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Out of the wilderness
Surprise hit 'Shack' helps author heal himself and others
God is a plump African-American woman with a broad smile who knows Her way around the kitchen; Jesus is a Middle Eastern man sporting jeans and a tool belt; the third component to the trinity is a wiry-looking woman who "was maybe of northern Chinese or Nepalese or even Mongolian ethnicity" although it's difficult to tell because "she seemed to phase in and out of his vision."
A bare bones description of the plot to William Paul Young's novel, The Shack, sounds more like a Monty Python skit than a serious story. And after getting turned down by 26 different publishers, no novel could have seemed less destined for success. However, this little book is packing a huge wallop with millions of readers around the world, and sparking a great deal of controversy along the way. Some Christian theologians have attacked it as heresy. Others are singing its praises from the pulpit. It all makes Young, a former office manager and hotel night clerk from Gresham, Oregon, grin as broadly as his depiction of God does.
"One of the things I would love to ask one of these [detractors] is 'What exactly is it that you're afraid of?' " Young says during a call to a hotel room in Denver, where he's scheduled to do a book signing. "Are you afraid that we're going to start worshipping large black African-American women? Are you afraid people are going to stop reading Scripture or that they're going to mistake this book for Scripture? What part of 'fiction' do you not understand? Overall, I think the controversy is a great thing. I get a couple of hundred e-mails a day, saying this book has been a way for people to move deeper or back into a relationship with God. I really believe that this is something God has stirred up."
Mackenzie Philips, Young's protagonist in The Shack, has spent the past four years grieving the apparent murder of his youngest daughter, whose body has never been recovered. One cold winter day, he receives an invitation to return to the isolated shack where the girl's bloody dress was found. The invitation is from God, who chooses to manifest Him/Herself to Mack as a genial black woman. Over the course of a weekend, participating in a kind of spiritual therapy session/group retreat, Mack learns to rid himself of his Great Sadness and embrace God's grace and love through his conversations and experiences with the Holy Trinity.
The 54-year-old Young willingly discusses his own personal "shack." "The Shack is a metaphor; it's my soul. . . . It's where you store all your addictions, all your secrets in this house of shame. It's everything you don't want anybody else to know exists. And it's held together by lies. I had a thin veneer of perfectionism and performance covering up an ocean of shame."
It was a veneer that blew completely apart on January 4, 1994, when Young's wife, Kim, discovered he was having an affair with one of her best friends.
"All I had left was the shame," he recalls, "and I had to make a decision to either kill myself or face Kim. So I chose Kim. For the first two years, she beat the crap out of me, every dig, coming after me. The intensity of her fury, that angerthat drove me to the edge to feel every single piece of garbage in my history. Then it took another nine years to heal up. So that's 11 years of experiences that Mack gets in one weekend at the shack."
Initially, Young had no plans to write a book. Then Kim asked him, as a gift to their six children, to write down the lessons on spirituality and life he had come to believe in so stronglylessons that were very different from the ones he had learned from his rigid missionary parents or while he was studying theology.
"She said, 'Put in one place how you think, because you think outside the box and it's really wonderful.' I wanted to do a story because story has a way of communicating with the heart. I'm not thinking anybody else is gonna read this. So I can do whatever I want, try and communicate the things that are most intensely real and precious to me," he says.
When Young finished writing The Shack in 2005, he had 15 copies printed at Office Depot, which he gave as Christmas gifts to family members and several close friends. Soon those friends were asking if they could share the book with others, and Young began to believe his novel could have a larger audience. His pals Bobby Downes, Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings helped him rewrite the book. When no publishers were interested, Jacobsen and Cummings formed Windblown Media to publish The Shack themselves. Their first print run was 10,000 copies in May 2007, and after Young and the book were featured on a few podcasts, they managed to sell about 1,000 copies.
"So those 1,000 went out and in 10 days I'm getting e-mails from Australia and Africa and Ireland, and New Zealand and Canadapeople whose lives were getting royally messed with in a very good way through the book," Young says. Over the next six months, The Shack went through three printings almost solely through word of mouth. "We spent less than $300 on marketing and promotion through the first 1.2 million books. So anybody who hears about this almost always says, 'This has to be a God thing.' "
Windblown Media now has a cooperative agreement with Hachette Book Group, which makes things much easierYoung's son, Nicholas, doesn't have to take book orders or ship them out of a rented warehouse, for example. Hachette is also spearheading the campaign for a greater international market. The book's popularity continues to grow, with more than 4 million copies in print; The Shack has had the top spot on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list for most of the past six months.
Money from the book sales means Young no longer has to work three jobs to make ends meet. But the financial rewards mean less to him than the joy and insights many readers say The Shack has given them.
"What this book has given me is an ability to look from the outside into thousands of people's lives; people who are so hungry for authenticity of relationship that this book just blows open their hearts. All of a sudden I'm finding myself in a place with a platform that I never prayed for or asked for or thought about. And I'm comfortable because I didn't put me here. Every bit of this is the grace and the affection of God."
Rebecca Bain writes from her home in Nashville.