Reviews > Books

Commuter-driven bestseller

"Commuter-driven bestseller" Continued...

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

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."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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