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"Mack" Allen Phillips
(creator: Wm Paul Young with the help of Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings)

Mack(enzie) Allen Phillips was born "somewhere in the Midwest, a farm boy in an Irish-American family committed to calloused hands and a rigorous rules. Although externally religious, his overly strict church-elder father was a closet drinker .... a vicious mean beat-your-wife-and-then-ask-God-for forgiveness drunk". He beat his own son too until, at the age of 13 Mack "walked away from home". He worked his way around the world until, in his early twenties, he ended up in a seminary in Australia. Then he came back to the States and married Nanette, with whom he was to have "five remarkably beautiful kids".

He is now "just about to turn fifty-six, and is a rather unremarkable, slightly overweight, balding, short white guy" whom you probably would not notice in a crowd. He has been married to Nan now "for just more than thirty-three mostly happy years." But his world ended when his young daughter was murdered and The Great Sadness overwhelmed him.

Mack "was not comfortable with his writing skills" so he asked his friend Willie to write his story for him.

William Paul Young (1955 - ) was born in Alberta, Canada, but most of his early life was spent with his missionary parents in New Guinea, where he became closely involved with the Dani, a stone age tribal people. He was then sent away to boarding school. He subsequently paid his way through Bible College and went on to work in diverse indistries in a "desperate grasping after grace and wholeness". But for years he could not escape his sense of "huge personal failure".

He married and had six children for whom he wrote The Shack, arising from his own very personal religious experiences. It was his way of describing "his process of coming to healing". His friends urged him to get it published but it was rejected by 26 publishers before he published it through a company set up by his friends.

For him, The Shack is a metaphor of a place where we get hurt or stuck. He hopes the story will explain to people how "God is so much bigger than they thought". For him religion is largely about relationships, and he no longer sees the need to be a church member. He lives in Happy Valley, Oregon.

The Advent of Murder (2013)
The Shack (2007)
The Shack describes how Mackenzie Allen Phillips's youngest daughter, six and a half year old Missy, is abducted during a family vacation and how evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Three and a half years later, in the midst of what Mack calls his Great Sadness (caused by Missy's death), he receives a suspicious note, apparently from Papa (his wife's name for God), inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.

Against his better judgement he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and is greeted by "a large beaming African-American woman" who "engulfed him in her arms". She turns out to be Papa (the Father). There is also a man who "appeared Middle Eastern and was dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves. He stood easily, leaning against the doorjamb with arms crossed in front of him, wearing jeans covered in wood dust and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled just above the elbows, revealing well muscled forearms. His features were pleasant enough, but he was not particularly handsome - not a man who would stick out in a crowd. But his eyes and smile lit up his face and Mack found it difficult to look away." He turns out to be Jesus. And there is also an Asian woman called Sarayu who is the Holy Spirit. "Which one of you is God?" asks the understandably surprised Mack.

"I am," said all three in unison.

The black woman told him, "Come and talk to me while I get supper on. Or if you don't want to do that, you can do what ever you want. Behind the cabin you will find a fishing pole .... that you can use to catch some lake trout." She stopped at the door to give Jesus a kiss. "Isn't she great!" exclaimed Jesus, grinning at Mack.

Mack turned and faced him, shaking his head. "Am I going crazy? Am I supposed to believe that God is a big black woman with a questionable sense of humor?"

Jesus laughed. "She's a riot! You can always count on her to throw you a curve or two. She loves surprises, and even though you may not think it, her timing is always perfect.

"It is not long before Jesus is showing Mack how to walk on water across the lake, then they all get down to some serious discussions. The black woman, who has the scars of Jesus's suffering on her wrists, explains to him "I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it's because I love you".

Mack finds all this rather difficult to believe (!) but can't help telling her, "I'm so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die."
She walked around the table and gave Mack another big hug. "I know you are, and thank you. You need to know that we aren't sorry at all. it was worth it. Isn't that right, son?"
She turned to ask her question of Jesus, who had just entered the cabin. "Absolutely!"

God explains to Mack the reason for human suffering in the world: "The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands and the sweat of their brow to find their identity, value, and security. By choosing to declare what is good and evil you seek to determine your own destiny. It was this turning that has caused so much pain."

Jesus explains that "An awful lot of what is done in my name has nothing to do with me and is often, even if unintentional, very contrary to my purposes." He is not interested in church buildings and organizations: "My church is all about people and life is all about relationships. You can't build it. It's my job, and I'm actually pretty good at it," Jesus said with a chuckle. "I'm not too big on religion," he said "a little sarcastically." And he went on: "Systems cannot provide you security, only I can.

"The big lesson for Mack is that he must learn to forgive Missy's killer. It is then that God shows him where Missy's body still lies, and it is this discovery that provides clues that lead to the murderer being caught. So Mack becomes the first religious detective to be directly led by God to to solve the crime.

But are we really expected to believe all of this? The storyteller explains: "Whether some parts of it are actually true or not, I won't be the judge. Suffice it to say that while some things may not be scientifically provable, they can still be true nonetheless." And Mack, after being knocked unconscious in a road accident (does that explain anything?) "remains adamant that every word of the story is true." Certainly the experience changes his life.

The book which the author says he originally wrote just for his own children, has become a bestseller with over 1 million copies in print. Many readers find it heartwarming and inspirational. Others think it blasphemous. Or you could call it plain silly. Yet the issues it tries to raise are certainly important enough, and you cannot but respect the author for what he is trying to do.

The Rev Faith Morgan

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