Why We Love The Shack
How a self-published novel that envisions God as a zaftig African-American woman has sold millions of copies.
The Shack, the story of a sad-sack Oregonian who meets God, was self-published by William P. Young in the spring of 2007. A year later, it had sold about 1 million copies. An excess of 10 million copies are in print today, and—strangely, in a marketplace where most successes have a bottle rocket's flight path—nothing, so far, has dropped back to Earth. As of this writing, The Shack has spent 105 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and ranks ahead of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and Sarah Palin's Going Rogue on Amazon. It dominated this spring's list of the Kindle's most-often-highlighted passages. If you happen to be seeking proof of divine intervention in the publishing business—which, by the way, could use it—there is little reason to look far beyond the raised-type, high-gloss cover of William P. Young's bizarre debut.
The Shack's success is puzzling in part because it is a book of puzzling intent. The novel's subject is faith in God, but it is written as if to a reader who has little interest in religion. And although it is a Christian book, its author does not seem to follow any church. Young was "born a Canadian," as his back-flap copy puts it, and grew up the child of missionaries in New Guinea. (He says he was the first white child to speak Dani, the language of the highlands tribe.) He got through college and a seminary and then worked a string of clerical and service jobs. He went bankrupt in 2003 and lost his house. Two years later, at 50, he started The Shack. When every publisher turned down the bookin its current form, Young and some friends founded their own firm, Windblown Media, to fill what they considered "a big hole" in publishing: Although there were "religious" books and "secular" books, they thought, there were no titles in the middle ground, no "spiritual" novels that cast God as a path to happiness without serving up dogma. The Shack is just that book, and its success proves not how much this country loves religion but how far from mainstream faith the nation's aspirations have shifted.
The Shack begins: "Who wouldn't be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?" The 253 pages that follow are an effort to break past that skepticism—gently—and to show you, spiritually lost reader, that the Lord Almighty God is real, and in your life, and the best friend you will ever have. Along the way, Young's book also puts forth a theory of the universe, including but not limited to "the quantum stuff that is going on at a subatomic level." It is worth noting that Tolstoy took more pages to accomplish quite a good deal less.
The Shack is to narrative form roughly what the Leatherman Multi-Tool is to pliers. It is an allegory. It is an as-told-to-the-author fiction after Roth or Vonnegut. It is a Christmas Carol-esque tale of redemption—and a serial-assassin thriller. It's a grief memoir. The book is narrated by Young himself (aka "Willie"), and it centers on his fictional friend Mackenzie Allen Phillips ("Mack"). Life has been hard on Mack of late. A mad child-killer kidnapped his young daughter on a camping trip a few years back. He and his wife, Nan ("Her full name is Nannette"), were hopeful at first but came to fear the worst when the girl's bloody dress turned up in a remote shack. Since then, Mack has borne an ineffable weight, a feeling he refers to as The Great Sadness (italics not mine). He distrusts God. One cold evening, a mysterious note appears in his mailbox. "It's been a while. I've missed you," the note says. "I'll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together." Mack thinks at first the invitation is a trap laid by his daughter's killer. Then he thinks—who wouldn't?—it is a communiqué from God. (If you, like me, thought it was an allusion to the B-52s, you'll probably want to take a moment to recalibrate your apparatus before reading on.)
In the novel's second act, Mack drives out to the benighted shack. At first, he sees nothing unusual; then all at once "a sudden rush of warm air" flows behind him, and he turns to find the wintry landscape gone, and it is spring, and "the scent of blooms began to fill the air, not just the drifting aroma of wild mountain flowers but the richness of roses and orchids and other exotic fragrances found in more tropical climes." Abruptly, the door of the shack, transfigured into a log cabin, swings open, and Mack is face-to-face with God—"a large beaming African-American woman."
Well, why not? But Mack is completely flabbergasted. "Instinctively, he jumped back," Young writes. The woman's presence exercises strange effects on his ontology. ("Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by the scent emanating from her," runs a typical description, "and it shook him.") The big, beaming God-the-Father woman turns out to be the shack's "housekeeper and cook." She steps aside so Mack can meet Jesus, a man "who appeared Middle Eastern." He's "a laborer." Rounding out the divine posse is the Holy Spirit, who appears as "a small, distinctively Asian woman." Mack assumes—correctly—she's "a groundskeeper or gardener."
Young's mode through this doctrinal groundwork-laying is vaguely Platonic, and it suffers from the contrived conversations of the Dialogues' least inspired moments. (On the Trinity: "Are there more of you?" Mack asks. " 'No, Mackensie,' chuckled the black woman. 'We is all that you get.' ") The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost work one-by-one to draw Mack back into the fold: God père feeds him with her home cooking—her food is delicious, we learn, but tends to give mortals "the trots"—while the Spirit leads him to the garden to help dig a hole. The Middle-Eastern-Looking Man Who Is the Christ takes Mack stargazing. Beneath the glories of the dome, Mack and the Son of God enjoy a charming tête-à-tête:
"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.