Why We Love The Shack
How a self-published novel that envisions God as a zaftig African-American woman has sold millions of copies.
"I am surprised by one thing about you."
"I guess I expected you to be more," be careful here, Mack, "uh … well, humanly striking."
Jesus chuckled. "Humanly striking? You mean handsome." Now he was laughing.
"Well, I was trying to avoid that, but yes. Somehow I thought you'd be the ideal man, you know, athletic and overwhelmingly good looking."
"It's my nose, isn't it?"
Mack didn't know what to say.
Jesus laughed. "I am Jewish, you know."
What a mensch. Eventually, Jesus melts Mack's frozen heart, and Mack realizes "how much he had come to love this man, this man who was also God." His journey of the spirit, though, has only just begun.
Theologically speaking, there is something for everybody in The Shack, but mostly in the sense that there is something for everybody in a meatloaf. The book takes what it can from several systems of belief and bakes them together into a doctrinally unidentifiable mush. The novel is down on organized religion as a rule. Young is at times a biblical literalist—Adam and Eve really ate the fruit—and at other times a sort of teddy-bear deist, the best bud of a cool creator-dude who lets stuff happen as it will. Like many before him, he has difficulty reconciling the vengeful God of the Old Testament to the A.D. Lord who "cannot act apart from love." He solves the flavor clash by tossing every spice at hand into the mix. The Lord inveighs at one point against "the will to power and independence," which he further describes as "the human paradigm" and, shortly thereafter, as "the matrix; a diabolical scheme in which you are hopelessly trapped even while completely unaware of its existence." If God rings you in a phone booth, say your prayers and bring a pair of shades.
One comes away with the impression that William P. Young's theology makes sense mostly to William P. Young. This is, we learn, part of the point. In an afterword—sorry, "After Words"—and addendum detailing The Shack's genesis, Young explains that the inkling for the book came from his wife, Kim, who told him, "The way you think about things is a little unusual and it would be wonderful for the kids to have some of that in writing." TheShack has lots of some of that. In a world where pulp and genre fiction often seems to have been written by committee, Young's aesthetics are winsomely quirky and raw; reading the book is less like entering a church and more like entering somebody's sock drawer. There are chapter titles that have clearly never known the cruelties of red ink ("A Piece of π") and epigraphs that seem to have come direct from Young's nightstand to you (sources: Oswald Chambers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Buckminster Fuller, Marilynne Robinson, Jean Jacques Rousseau [sic], David Wilcox, others). There are also, placed into the mouths of various characters, tangents in praise of public figures Young admires—Bill Moyer (sic), for instance, or the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. The Lord, we learn, is a gigantic fan of Bruce Cockburn.
This rough-hewn, handmade quality is probably what's earned The Shack its fans. America often gets lampooned as a nation of Jesus freaks, but it's even more a country caught up in the never-ending search for authenticity. Young's too-weird-for-the-pulpit thoughts about how Adam's rib and the female uterus form a "circle of relationship" have the appeal of knobby heirloom-produce in a world where much religion arrives vacuum-packed. His theories—how to believe in Adam while supporting particle-physics research; why the Lord is OK with your preference for lewd funk more than staid church music—accomplish what mainstream faiths tend to fail at: connecting recondite doctrine to the tastes, rhythms, and mores of modern life. The Shack's wild success doesn't reveal how Bible-thumpy this country is. It shows how alienated from religion we've become. And though the novel, as a novel, is a sinner's distance from perfection, it's an eloquent reminder that, for those who give some faith and effort to the writing craft, there is, even today, the chance to touch and heal enough strangers to work a little miracle.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.