relationship. Jesus kept reminding Mack throughout all their conversations that he is not about performance, but about being – about who people really are, not what they do. Ultimately, Jesus doesn’t want Mack to ‘be like Jesus’ (in other words, changing how Mack behaves) so much as he wants Mack to let Jesus be in Mack (changing who Mack really is).
Jesus sent Mack into a dark cave where he met this beautiful woman who is the judge. As she and Mack talked, it surfaced hat he didn’t think that God truly loved all his kids, or Missy wouldn’t have been murdered; in light of that, she asked Mack to take her place and be the judge. He says he isn’t fit to judge, but she reminds him of a lifetime of judgments he has made based on very superficial criteria known to man. She started by asking if he would judge the man who murdered Missy – that was easy for Mack. So she asked about that man’s father who twisted him from childhood into this sort of man – and yes, Mack wanted to judge him too. She pointed out that the legacy goes all the way back to Adam and the fall, and ultimately to God who created us with the ability to choose and who allowed sin to enter the world. So what was Mack’s judgment on God, for wasn’t it he, ultimately, who allowed Missy to be killed? Didn’t God fail Mack and Missy both as a father? Surely if God loved Missy the way Mack loved Missy he would never have allowed this to happen? Mack conceded; he judged that God was to blame.
The judge pointed out that if Mack was able thus easily to judge God himself, surely judging mankind then would be no problem. She said he had to choose 2 of his children to go to heaven and the other 3 to go to hell – as that is how he believed God judged the world and chose who would go to heaven/hell. She pointed out that Mack’s daughter Kate was particularly troublesome, treated him unkindly and was angry with him, so maybe she should be the first to go. But, Mack realized that even if one of kids committed some horrible crime, even still he loved them too much to condemn them to hell. So, Mack asked if he could go to hell instead of his children, if he could take their punishment. The judge said that finally Mack was sounding like Jesus, judging humanity worthy of love, even at great cost to himself.
Then Mack was allowed to see Missy through a waterfall acting as a one-way mirror. Missy couldn’t see him, but knew he was there and was able to tell him she loved him and that she was OK. Mack confessed to the judge the guilt he had carried around for judging himself a failure to protect Missy and was finally freed from that burden, knowing that Missy had never blamed him.
As Jesus and Mack head back across the water, Mack confides that he has always been troubled by the idea of Missy all alone with her abductor. Jesus explains that she wasn’t alone; he was with her the whole time and that as they talked she gained great peace and even prayed for her family during that time. Their talk then turned to the institutions of politics, religion and marriage. Jesus pointed out that he has never been fond of institutions, he is all about relationships. He doesn’t want religious service, but people who love him and are in relationship with him. He also explained that not all religions are roads that lead to him, but that he would travel any road to find and redeem the lost.
Mack and Papa talked about his reunion with Missy through the waterfall and suddenly Mack thought of Missy’s favorite legend of the Indian princess whose death over the waterfall saved her people – was it for him that Missy had to die? Papa said that his ability to work good out of Missy’s death didn’t mean he needed Missy’s death to work good – so no, Missy didn’t have to die for Mack’s sake.
Mack confessed that he had always liked Jesus more – he felt Papa was the stern disciplinarian while Jesus was the loving, forgiving one. Therefore he had never enjoyed being in the presence of Papa. Papa explained that Jesus represented Papa’s heart perfectly while he was on earth, so to know Jesus, to love Jesus, should also be to know and love Papa.
Papa also confronted Mack on the little lies he had been telling himself and others. Lies to “protect” others that were really only to protect himself and which, ultimately, hinder relationship. She also showed him how his choices caused his pain which ultimately drove him to her. She explained that love never forces anything or anyone into relationship, but love was why Jesus was willing to die on the cross, to open the way for that relationship to happen.
Sarayu helped Mack see that emotions are neither bad nor good in themselves, they just are. They add color to life but are generally a response to perception, so when based on right perceptions can be very good things and when based on wrong perceptions can be harmful. The point is to be living in truth in the first place. And truth is that knowing God isn’t about following “rules” and knowing the right answer, but about knowing the Living Answer. The Ten Commandments were a mirror to show humanity how dirty it was and bring them in humility to God who saves from that filth, but instead became something which humans used to gain independence and control and the power to judge others. She explained how “responsibility” and “expectation” are words full of law, fear and judgment and have no place in God’s relationship with mankind. Instead of responsibilities which would be duties to perform, God gave abilities to mankind, namely the ability to respond to in relationship to Papa. And instead of expectations for mankind, there is an expectancy with no concrete definitions – it’s an excitement and hopefulness about what that relationship will bring. It’s the difference between nouns and verbs. Nouns are dead, verbs are alive and active. On a final note, Jesus pointed out that he didn’t want to be at the top of the pyramid of values in Mack’s life, rather he wanted to be the center of the mobile from which all aspects of Mack’s life are connected.
Sarayu opened Mack’s eyes so that he could, for one night, see what they (God) saw. He saw a beautiful spectacle of lights and color that emanated from living beings as they gathered together, each one full of colors unique to them. One particular being kept erupting in uncontrollable light and color – it was Mack’s father who was so overjoyed to see Mack he couldn’t contain himself. Mack embraced his father and apologized and said he loved him and noticed the darker colors of his father’s being were were changed to blood red. Jesus entered the throng of people who had been clearly waiting for him, told Mack he was “especially fond of him”, and Sarayu and Mack were alone again as his sight was once more human.
The next morning Papa, now appearing as an older man with silver hair and a goatee, woke Mack, explaining that Mack was going to need a father for what they had to do. Papa took Mack on a hike out into the woods where he showed Mack a red arc that was painted on several rocks – signs the killer used to mark his trail. Papa led Mack to a cave that contained Missy’s body so that Mack could bury her and have the closure he had so often asked for. But, before they reached her body, Papa asked Mack to forgive her killer. He explained that forgiveness does not necessarily mean he and the killer now enter into a relationship, but that Mack no longer holds on to his hate and unforgiveness. It’s not to forget it happened, but to love him in the face of it. Papa reminded Mack that her killer was one of his creation too, one he also loved and hurt for and would like to redeem. So, as Mack carried Missy’s body down the trail, he verbally declared over and over, “I forgive you”.
Missy’s body was buried in a casket that Jesus made for her, the details of her life carved into the outside of the box. Jesus said that Missy helped pick out the carvings, one of which was the ladybug pin the killer left behind. Sarayu told Mack they would bury Missy’s body in the spot in the garden which he helped clear only the day before. Sarayu sang a song as they buried her, one that Missy wrote just for the occasion. Mack’s tears watered the soil and a tree of life grew up at her gravesite, in the garden of Mack’s heart.
Papa presented a choice to Mack, he could remain with them (and consequently get to see Missy) or return home to his family. Either way, Papa promised they would be with him always, though maybe not as tangibly as they were currently if he chose to return to his family. Mack asked if his choice mattered, if it made no difference, he would stay. But Papa said that everything mattered. So, Mack decided to return home in hopes of being able to make some difference to his family, to the world.
Besides, if he didn’t return, he would be adding more pain and sorrow to his wife and children, and that he didn’t want to do. Because he had chosen to return, Papa gave Mack a little insight into the pain and struggle going on in Kate – she thought it was her fault Missy died, because it was her actions which tipped the canoe and set the whole train of events in motion.
After dinner, Mack fell asleep and awoke to the cold dilapidated shack with Missy’s blood stains that he had been in days before. He began the drive home, happily thinking how he would begin to tell Nan and the kids all about his time with Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, when a car ran a red light and plowed into his.
Four days later, Mack awoke in a hospital. The details about the shack were a bit fuzzy until Willie reminded him about the note and his purpose for going out there. Then his memory began to come back. He and Nan started to share their sides of the story. Nan told him that the accident happened on Friday night, the day he headed out to the shack, not on Sunday when he thought he was returning. But Mack assumed it must be one of those instances where God is out of time. Nan listened to his story and through time began to believe. The thing which sealed her believe was when Mack was able to finally put Kate at rest that nothing was her fault and unlock the pain and guilt she had been living in.
Mack decided to tell Tommy, the officer who had helped him in the search for Missy, about his experience with God and ask Tommy to help him go to the cave in search of her body – Mack suspected that her body might still be there, despite having buried it with Papa. Following the red arcs, Mack led Tommy right to the cave, and Missy’s body. The police were able to locate the other bodies of girls whom the Little Ladykiller had killed, and the killer himself, based on the clues they found at Missy’s cave.
Mack is testifying at the Ladykiller trial, hoping to visit with the man accused. He is hoping for a revolution revolving around Jesus in the world, centered on love and service. Willie says his life has been changed by this story, and whether it’s completely true or not, he wants it to be true.
You can find this summary here.