Paul Young might still be the façade guy—arrogant and, in his own mind, living a lie—if he hadn’t cheated on his wife. But he did, and the affair (with one of Kim’s best friends) came to light in 1994. In lieu of strangling her husband (“I hated him for a while,” she says), Kim insisted that he figure out a new way to be himself. “She saved my life,” Young says now. “And she didn’t do it by doing the submissive-Christian-woman thing. She came at me with every ounce of fury she had.”
This marked the beginning of an 11-year spiritual crisis that combined intense soul-searching, reading, and out-of-the-box thinking on life and faith. (It also coincided with a financial meltdown that left him and Kim bankrupt in Boring.) Young’s personal reboot removed him from the mainstream evangelicalism he’d known as a child and propelled him to his own idiosyncratic (to others), authentic (to Young) understanding of what Jesus is all about.
“I had always said that if he ever had an affair, I would leave,” Kim says. “And I would have left—not even having six kids would have kept me in that marriage—if he hadn’t been so truly repentant. I could tell what was going on in him was real. And that’s the only reason I stayed.”
Eventually, she suggested that he write it all down.
?A?ll those notes Young scribbled on yellow legal pads eventually added up to hundreds of pages. Before Christmas 2005, he started pulling these stray threads together into a story—a gift for his six children, a sample of Dad’s mind in written form. He executed the first print run of 15 copies at an Office Depot in Gresham, and gave it to family members and a few friends.
A few weeks later he sent a copy to a California author named Wayne Jacobsen, himself something of an evangelical iconoclast whose best-known book is So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. Jacobsen read Young’s manuscript and found it worthy of more attention.
Young demurred at first. “He said he had no publishing aspirations for it,” Jacobsen recalls. “He wrote it for his kids, and he was done with it.” Jacobsen talked Young into revising the book with him and, eventually, with Brad Cummings—like Jacobsen an ex-pastor turned freelance Christian thinker. For 16 months, the three rewrote The Shack together, to the extent that Jacobsen and Cummings are credited beneath Young on the title page. “We really crawled into the thing,” Cummings says. “At one point, I think we had three different Chapter 11s, and we each thought ours was the best.”
After failing to find a publisher, Young and his partners decided to distribute The Shack themselves. In spring 2007, they printed 10,000 copies and sent out 1,000 to listeners of Jacobsen and Cummings’s podcast, TheGodJourney.com (motto: “an ever-expanding conversation of those thinking outside the box of organized religion”).
“Within 10 days, I’m getting e-mails from all over the world,” Young says. “I get an e-mail with a photo of a roadside memorial in Edmonton, where a father and his 3-year-old daughter were killed by an 18-wheeler when they went out for ice cream. The memorial has a copy of The Shack bungee-corded to it. People are suddenly buying 5 books, 10 books, whole cases of books. And we’re not doing anything—our marketing budget at this point amounts to about $200. Then we’re out of books completely, and with great trepidation, we order another 20,000 copies.”
In news-media terms, The Shack went viral.