The controversy, though, also testifies to an evangelical America in flux. To a secular outsider, evangelicalism may look like a pious monolith. In fact, it is a broad and fractured mosaic. In recent years, an older corps of evangelical leaders—Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, et al.—began to fade out. A new generation, epitomized by Rick Warren but also including ambitious young strivers like Driscoll, is vying for the spotlight. Energetic upstart evangelicals, awkwardly lumped together as “the emergent church,” are founding congregations across the country; the average “emergent” website is indistinguishable from that of an indie-rock record label. Aesthetics aside, many young evangelicals feel the old ways just don’t work anymore.
“There’s a sense that something profound has ended,” says Michael Spencer, a self-described “post-evangelical” Kentuckian who writes the popular blog InternetMonk.com. “Something profoundly new is coming, and right now we’re in between. Many people feel like evangelicalism as it exists is a failing project,” he says. “I think a lot of evangelicals who read The Shack think, ‘Wow, this is the God I would prefer to believe in, rather than the God of the culture wars.’ They don’t feel like they’ve had a positive portrayal of God put forward for them, and for those people, reading this book gives them a moment where they can say, ‘Aha, there are other people who feel the same way.’”
While some of Young’s harshest critics among the clergy may well have the integrity of their parishioners’ souls at heart, it’s difficult not to think a degree of self-interest is involved as well. “A lot of this is about power and control,” Young says. “Doctrine, and the interpretation of doctrine, has become like property. We don’t live in a feudal system, where you build a wall around your castle. We’ve turned intellectual property—whether it’s your idea of the Trinity or whatever else—into the ground that we wall off and defend.”
“The thing they [people] want the most, community, is the hardest thing to create."
The millions of Christians reading The Shack obviously are not fleeing their churches or proclaiming themselves anarchists. In places like Whipple Creek, what seems to matter most is the book’s story of spiritual alienation and renewal—just a reiteration, after all, of the Christian belief that we’re all really, really screwed up but can find salvation in God.
Still, after decades of hearing about a God who wants them to ride into cultural battle against the forces of darkness, evangelicals find a different God in The Shack, one that, not to put it too lightly, mainly wants fellowship. “People are longing for communion,” says Metzger. “The thing they want the most, community, is the hardest thing to create. A lot of times, people see the Trinity as an abstract concept that’s best left alone…. What Young does is take that concept off the shelf and say that it is real, not abstract, and that God is involved in our lives.”
The Shack also constitutes a sort of secular miracle as a testament to American culture’s protean ability to renew itself by sweeping in characters from the fringe. As we drink our Starbucks tea, I can’t help asking Young where he thinks this all will lead. “I don’t see this as a ‘ministry,’” he says. “That kind of language, I don’t really like at all. I have no idea where it’s all going. I don’t want to spend today’s grace on imaginations that don’t exist. The way I see it, my whole life leads up to this conversation at Starbucks, and I’m fine with that. I used to know what God was up to, and I would spend a lot of time telling other people what that was. I don’t do that anymore.”