Last fall, publishers came crawling back. The book is now being distributed by Hachette Book Group, one of the world’s largest publishing conglomerates. (The Shack trio declines to get into details of the arrangement, except to describe it as a “profit-sharing co-venture” that also involves Jacobsen’s most recent books and future titles they will develop and Hachette will publish.)

Much of the enthusiasm the book is riding owes to the raw emotion of its story: the wrenching loss that Mack—Young’s allegorical stand-in—faces, and that, with God’s help, he is ultimately able to accept. “It gives people an understanding of God that’s lacking in most traditional forums,” says Joanne Petrie, a local hospice chaplain who started giving The Shack to terminal patients before it was widely available in stores. “The people I give the book to in my professional work are searching. I mean, they’re dying. They want to know, is there something of real meaning out there? This book gives them that.”

Yet not everyone is so enraptured.

As Young gets rolling on the stage at Whipple Creek, he feels like there’s something he needs to get straight. “The only road to Father’s embrace is through Jesus,” he says through a fuzz-prone headset mic. “Are we clear? Because there’s a rumor out there that I don’t believe that.”

"I grieve over the fact that this book seems so edgy to evangelicals, because I think God is actually even edgier than this book.”

Not long after the emotional testimonials and laudatory reader reviews started appearing, virulent criticism also surfaced, some of it in easy-to-ignore form: blog screeds that Young’s kids read for amusement, and sniping e-mails Young either deletes or answers with accounts from people who say The Shack changed their lives. But some very loud and influential evangelical voices condemn the book—in language that, to a secular ear, evokes mobs gathering with pitchforks and torches just outside the village.

Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon who became an evangelical icon through his prison-ministry work, accuses Young of holding “a low view of scripture.” From the pulpit of Horizon Christian Fellowship, a San Diego-area megachurch with thousands of members, pastor Bob Botsford condemned The Shack as a spiritual distortion “even more deceptive than yoga.” Mark Driscoll, a pastor at Seattle’s Mars Hill Church (a wildly successful ministry that fuses a punk-rock vibe with archconservative theology) recently devoted an eight-minute YouTube blast to The Shack. In the video, Driscoll, whose sermons circulate widely on the Internet, performs his signature verbal kumite: “If you haven’t [read it], don’t. Christians are going nuts on this book … Christians are freaking out. ‘We love it! This is amazing! Now we understand the Trinity!’ No, you don’t … It’s actually heretical.”

Driscoll then repeats the same indictments leveled by The Shack’s other critics. He accuses Young of creating graven images by depicting God and the Holy Spirit in physical form. He accuses Young of paganism, goddess worship, and modalism, a denial of the Trinity that dates to the chaotic early days of Christianity. For a Christian, this is pretty serious stuff, just the kind of thing the Inquisition took keen interest in back in the day.

That a 246-page novel can inspire this level of passion and outrage says something about evangelicalism’s tolerance for metaphor—or the lack thereof. “Evangelicals, in general, don’t read a lot of Steinbeck,” says Paul Louis Metzger, an evangelical theologian at Portland’s Multnomah Biblical Seminary who writes about both the Trinity and evangelicalism’s relationship with mainstream culture. “We might read Christian romances. We might read C.S. Lewis. But we often have a hard time with metaphor, and I think people are stopping short and looking at this book on the most superficial level. It’s a lack of literary imagination, really. I grieve over the fact that this book seems so edgy to evangelicals, because I think God is actually even edgier than this book.”