A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) and Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian novels of all time and one of the very few books to receive the Diamond Award.
The Shack by William Paul Young
William Paul Young was born on May 11, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta (Canada). However, he spent most of his younger years in Netherlands New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries among the Dani, a stone-age people group. He later said, “These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.” When he was six he was sent to boarding school, but soon thereafter his family left the mission field and his father returned to Canada where he pastored a series of small churches. Later Young would tell how he suffered abuse both at the hands of tribespeople and at the hands of those at the boarding school—abuse that shaped and scarred him.
Young attended Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in religion. Shortly after his graduation he married his wife, Kim, and began seminary training while also working at a church. In the years that followed he held a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to janitorial.
When he was thirty-eight Young engaged in an extramarital affair. His marriage survived, but he was forced to think hard about who God is and what he expects of his people. He says that by 2004 he had come to a place of “peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be.” But even then he was in a difficult financial situation after a series of bad monetary decisions. In 2005 he was working three jobs and had lost his home.
It was in this context that Young decided to write about his evolving understanding of God in the form of a story, thinking it might be of interest to his children. He called it The Shack. After he sent the manuscript to his children, he began hearing from them and from others that he ought to consider publishing his work. He forwarded a copy to Wayne Jacobsen who offered it to twenty-six different publishers. After the book was rejected by every one of those publishers, Jacobsen and his colleage Brad Cummings created Windblown Media and published it themselves. In 2007 they printed 11,000 copies. Little did they know that the book would go on to sell 20 million.
The Shack is a book that seeks to provide answers to the always timely question “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”. It is a tale that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before the story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a note from God (known in this story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to this shack for a time together. Though uncertain of what to expect, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the Godhead.
Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. Papa, whose actual name is Elousia (which is Greek for tenderness) appears in the form of a large, matronly African-American woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern descent while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu (Sanskrit for air or wind), a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent.
The reader learns that Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God so he can learn to deal with his Great Sadness—the overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the death of his daughter. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog. The majority of the dialog occurs as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally the author offers glimpses into their unique relationships with one another.
As the weekend progresses Mack participates in lengthy and impactful discussions with each member of the Trinity. Topics range from the cross to the Trinity and from forgiveness to free will. He finds his understanding of God and his relationship with God radically and irrevocably altered. His faith is dismantled piece by piece and then put back together. As the reader would expect, he leaves the cabin a changed man.
Sales & Lasting Impact
In 2008 The Shack surpassed one million copies sold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. By 2009 it had sold over 10 million copies and had achieved Diamond status. It will soon be awarded a double-diamond. Along the way Windblow Media sold the book’s rights to Hachette Book Group.
The Shack was widely criticized by conservative Christians based on a number of doctrinal concerns. Though it is fiction, it is fiction with a purpose—doctrine wrapped in narrative. Most critics focused on Young’s understanding of the Trinity and his understanding of what God accomplishes in salvation, even going so far as to suggest Young is outright heretical in some of what he teaches.
Young proves to have an inadequate and often-unbiblical understanding of the Trinity. While granting that the Trinity is a very difficult topic to understand and one that we cannot know fully, he often blurs the distinct persons of the Trinity along with their roles and their unique attributes. He even goes so far as to say that God submits to human beings. Al Mohler says, “The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being—or to all human beings—is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.”
Though the cross is central to the Bible and central to the Christian faith, it appears only sparingly in The Shack. A person who is unfamiliar with the Christian faith is unlikely to glean from it a biblical understanding of what the cross was for and what Jesus’ death accomplished. Nor would he understand how God saves us and what He saves us from. Of greater concern is a thread of universalism in which God states that “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.” Jesus says, “I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved.”
Since the Award
The success of The Shack propelled Young into the public eye. He was soon able to stop other work and focus on writing and public speaking. In 2010 Young appeared in the news when the Los Angeles Times reported that he was embroiled in a series of lawsuits between himself and the men behind Windblow Media; Young believed he was owed some $8 million. The case was eventually settled and dismissed. More recently, rumors have surfaced that Forest Whitacker will direct and star in a film adaptation of The Shack which will also star Oprah Winfrey (presumably playing the character of Papa). Young travels extensively and continues to write. In 2012 FaithWords published his second novel, Cross Roads.
Today Young lives in Happy Valley, Oregon with his wife and children. Notably, he and his co-publishers no longer attend church for, as he told WORLD magazine, “[The institutional church] doesn’t work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged.”
A Personal Perspective
I ignored The Shack for a time since I read very little fiction, but received many requests to review it and eventually did so. Many who read this site today first encountered it when they looked for a review of The Shack. I eventually expanded my concerns into a lengthy PDF document which was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and remains available today. The Shack remains a fascinating phenomenon which exposed just how hungry Christians are for an intimate, personal relationship with God; it is sad that Young’s answers were not more faithfully grounded in Scripture.