ON A WARM SUNDAY NIGHT at the end of summer, a squadron of cheerful greeters welcomes visitors to Whipple Creek Church’s weekly “Coffeehouse,” where parishioners are invited to hobnob with visiting Christian authors, orators, and musicians.
The congregation, in Vancouver, Washington, usually holds the event out in its lobby—near the little espresso bar, naturally—but on this night the main sanctuary is nearly full, the crowd singing along with the anodyne praise-pop of two guitarists and a djembe player.
Then the pastor jumps up. With his spiky hair and Abercrombie-casual style, he sports evangelicalism’s semiofficial Hip Young Pastor uniform. “How many of you have read a book called The Shack?” he asks. Out of a crowd of about 300, all but a few people raise their hands, but most, in fact, hold copies of The Shack in their laps.
Waiting nearby, the book’s author, Paul Young, looks like any other white guy in his 50s with a gray, receding buzz cut, but when he takes the stage he transforms into part comedian, part inspirational speaker: He talks about his cell phone ringing at embarrassing moments but also about how the family of a deceased 15-year-old boy handed out copies of The Shack at the funeral, with the teenager’s handprint inside. From the start, Young commands reverent attention: nodding heads, ready laughter, an entirely receptive audience.
Lately, his life has been all about audience. He’s had speaking engagements in Canada, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, California, Tennessee, and Brazil; his work has been covered by Today, The 700 Club, the New York Times, Radio Free Europe, and, of course, Christianity Today. Not bad for a man who as recently as February was working three jobs, one of which involved cleaning toilets. A few years before that, he was just another suburbanoid riding the MAX light-rail into downtown from Gresham, 40 minutes each way, scribbling obscure, complicated thoughts on the nature of God and the meaning of faith—the big stuff—on yellow legal pads.
Those commuter jottings turned into The Shack, a slim little novel, basically self-published, that went big. An estimated 3.8 million copies are in print; it’s a New York Times best seller and a top-10 seller on Amazon.com, at Wal-Mart, and, a cultural cosmos away, at Powell’s City of Books. A Brazilian edition in Portuguese just blew through 30,000 copies in a week, and the Spanish translation should hit U.S. shelves before Christmas.
Readers don’t just like Young’s book; they claim it’s rearranging their lives, turning them on to Jesus in a whole new way. In person and in thousands of e-mails, fans tell Young the most amazing things. They say The Shack kept them from committing suicide. They say the book allowed them to deal with childhood sexual abuse for the first time. Dying people want the book read at their funerals. And now, here at Whipple Creek Church is the never-before-published father of six who created the controversial story featuring a serial killer, a mysterious shack in the woods, and the Holy Trinity conjured as a large African American woman, a hot Middle Eastern carpenter, and a sylphlike woman of indeterminate Asian origin. Here was the man, once rejected by just about every publisher in the business, whose book has hit a vein of spiritual yearning no one knew even existed.
“For me, the idea of the shack is a metaphor,” Young tells the people of Whipple Creek. “It’s the place where you store your addictions and secrets—a structure held together with lies. I was in my own shack for 11 years.”
And if that sounds heavy, he hasn’t even gotten to the part about the cannibals.