A few days before his appearance at Whipple Creek, I meet Paul Young at a Starbucks at Gresham Station, a pleasantly sterile complex of big-box retailers near his home.
Young— The Shack’s cover identifies him by his full name, William P. Young, but everyone calls him Paul—stands up from a corner table. Taking my outstretched hand, he pulls me into a big, manly bear hug, which surprises me given that we’ve never met. I later learn that he does that with just about everyone. Young is self-effacing to a degree that might be seen as Zen-like in a less devoutly Christian type. “It’s all just so goofy,” he tells me as he sips at a big, frothy Frappuccino. “It’s God’s cosmic joke, that’s for sure. Seriously, it has nothing to do with me. When I see some of what God is doing with this book, I’m happy just to be a part of it.”
In conversation, Young can veer from down-home humor to philosophical thought to earnest, disarming piety, all within a couple of sentences. This is also a fair approximation of his writing style in The Shack. When Christian publishers first saw Young’s manuscript, about two years ago, they told him it was too weird. Secular publishers found it far too … Jesus-y. Both reactions are completely understandable. Not many mainstream novels feature the personages of the Holy Trinity as major characters. Not many Christian books include epigrams from anarchist philosophers.
The Shack is part old-time religion, part New Age spiritual healing. It’s profoundly Christian, but sharply critical of organized religion.
Briefly, The Shack goes like this: A young man named Mack runs away from home, poisoning his drunken, abusive father’s liquor on his way out. Decades later, Mack is leading a conventional family life in the suburbs of Portland. During a camping trip in Eastern Oregon, a notorious serial killer kidnaps Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy. When her bloodied dress is found in a remote shack, Mack slides into a long depression he calls the Great Sadness. A few years later, he receives a mysterious note inviting him to the shack. It’s signed “Papa,” Mack’s wife’s nickname for God. Mack goes to the shack and finds God (“Papa”) in the form of a large African American woman with a deft touch in the kitchen, where she’s cooking up a pot of stewed greens. Jesus Christ, the carpenter, is also there, as is the Holy Spirit, the aforementioned sylph.
As one might expect, Mack finds hanging out with the Trinity quite a trip. He suffers a digestive complaint after eating too many of Papa’s greens. He walks across a pond with Jesus. He sees Missy in Heaven. But most of his three-day encounter with the all-powerful threesome is consumed by a long series of complex theological discussions. Mack grapples with free will, suffering, the existence of evil, church hierarchy, the nature of the Triune God, and more. Young crams a major theological problem onto just about every page.
Small wonder no publisher could see the book’s niche. The Shack is part old-time religion, part New Age spiritual healing. It’s profoundly Christian, but sharply critical of organized religion: Young’s Jesus describes religion (and politics and economics) as part of “the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.” The depiction of God as a black woman (some readers have suggested Queen Latifah should play the role in a movie adaptation) strikes many Christians as a fairly radical move. Young tells me, “My mother got to the point where Papa walks through the door and she closed the book, called my sister, and said, ‘Your brother is a heretic.’”