Willie, the narrator, believes anyone would be skeptical upon hearing that someone spent a weekend with God, in “the shack” no less. He then says that he has been friends with Mack for more than two decades. As is family tradition, Mack, whose full name is Mackenzie Allen Phillips, goes by Allen, and is only called Mack by close friends and his wife, Nan.
Willie’s assertion that most people would be skeptical of Mack’s claim reflects the fact that many people perceive God to be far removed from their lives and concerns, unlikely to take a personal interest in their struggles. The fact that only a few close friends call Mack by his preferred name indicates that he is reserved and sometimes has a hard time forming relationships and making himself emotionally available to others.
Mack was born to an Irish-American family in the Midwest, and his “overly-strict church elder” father was a vicious drunk. When thirteen-year-old Mack tearfully confessed in church that he had seen his father beat his mother, his father caught word. His father tied him to an oak tree and beat him with a belt and Bible verses for two days. As soon as Mack recovered enough to walk, he left home, taking his prized possessions with him, including a family picture and an ounce of his mother’s perfume. He poisoned all of the alcohol he could find on the farm and left his mother a note under her pillow hoping she would someday forgive him.
Mack’s father is devout on the surface, serving as an elder in the church, raising his son in the church, and carrying a Bible. But his abusive behavior show that while he adheres to the trappings of a religious life, he does not treat those around him as God would want. His relationships do not reflect a true faith even though he demonstrates a loyalty to the bureaucracy of the church. Mack’s angry departure, and attempt to poison his father, show his judgment of his father’s actions.
For the next few years, Mack travelled around the world, working odd jobs and even getting involved in a distant war, though he “hated war with a dark passion.” He also briefly attended seminary in Australia before returning to the U.S. in his twenties, when made peace with his mother and sisters, moved to Oregon, and married Nannette A. Samuelson.
As Mack traveled around the world, he saw tragedies and darkness like war, which confirmed his belief that God takes little concern with the affairs of humans, allowing—or perhaps even causing—death and suffering. The fact that Mack eventually reconciled with his family suggests the importance of forgiveness in healthy relationships, and Mack’s own capacity for such acts of forgiveness.
Since then, Mack, who is about to turn fifty-six, has settled down, raising five kids with his wife Nan. He is unremarkable looking and wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, though he is very kind and smart. He is also odd; people find him uncomfortably perceptive, and he’s fascinated by God and belief, though he has a “love/hate relationship with religion” and appears uncomfortable in church on the rare Sundays he attends.
These two sides of Mack—the side that is fascinated by God and the side that is uncomfortable with religion and church—show that having a relationship with God is separate from being devout and following the rituals of the formal church. The book suggests that this is because the church is a human-created bureaucracy, while anyone, even an ordinary person like Mack, can develop a personal relationship with God.
Ever since a hospital stay a few years ago, Mack has seemed particularly kind and at peace. His relationship with God has “gone deep,” though he has paid for such a “dive.” After The Great Sadness of seven years ago, Mack and Willie rarely saw each other. After the accident, however, Mack asked Willie to help him write about his experiences. Willie insists that he has recorded Mack’s memories as truthfully as he could.
When Mack was deep in a depression he thought of as The Great Sadness, he cut himself off from others and his relationships suffered, all side effects of the intense grief he felt at the loss of his daughter. Since confronting his emotions, however, Mack has been able to heal and deepen his relationships with both other people in his life, and God.