Major Themes and Symbols in “The Shack” by William Paul Young

by Susan Bowman

This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on The Shack.

MAJOR THEMES

Love: God’s love for humanity, human beings’ love for one another, and humanity’s love for God are the three aspects of love that Mack learns about at the shack. Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu show Mack the depth of God’s love through their willingness to show him their love for each other, for Mack, and for the world.

Their consistent and unconditional acts of love for each other are examples of God’s intentions for human relationships. When Jesus spills the batter all over Papa, Mack is amazed at the lack of anger and recrimination over the mess created as well as the loving attention Jesus gives to the simple task of cleaning the batter off Papa’s robe and washing his feet. Mack is infused with this unconditional love during his experience at the shack even as he is brought to his knees by the truth that his own love for others, for God, even for Missy is flawed by his own inability to accept his limitations and to let love be enough to heal his pain.


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MAJOR THEMES

Love: God’s love for humanity, human beings’ love for one another, and humanity’s love for God are the three aspects of love that Mack learns about at the shack. Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu show Mack the depth of God’s love through their willingness to show him their love for each other, for Mack, and for the world.

Their consistent and unconditional acts of love for each other are examples of God’s intentions for human relationships. When Jesus spills the batter all over Papa, Mack is amazed at the lack of anger and recrimination over the mess created as well as the loving attention Jesus gives to the simple task of cleaning the batter off Papa’s robe and washing his feet. Mack is infused with this unconditional love during his experience at the shack even as he is brought to his knees by the truth that his own love for others, for God, even for Missy is flawed by his own inability to accept his limitations and to let love be enough to heal his pain.

Forgiveness: The act of releasing a person who has wronged you by letting go of anger and resentment. As Sophia illustrates to Mack the need for forgiveness, she teaches him that to forgive doesn’t mean that what the person who wronged you did was right, and it doesn’t mean that you have to forget what was done.

She pushes Mack to forgive by demanding that he forgive God for Missy’s death. As he realizes how hard it is to even contemplate forgiving God, he begins to see how difficult it is for God to forgive humanity. As he is finally able to forgive Missy’s killer, he discovers that forgiveness doesn’tmean that you have to like, trust, or continue having a relationship with the person. Forgiveness requires the kind of unconditional love that says “I will not hold what you did against me anymore.” As Mack is able to finally forgive even himself, he learns that forgiveness means simply letting go of the sin.

Salvation: The act of saving humanity from the finality of death and of assuring everyone who believes in God a place in eternity. Papa speaks often of this ultimate action as God’s gift to the world. When he explains to Mack the meaning of love, Papa presents human salvation as an act of love by God, who gave up his only Son, and by Jesus himself, who gave up his life to die an agonizing death on a cross, filled with the sin of the world.

SYMBOLS

Bottle of Tears: Sarayu gathers tears in her bottle, symbolizing the grief and love that causes people to cry. She catches Mack’s tears at their first meeting, which she later uses to show him that even the bitterest tears have a purpose in life. When she pours out Mack’s tears over the place where Missy’s casket was finally laid to rest, flowers spring up everywhere signifying that love brings forth new life.    

Verbs: Papa says that love is a verb, meaning that God’s love is an action, not just a feeling. He, Jesus, and Sarayu illustrate this many times as they minister to Mack in his pain and show him wonders he has never seen. Jesus shows him that his faith is strong enough to walk on water as Peter did. Papa allows Mack to see Missy cavorting in heaven with Jesus and takes him to find her body. They all show Mack that when Jesus gave up his life to die on the cross for the salvation of the world, it was the greatest act of love in the history of God’s world.

Pi:  The algebraic symbol pi denotes the number or quotient which expresses the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The value of the quotient pi is rarely used beyond twenty decimal places as it is an irrational number, i.e. it cannot be expressed as the quotient of two integers. The value is actually infinitesimal as it can be taken to an unlimited number of decimal places. It is also a transcendental number, i.e. it cannot be expressed as a root of an algebraic equation with a finite number of terms.

This symbol is the perfect representation of what Mack confronts at the shack - an irrational scene, which can hardly be expressed in words. It is also a transcendental scene, which proves to be far from finite and in fact seems to be as impossible as the act of measuring the proportions of a circle with a ruler and compass.

The Shack: The entire book is a symbol of God’s love as embodied in Jesus, the son of God, who gave his life for the salvation of humanity. It tells the story of creation from the divine perspective. It illustrates God’s love as it allows its readers to glimpse the love of God in the midst of a painful and heart-wrenching experience. The book is also a symbol of how the truth of God is imparted to the world through the faith of three people who persevered in the face of failure, financial hardship, and ridicule to publish it.

The Garden of Sarayu: Symbol of God’s creation out of chaos and of Missy’s final resting place of peace, Sarayu’s garden is filled with seemingly chaotic color and joy, as well as the sorrow of humanity’s sin. When Mack can see only chaos and lack of order in the wild profusion of colors, Sarayu brings him to the reality that there is order in God’s world. When Mack can see only sorrow, Sarayu helps him to find the deep joy that God provides, even in the midst of the pain of losing Missy.

Missy’s Casket: Missy’s final home is a symbol of the love of Jesus, who built it. The carvings of her favorite flowers and animals represent the simple sweetness of her life. They illustrate her deep love of nature and beauty. The picnic table is a stark reminder of Missy’s vulnerable position, reminding Mack of his guilt even as it shows him that life’s failures are part of the process and state of being human. The lady bug pin represents her pain and death, as well as the evil that is present in the world. The flowers filling the casket represent her final peace and the good that God can bring out of even most evil act.

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