Thinking Out Loud About "The Shack"

I've never read The Shack, the self-published novel by William Paul Young that has now sold 2.7 million copies and topped the NYT Bestseller List since June. I've avoided reading "The Shack" the way I avoided "Blue Like Jazz" for years, the way I'm still avoiding "The Passion of the Christ" - and for many of the same reasons.

First, I detest fads, especially Christian fads. Though this doesn't really apply to viral hits like "The Shack" and "Blue Like Jazz," marketing departments have become so adept at generating buzz that I distrust talk about "the next big thing."

Second, I am offended by petty controversies. The first stories I heard about "Blue Like Jazz" inevitably had something to do with drinking and smoking: about how wasn't it cool that Donald Miller talked so casually about drinking and smoking; or, wasn't it terrible that Donald Miller spoke so casually about drinking and smoking. When I finally did read "Jazz" in 2006 I realized, predictably, that all the focus on the scandalous smoking and drinking was conveniently obscuring the rather inconvenient message of the book: that Jesus is relevant to where I am, right now.

We shouldn't have the time or energy to get hung up on trivialities like whether or not it's heretical that William Young chose to portray God the Father in "The Shack" as an African-American woman. We are certainly missing larger points. What are they? Shouldn't we be discussing and debating things that are actually, you know, important?

Third, I don't know what to do with Christian books and movies that have "followers" rather than just readers and viewers. From my perspective, and in this sense only, devotees of "The Passion" are the worst. Wearing nails around their necks, they are almost breathless in their insistence that "The Passion" will change my life. If you don't mind, I'm not that interested in seeing - let alone having my life changed by - a movie which seems to have at its core a kind of fascist belief in the redemptive qualities of violence.

Eventually, though, I always relent. Always. I read "Blue Like Jazz." (And would I be on this blog if I didn't think the book was as good as so many people said?) I read as much of "Purpose Driven Life" as I could handle. I'll even see "The Passion." (And if I'm wrong about the fascist thing, I'll come back on this blog and admit it.)

I recently started to listening to this great new show called Think Out Loud, which airs every morning at 9 a.m. on Oregon NPR stations. It's kind of like NPR's Talk of the Nation or the BBC's World, Have Your Say, but with a special focus on Northwest issues. On Friday's episode of Think Out Loud, entitled Relationships and Religion, the host Emily Harris interviewed Young about "The Shack." (Young lives in Gresham, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.) I knew a little about the humble origins of the book (written for his kids, at the suggestion of his wife, and published by a pastor friend). But I was enormously impressed by Young's own humility in the interview. He talked with candor about the three-month affair with his wife's best friend that initiated the spiritual journey which eventually informed the book. He was genuinely surprised that the book has been able to impact the lives of so many people, always deferring credit to God. He was also kind to callers who basically suggested that his book was leading good people astray.

I decided to read "The Shack" after listening to that interview. Not because everyone's talking about the book. Not because I'm terribly interested in the questions of orthodoxy and heresy surrounding the book. I'm going to read "The Shack" because the author sounds like a guy who has something to say that I might need to hear.

Jordan Green thinks so. Here's how he ended his review of the book in a November 2007 issue of the BWC:
“The Shack” has the potential to change the Church dramatically, and not because Young has crafted a water-tight case of apologetics or vividly described the End Times. The impact of this book is based solely on the relationship between you and me…all of us…and the God we follow. In that intimacy, the larger questions and problems just melt away.

Some of you may be thinking that my reflexive distrust of Christian cultural phenomena like "The Shack," "Blue Like Jazz," and "The Passion" means that I'm always going to be late to the party, so to speak. You're right. But at this point I'm just thankful that I showed up at all.

Update: One of my favorite parts of the interview is when Harris played a clip of Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill in Seattle, criticizing "The Shack" (he hadn't read it at the time) for making a graven of image of God by representing God the Father as an African-American woman. (Driscoll video on YouTube.) Young was gracious in his response, saying, in part: "There's an element of fiction that scares people because it actually creates space, like any art does. And that's the beauty of art, that it opens up space for people to bring their lives into it." Young goes on to contrast the power of art with "a specific theological pursuit or presentation," which tends to reduce space by saying "I want you to think exactly like me."


  1. I also listened to that interview, and ended up being significantly late to work because I was fascinated by Paul Young. I was really impressed by the host's questions to those who called in to object to Young's theology.

    I read The Shack a few months ago on a trip to Africa, and I was challenged to imagine the depths that my relationship with God really could go to.

  2. I met Paul Young a while ago before leaving Portland, and I can tell you he's that open immediately upon meeting you. It's pretty shocking, really.

  3. You're right, Leisha. Emily Harris, the host, asked some amazing questions.

    Something I should have mentioned in my post: MP3 archives of the past week's shows are available on the OPB site but they were difficult for me to find. The show is available as a podcast, too.

  4. /sarcasm

    Thanks John. Now I have to go buy this book so I can read it & seem as hip & cool as the rest of you folks.

    /end sarcasm

    Seriously though, I always appreciate your book/media reviews because they force me to stand outside my own thoughts & ideas on a subject and look at what might have missed along the way.

    Also, I firmly stand beside you as having never seen Gibson's Passion of the Christ either. Granted, having worked in a Christian book/gift store for years, I'm sold my fair share of copies of the movie & associated crappy merchandise, but I've never seen the actual flick.

  5. I felt the same way about picking up "The Shack" for awhile. My assumption is generally that anything popular is going to disappoint or offend, and the hype surrounding "The Shack" seemed to overwhelm whether it was any good or not. However, Mark Driscoll calling the book heretical was the tipping point for me grabbing a copy at Target the other day. If a book makes him that upset, to the point of dedicating a sermon to lambasting the author (instead of say, preaching the gospel), it must be worth reading.

  6. A friend of mine from Portland suggested this book months ago, but our library didn't get it until just recently. By the time I got a hold of it, I had heard so much "buzz" about it that I was a little leery myself.

    However, after finishing it, I appreciate it for what it is: an allegory that inspired me to rethink my relationship with God. period. I had not read anything about it before, so I didn't even know there was something I was supposed to see as "controversial". It's called fiction for a reason. That being said, I would recommend the book to anyone, believer or not, who wants to see God in a different light.

  7. I was just reminded of Pilgrim's Progress. I wonder if John Bunyan got blasted this hard for his spiritual allegory...

  8. Hi John!

    It is a beautiful book, that had me crying over and over again. I do better with allergories. Hannah Hurrand's hinds feet for high places was one of my favorite books to put into perspective the emotional aspect of loving jesus, and what that means. ( i fall into the trap of becoming more cerebral with my relationship with god sometimes, and forgetting that it is really a true relationship- i think getting married has helped with this.)

    Anyway....The shack is like that too, and I really hope you enjoy it. I wish I had heard the npr interview by Young. I know his transparent love of jesus really touched jordan.

    hugs in phoenix.

  9. i've blogged a review about the shack and some other thoughts associated with the book and the author, and as jordan has pointed out, paul young is genuine and disarming from the second you meet him.

    (scan my blog for shack stories under the labeled categories. i've done enough shack related posts that i finally created a shack label!)

    I thought Emily Harris was amazing as well. Her questions were thoughtful and unscripted. She truly paid attention and drew out from her guests on the spot. A very talented interviewer.

    Cool blog digs, you guys. I'm adding you to my google reader...

  10. This book took off long before it became a fad. I'm glad it's selling so well, but I almost hate to see it reach this level. Now people are going to come out of the woodwork with their critiques, warnings, and (no offense) claims to be cool for not having read it.

    As for me, I bought a case late last Fall (for Christmas presents) before most people had heard of it. I listen to Wayne Jacobsen's podcasts at thegodjourney.com so I'd been following the book's progress for over a year.

    It's just a book. It's not the greatest piece of literature ever to grace the English language, but that doesn't matter. It speaks with uncommon insight about the love of God and what that might be like in reality.

    The book fit perfectly into my own journey these past few years of discovering (and rediscovering) the wonder and reality of God's love and what that means for how I live in this world.