Friday, June 18, 2010

The Story Behind the Story

Let me thank you for your emails and phone calls. Many of you have expressed your concern for me since I have not posted a blog in a while. The tornado did not hit my part of Mississippi, but just north of us was a disaster. I drove through that area two weeks ago. The damage was shocking and incredibly widespread. Hundreds and hundreds of huge trees were snapped in half like match sticks and flung on houses and cars. My heart broke as I thought of all the shattered dreams. And now it looks like the oil spill in the gulf will grow into the greatest disaster of all. I grew up not far from the coast, and I grieve daily as I watch the slow death of a part of the world that I dearly love. The implications of this spill are unimaginable. We need a miracle, cascading miracles.

On another level, since January Perichoresis has been financially strapped. Times are tough for us all. I think we will make it through this month, but after that it does not look good at all. So I have disappeared into my study and been working around the clock to finish my book on The Shack, and to finish my novel. I am two-thirds done with both. If you can help financially, please do so. You can send a tax-deductible gift to Perichoresis • P. O. Box 98157 • Jackson, MS 29298.

Here is an excerpt from one of the first chapters.

Never intended for publication, The Shack was written by William P. Young (known to his friends as Paul) as a story for his children. He had two aims: first, to give a gift that would express his love for his kids, and second, “to help them understand what had been going on in his inside world,” as his friend Willie put it. Paul’s goal was to get the story to Office Depot before Christmas to make fifteen copies for his children, his wife, and a few others. But even while working three jobs, there wasn’t enough money. Eventually copies were made, and the story circulated through his family and friends. He was encouraged to have it published as a proper book, but found that it was rejected by every publisher that was contacted, as being ‘too out of the box’ or ‘having too much Jesus.’ For Paul, its actual publication as a real book, now one of the best selling books in history, is lagniappe, as the Cajuns say—a little something extra. His dream was fulfilled when the first copies were made and his children had a story that would explain something of their father’s journey into the real world.

I heard Paul say that he reached the point in his life when he cried out, “Papa, I am never again going to ask you to bless something that I do, but if you have something that you are blessing that I could share in, I would love that. And I don’t care if it’s cleaning toilets or holding the door open or shinning shoes.” And Papa replied, “Paul, I’ll tell you what, how about I bless this little story you are writing for your kids. You give it to yours, and I will give it to mine.” The rest, as they say, is history.

But is it? There is far more going on in an average person’s life than anyone would dare to dream. And that is certainly true of Paul Young. The Shack is not a novel written by an academic who finally learned to communicate with regular people. There is a story behind the story, several in fact, but I will stick to Willie’s statement. ‘‘To help them understand what had been going on in his inside world.” (p. 12) The inside world, the world of the invisibles, of pain and turmoil, of shame, broken hearts and broken dreams, is the world that drives us all, and especially the larger-than-life tale in The Shack. The story behind the story is the gut-wrenching hell that Paul Young suffered in his own life. I have seen a picture of Paul when he was six years old. He looked like an old man—weary, miserable and spent, and terribly sad. His eyes screamed despair. The picture made me cry. But that is the beginning of this story we have all come to love, at least most of us.

By the time Paul was six years old, he had been emotionally abandoned, physically and verbally beaten and sexually abused—repeatedly. To say the least, he was crippled inside from his early days in life. No child—no person—can withstand such trauma. It creates a lethal roux of shame, fear, insecurity, anxiety, and guilt. These invisibles coalesce into a damning, debilitating, and unshakeable whisper: “I am not alright. I am not good, not worthy, not important, not loveable,” which haunts every single moment of life. How does a child, or anyone, cope with an inner world of such anguish? No one can.

As a fish was not made to live on the moon, we were never designed to live in shame. But what do you do? Where do you go? Most of us bury it all in a garbage can in the backroom of our souls, and move on. Or try to. But what we bury rules us. What we don’t know that we don’t know will destroy us. ‘I am not’ becomes ‘I will be,’ and we dream a dream of becoming. ‘If I can just get married and have children.’ ‘If I can just get that job or promotion, that money, that car, that house, that power, that position, that new relationship.’ And off we go. But such ‘things’ are incompetent to address spiritual pain. They never work, though we will defend them ‘til they kill us. So we medicate, go on autopilot, check out, or we stay busy, we get involved in a great cause, manage other people’s inner worlds, live through our children, or just stay drunk in one musical way or another. It’s too much.

Paul Young turned to religion, partly because it was the environment he grew up in and therefore readily available, and partly because it presented a possible way to perform his way into becoming valuable. He was born in Alberta, Canada, but before his second birthday found himself on the mission field in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea (West Papua). Around six, as was required by the particular mission board, he was shipped off to boarding school. Before the age of ten, the family unexpectedly returned to Canada and by the time he graduated from high school, Paul had attended thirteen different schools. His dad had made the change from missionary to pastor.

These facts don’t tell you about the pain of trying to adjust to different cultures, of life losses that were almost too staggering to bear, of walking down railroad tracks at night in the middle of winter screaming into the windstorm, of living with an underlying volume of shame so deep and loud that it constantly threatened any sense of sanity, of dreams not only destroyed but obliterated by personal failure, of hope so tenuous that only the trigger seemed to offer a solution.

Religion was the only world Paul knew, the cards he was dealt. So he played them. He believed in the ‘religious’ version of Christianity. He had too. With ‘I am not good’ whispering in every breeze, he set out to prove that he was good. He graduated at the top of his class in college, became a shining star, a people-pleasing, religious performer on his way to the top. But every moment involved the exhausting task of hypervigilance, constantly scanning each group, each discussion, each meeting and moment to manage people’s impression of himself. For how could Paul, or any of us, let folks know of the dying inside. With one hand on the lid of his garbage can, he smiled, taught the Bible, became ‘the nice guy,’ the counselor, while keeping everyone at a safe distance. But he found no relief from the raging turmoil in his inner world. He cried out to God for healing, re-dedicating himself and his life a hundred times, until his re-dedicator finally burned out. His life became a form of hiding, while desperately searching for relief and help anywhere he could find it. But there is no healing in religion. Healing happens when you meet Jesus in your shack, a place Paul tried hard to deny even existed.

He performed himself into ministry, into business, into marriage, into fatherhood, trying to exhaustion to become an authentic human being while hiding the underlying shame and personal failures. A single phone call rocked his world forever. Two words in fact. ‘I know.’ Kim, Paul’s wife, had found out about the affair he was having with one of her friends. That is one way that shame works its poison in our lives. There are millions of others, of course, but one is that we turn to another person, a “magical other” who will be our all, our life, our salvation. I suspect Paul found out what Shakespeare meant when he said, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ But that’s not the whole truth. ‘Heaven has no ally like a woman who knows how to love.’ The book’s dedication reads, ‘to Kim, my Beloved, thank you for saving my life.’ While Mackenzie’s weekend at the shack represents eleven years of Paul’s actual life—eleven years of pain and emotional torture, depression and mere flashes of hope—it was Kim’s heroic love wrapped in fury that held it all together. From a human perspective, without Kim and her heart Paul Young would probably be dead, or tucked away in some cold asylum, or an empty man still performing. There would have been no story to tell, at least not one about meeting the blessed Trinity in the garbage can.

On the other side of hell, as real freedom and life began to dawn, it was Kim’s insistence that Paul write something for the children to explain his journey and new-found liberation. She didn’t mean a book, and neither did Paul, but most folks are thrilled that it all turned out this way. On more than one occasion, I have heard him speak of Kim and their children with tears streaming down his face. The book was born in the crucible of life, of trauma and abuse, of empty religion, misery and betrayal, of mercy, love and reconciliation. Luther said somewhere that God makes theologians by sending them to hell. In hell, of course, no one is interested in theology. What we learn in the emptiness of grief, in the pain, the trauma of suffering is that we are not interested in pseudo-promises, intellectual masturbation, or “Skippy, the wonder Christ,’ as my friend Ken Blue puts it. What we learn in hell is that we want out. We learn desperation for life, for healing, for real salvation, for a Savior who saves here and now, who reconciles, who heals our brokenness, and delivers us from our shame. We need something that works.

This is the story behind the story. The Shack could have easily been titled ‘From Hell to Heaven,’ or ‘From Overwhelming Shame to Being Loved into Life,’ or ‘How Jesus Healed a Screwed Up Man,’ or even ‘With Gods Like Ours No Wonder We Are So Sad and Broken.’ For the story is about hell and heaven, trauma, shame and finding love, the real Jesus accepting a broken man, and it is about the Father, Son and Spirit finding us in the far country of our terrible and powerless mythology—to share their life with us. For the truth behind the universe is that God is Father, Son and Spirit, and the one unflinching purpose of the blessed Trinity is that we would come to taste and feel, know and experience the very Trinitarian life itself.

What Paul and Kim have lived through and what they have discovered in the love of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu is the joy unspeakable, full of glory that Peter talked about, and the abounding life that Jesus promised. They cannot go back to the same old, do more, try harder religion with its properly attested Bible verses. Like C. S. Lewis, in the midst of misery they were surprised by joy.

Some have taken offense at the theology of The Shack. Paul’s response is not one of theological argument or biblical proof-texting, though he is very adept at both. His response is his own life and relationships. He would say, ‘I have a tee shirt from hell, several of them, in fact. Religion doesn’t work anywhere, and especially there, but the Father, Son and Spirit came to find me in my hell. They accepted me, loved me, embraced me, and are healing me with their love.’ And, I think Paul would ask a simple question, ‘How’s your theology working for you?’ And knowing Paul, he would follow that with, ‘how does your wife or husband or friends think your theology is working for you?’ So, while The Shack is a story for his children, it is a bit more complicated than that. This story is matter of life or death. Paul Young is serious. He wants his own children to see the disastrous incompetence of religion to heal our broken souls, and he wants them to know the astonishing liberation of Papa’s embrace.

The Father, Son and Spirit, whom he calls Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, are not myths like Santa Claus, the white, blue-eyed Jesus, and the tooth fairy. They are real. They meet us in our pain, in our anger, bitterness and resentment, in our shame and guilt and powerlessness, in our miserable, broken relationships—and in our deadly religion—and there they love us into life and freedom. Hence, the second dedication, ‘…all us stumblers who believe Love rules, stand up and let it shine.’