If it's Tuesday, it must be Knoxville. Or maybe it's Houston or Amarillo. William (Paul) Young has been on the road so long, he can't be sure. Six months ago Young was working three jobs to pay the rent on his small house near Portland, Ore. Now, with 3.8 million copies of his Christian novel "The Shack" in print, Young is being hailed as a theological innovator, his book the "Pilgrim's Progress" of the 21st century. His controversial message is one that, evidently, a lot of people want to hear. "I don't like religion," he says. "I think Jesus is about relationships."
At the request of his wife, Kim, in 2005 Young wrote an account of his own faith crisis, which was 11 years long and triggered by his three-month affair with Kim's best friend. He had no intention of publishing it, he says. He gave it to his children for Christmas and sent it to some friends to see what they thought. Two of those friends—one a Christian author—saw in the book some commercial potential, and together the three men collaborated on a revision. When "The Shack" was finished, no publisher wanted it, so they paid with credit cards to print 10,000 copies themselves. By April, they had sold more than a million books. Unable to keep pace with demand, they signed with a commercial distributor. Then came the news stories and TV appearances. Save for his wedding anniversary, Young, 53, has no plans to be home before Christmas; he's too busy talking to church groups and booksellers.
In "The Shack," a man named Mack, grieving over the murder of his daughter, is called by God to the scene of the crime. There he meets—there is no delicate way of putting this—the Trinity. The Father is an African-American woman named Papa who likes to cook. Jesus is a Jewish man wearing a carpenter's belt. The Holy Spirit is an elusive Asian woman named Sarayu. Together, over a long weekend, these characters force Mack to face his anger and his emptiness. Mack eats delicious feasts; with Jesus, he takes a walk on the water. Finally, God convinces Mack of his deep and everlasting love. "I don't create institutions," says Jesus in "The Shack." "Never have, never will."
Some orthodox Christians are calling "The Shack" heresy. On his radio program in April, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it was "subversive" and "incoherent." Concerned that "The Shack" might adversely influence readers, LifeWay Christian Stores, the Southern Baptist Convention's bookstore chain, in June pulled "The Shack" off shelves to review its theology. Two weeks later the books were for sale again, this time with a warning label that says READ WITH DISCRETION. A LifeWay spokeswoman says she expects "The Shack" to be high on its best-seller list for August.
The conceit is unorthodox, the writing hokey and the theology infuriating to conservatives—so why is "The Shack" such a phenomenon? The answer is in its emotional message of the transforming power of God's love. Don Zimmermann is pastor of a small evangelical church in Phoenix; he leads a "Shack" discussion group every week in his living room. "Most people live unloved," he says. "They were raised not knowing that anyone loved them or cared about them. This book is changing their relationships with their families, at work, everywhere." The book's message comes out of Young's own early experiences with Christianity. Raised in New Guinea by strict Protestant missionaries in a region called "Cannibal Valley," Young was taught to fear a God who was punishing and perfect. "For those of us who are damaged, there's no hope in that at all," he says. "The Shack," a personal story of redemption, has redeemed Young financially, as well. He has moved from his small rental to a bigger one and can expect even more blessings when he publishes his "Shack" study guide next year.