The Shack, a first novel largely written on a commuter train to Portland by a sales rep for a tech company, has sold nearly 1 million paperback copies since its publication a year ago. Other recent Christian book sensations-The Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind, and The Purpose Driven Life-have had publishers behind them. After many publishers rejected The Shack, William P. Young (who goes by Paul) self-published it.
Young says that Christian publishers thought it too edgy and secular ones too religious-and neither, apparently, had a good feel for reader taste. The Shack sales have been propelled by word-of-mouth like that of 430 positive reviews on the Amazon.com site: "The BEST work of Fiction I have read in Years. . . . THE SHACK has changed my life. I don't want to say it has a power second only to the Bible, but others have said it and I feel that is true. . . . We now buy 'em by the case, and pass them out-much more fun than tithing . . . Right behind the Bible, this is at the top of my reading list. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again. . . ."
The site also has 55 negative reviews with slams on Young's theology and writing ability: "Seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity. . . . THE book for you if, and only if, you want to recreate God in your own image. . . . I threw the book across the room at the scene where the Jesus character dropped the bowl of sauce on the floor whereupon the members of the Holy Trinity laughed uproariously and the Jesus character mopped the sauce off the feet of the 'Father' character who said 'ooooh, that feels so good.'"
But one response has probably had more impact than all of those positives and negatives put together. Writer/pastor Eugene Peterson's lavish words of praise-"This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!"-are on the cover of The Shack, giving it credibility that eludes other self-published tomes.
WORLD interviewed Young about his controversial hit. He began by explaining that in 2005 his wife Kim was asking him to write for their six children (ages 15 to 27) "the big picture of how I think about God, about life." She figured he might write a few pages. The idea was to type it up, run off some photocopies, and have it bound in time for Christmas 2005.
Young used his 80 minutes each day on the MAX train from Gresham to Portland, Ore., to fill yellow legal pads with imagined conversations with God focused on suffering, pain, and evil.
As Young tells it, he entered his writing into a computer at night, then realized he needed to house the conversations in a story: "I wanted a story because story, and art, and music, nature-all of these things-have a way of penetrating past our intellectual defense systems and paradigms, and plus they're much more interesting." He came up with a scenario that begins like a mystery: A father takes three of his kids camping, but the youngest is kidnapped, and evidence that she's been murdered turns up in an old abandoned shack.
Fast-forward three years and the father, Mack, is angry, out of relationship with God, and going through what he calls The Great Sadness.
When a note in Mack's mailbox invites him to the shack where the bloody evidence was found, Mack thinks it might be from God, so he goes to the shack where all those conversations take place. Young wrote a first draft in four months, including one exceptional 8-hour day at home when he cranked out four chapters, including Chapter 15, which he never edited.
The writing poured out because of pain. Young says he built his own shack for 38 years: A shack is wherever "we get stuck. . . . We store our secrets there that we don't want anybody to know. All of our lies are there." In his case, "sexual abuse was probably the most fundamental building block of my shack." When he was a young child, he said, tribal people near his parents' missionary station abused him, and more abuse came at a boarding school.
Young says he became "a perfectionist performer with a persona that you present to the world covering up an ocean of shame." At age 38 he had an affair that nearly cost him his marriage. For the next 11 years he worked through his understanding of "the nature and character of God." By the end of 2004 he had come to "peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be"-a process he condensed to a weekend in the book.
Young admits the book isn't great literature, but when he sent electronic versions of his work-in-progress to a few friends and relatives for feedback, he started receiving emails asking if it would be possible to "share this with X, Y, or Z." He sent a copy to "the only for-real author I knew, Wayne Jacobsen," who with Brad Cummings hosts a podcast. Cummings and Jacobsen edited it, sent it to publishers, and upon rejection established a company to publish it, with Jacobsen handling the editorial side and Cummings the distribution.
During the 16 months between Christmas 2005 and publication in May 2007, Cummings and Jacobsen interviewed Young several times for their podcast. Listeners pre-ordered 1,000 copies of the book, but even with that response printing the first 11,000 copies was a risk: The men borrowed $15,000, according to Young, and thought that "in two years we might unload our copies."
They've unloaded many more, in part because The Shack's criticism of the institutional church resonates with many readers: Young says it "doesn't work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged. . . . If God is a loving God and there's grace in this world and it doesn't work for those of us who didn't get dealt a very good hand in the deck, then why are we doing this? . . . Legalism within Christian or religious circles doesn't work very well for people who are good at it. And I wasn't very good at it."
Young is no longer a member of a church, nor are his publishing partners, both former pastors. They are a part of a movement that rejects the institutional church, but Young says he doesn't feel "any need to try to yank people out of systems or be negative about them. His hostility, though, shows up in The Shack when Jesus says, "I don't create institutions; that's an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I'm not too big on religion . . . and not very fond of politics or economics either. . . . And why should I be? They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about."
Young often uses words like "edgy" and "outside the box" to describe his desire to shake up religious sensibilities, and one way he does that is by portraying the members of the Trinity in a way uncommon historically but inside the box of American popular culture, where white-suited Morgan Freeman and comedians George Burns and Jim Carrey have more recently played God. Young's God the Father is a heavy-set black woman called "Papa" who loves to cook. His Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who gardens.
Young says he portrayed Papa as a woman because "God is a spirit, neither male or female. Every use of a male image is just as inadequate as a female one." He also gives Papa scars from the crucifixion, saying, "There is no theological aberration at all to have the marks on God the Father. People want God and Jesus to be separated as though God is the Holy One and Jesus is the one who has to do the dirty work."
Young, who has quit his 9-to-5 job, also says that theological criticisms are overkill: "It's a work of fiction that's really focused on the journey of a human being to deal with the junk in his life that includes his misunderstanding of the character and nature of God."
That fiction may hit movie theaters, because sales have awakened Hollywood interest: Young says readers are suggesting actors such as Billy Bob Thornton for Mack and Oprah Winfrey or Queen Latifah to play "Papa."