Understanding "The Shack"

a parable by William Paul Young

Commentary and review from Dwight Bain

Here's an analysis of "The Shack" as well as some brief reviews from USA Today and The New York Times, where the book has rocketed onto their best seller list with almost one million in print in just over a year. (Unheard of for a self-published title). Also below is the testimony of Paul Young, the author, which explains much of his orientation in writing a book like this one; which was almost an autobiography of his own healing journey from sexual abuse and adultery. The author spoke in the Orlando areas a few months back and I was able to hear and understand his heart and motivation to write this book. Knowing the author will always give you a better understanding of the intended message, and often will help you to understand why so many people are connecting to this little paperback book about getting past their secrets, shame and pain to really feeling free in a relationship with God as their "Papa".

The Shack:
by William Paul Young, 2007

Paul wrote this parable book at the urging of his wife for a Christmas gift for their 6 children, 12/05. Then copies from Kinko's were passed around between friends and family in 2006, and when not a single publisher, (Christian publishers thought it was too mystical, mainstream publishers though it too religious), would print the book, he shared it with two local pastors in Oregon, who created a publishing company specifically for this book. "Windblown Media", began in 2007 and pulled together $300 to market the book. It began selling by the tens of thousands via their website, www.theshackbook.com with almost a million copies in print in just over 18 months, shattering all records for a self-published title. The "Shack” had its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list It is No. 1 on Borders Group’s trade paperback fiction list, and at Barnes & Noble it has been No. 1 on the trade paperback list since May 2008. It is currently at #8 overall on Amazon.com in ranking of book sales out of the more than 2 million titles they carry on-line.

The title of the book is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”. The goal is to go to the shack to be healed from the secret shame or hurts from your past by seeing God in a new way. Young views his journey of emotional and spiritual healing vicariously through the main character of 'Mack'. In hearing the author’s testimony about his motivation to write the book, he describes that it actually took him over 11 years to find the emotional and spiritual healing that the character Mack experienced in the shack with God in just a few days.
Early in the story Mack's youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. Four years later he is called to visit the shack where his daughter was murdered by a note from God. He spends a weekend there with God in the flesh, envisioned by the author as a large African-American woman, who calls herself “Papa”; Jesus, appears as a plain Jewish workman; and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as Sarayu, a translucent Asian woman who floats like the wind. (Sarayu is from a Hindu word meaning the gentle wind that catches you by surprise to refresh you).
The book is a parable story written for his children, not theology, so it can’t be taken literally, but rather is designed to be understood on a more personal level. This way you can go to your own ‘shack’ to find the answers that only God could give you. Although Paul describes that he wrote it only to help his kids not carry the terrible emotional and spiritual baggage that he has shouldered all his life as a Preachers Kid and Missionary Kid, (Who grew up among a stone age tribal group of near cannibals, known as "The Dani", in New Guinea, near West Papua). He was first sexually molested at age 4 and then throughout childhood by the tribe and then by older boys, although he never told his parents at that time. He still has a broken relationship with his biological father, who is alive and a pastor in Canada still. Paul speaks openly of how painful it still is to carry that broken father relationship of abandonment which he believes may never be healed.
Part of the popularity of this book is likely from the controversy of how many people hate it, most likely because they are focused on the lack of systematic theology, which is intentional by the author; instead of focusing on his experience of healing from the past secrets and shame. Paul is a Bible college and Seminary graduate who worked on church as well as ministry staffs along with dozens of other jobs he has held through the decades to provide for his family of six kids. Despite the popularity of the book, he, his wife Kim and their young adult kids still live in a rented house in Oregon.
On a personal note, I enjoyed the book and thought it would help people with a wounded past most of all, while likely just offending people who haven't ever experienced horrible trauma or those who were deeply wounded, yet spend all their time desperately trying to cover it up with massive amounts of religious activity or just trying to act perfect. Oh yes, Papa is a large black woman, because in his childhood it was the large black women would rescue him, love him and be his safest place; while his own parents were so busy building a ministry that they left Paul to the mercy of a brutal culture. I've listened to his testimony via television interviews, on CD and read it in print and find this man to be sound in his faith and not driven by anything or trying to upset anyone’s belief system, rather trying to help them see God’s grace, healing and forgiveness in a new way. Basically he was a simple man who wrote a story as a Christmas gift to help his own children be at peace in their understanding of how much God loves them.
This book’s popularity has been supernatural because it is going into some amazing places around our world and challenging people about actively working through their own ‘shack’ of issues to experience a new level of peace with God. I hope this analysis is useful to equip you in understanding how to find a deeper walk with Christ than you’ve ever known and then to share that freedom with even more wounded people. That way you can help others to experience greater emotional and spiritual healing; and the remarkable freedom of spending time with God alone in the “Shack” and then coming out as a new person by God’s grace. -db
► Willie's Personal Testimony and Journey
We live in a world where ‘normal’ does not truly exist except as an idea or concept. For each of us, where and how we grew up plays a foundational role in our sense of ‘normal’, and only when we begin to experience the ‘bigness and diversity’ of the world are we tempted to evaluate our roots. I thought the way I grew up was ‘normal’ but I think most would probably agree that my history and journey have been a bit unusual.
I was the eldest of four, born May 11th, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, but the majority of my first decade was lived with my missionary parents in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea (West Papua), among the Dani, a technologically stone age tribal people. These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person. By the time I was flown away to boarding school at age 6, I was in most respects a white Dani.
In the middle of a school year, my family unexpectedly returned to the West. My father worked as a Pastor for a number of small churches in Western Canada and by the time I graduated, I had already attended thirteen different schools. I paid my way through Bible College working as a radio disc jockey, lifeguard and even a stint in the oil fields of northern Alberta. I spent one summer in the Philippines and another touring with a drama troupe before working in Washington D.C. at Fellowship House, an international guest house. Completing my undergraduate degree in Religion, I graduated summa cum laude from Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon. The following year, I met and married Kim Warren and for a time worked on staff at a large suburban church while attending seminary.
I have owned businesses and worked for others in diverse industries, from insurance to construction, venture capital companies to telecom, contract work to food processing; whatever was needed to help feed and house my growing family. I have always been a writer, whether songs, poetry, short stories or newsletters; never for public consumption but for friends and family. While I have extensively written for business, creating web content, business plans, white papers etc., The Shack was a story written for my six children, with no thought or intention to publish. It is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else that I am now an ‘author’.
Overall, I am a very simple guy; I have one wife, six kids, two daughter-in-laws and two grandkids on the way. I work as a general manager, janitor and inside sales guy for a friend who owns a small manufacturers rep company in Milwaukie, Oregon, and I live in a small rented house in Gresham, Oregon, that Kim has made into a marvelous home. My time is spent loving the people that are a part of my life. I am not connected, or a part, or a member of, or involved inside any sort of organization or movement anywhere. The truth is that I doubt anyone would want me. From my perspective that is a very positive thing… for both of us. I have lots of incredible friends, and now you are one of those. Oh yeah… and I wrote this book.
These are some of the facts of my life, but they don’t begin to tell the real story. That would take much more room than is available here. The journey has been both incredible and unbearable, a desperate grasping after grace and wholeness. These facts don’t tell you about the pain of trying to adjust to different cultures, of life losses that were almost too staggering to bear, of walking down railroad tracks at night in the middle of winter screaming into the windstorm, of living with an underlying volume of shame so deep and loud that it constantly threatened any sense of sanity, of dreams not only destroyed but obliterated by personal failure, of hope so tenuous that only the trigger seemed to offer a solution. These few facts also do not speak to the potency of love and forgiveness, the arduous road of reconciliation, the surprises of grace and community, of transformational healing and the unexpected emergence of joy. Facts alone might help you understand where a person has been, but often hide who they actually are.
The Shack will tell you much more about me than a few facts ever could. In some ways my life is partly revealed in both characters—Willie and Mack. But an author is always more. I hope that someday we can share a cup of coffee, or for me, an extra hot chai tea with soy. If that happens, and if you want, I will tell you a little more about the bigger story and you can tell me some of yours.
That about sums up my life. For me, everything is about Jesus and Father and the Holy Spirit, and relationships, and life is an adventure of faith lived one day at a time. Any aspirations, visions and dreams died a long time ago and I have absolutely no interest in resurrecting them (they would stink by now anyway). I have finally figured out that I have nothing to lose by living a life of faith. I know more joy every minute of every day than seems appropriate, but I love the wastefulness of my Papa’s grace and presence. For me, everything in my life that matters, is perfect! (source: author information, www.theshackbook.com)
► From The New York Times:
Christian Novel Is Surprise Best Seller
By MOTOKO RICH, New York Times
June 24, 2008
Eckhart Tolle may have Oprah Winfrey, but “The Shack” has people like Caleb Nowak. Skip to next paragraphMr. Nowak, a maintenance worker near Yakima, Wash., first bought a copy of “The Shack,” a slim paperback novel by an unknown author about a grieving father who meets God in the form of a jolly African-American woman, at a Borders bookstore in March. He was so taken by the story of redemption and God’s love that he promptly bought 10 more copies to give to family and friends.
“Everybody that I know has bought at least 10 copies,” Mr. Nowak said. “There’s definitely something about the book that makes people want to share it.”
Just over a year after it was originally published as a paperback, “The Shack” had its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list on June 8 and has stayed there ever since. It is No. 1 on Borders Group’s trade paperback fiction list, and at Barnes & Noble it has been No. 1 on the trade paperback list since the end of May, outselling even Mr. Tolle’s spiritual guide “A New Earth,” selected by Ms. Winfrey’s book club in January.
Sales have been fueled partly by a whiff of controversy. Some conservative Christian leaders and bloggers have attacked “The Shack” as heresy. The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, devoted most of a radio show to the book, calling it “deeply troubling” and asserting that it undermined orthodox Christianity. Others have said the book’s approach to theology is too breezy to be taken seriously.
Even people initially put off by the book’s characterization of God as a black woman were won over. “I was so stunned by the presentation of Papa that I couldn’t deal with it,” said Bill Ritchie, senior pastor of an 8,000-member nondenominational church in Vancouver, Wash., who recalled putting the book down at first. He eventually finished it and told his congregation that it was “one of the most remarkable books I’ve read in years.” Since early this year, his church has been buying copies to sell to members by the caseload.
Mr. Young, who is known as Paul, said he had written “The Shack” as a gift for his six children. The shack was a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain,” Mr. Young said in a telephone interview from the Phoenix airport on his way to a book reading. (source: www.NewYorkTimes.com)
► Web Reviewer from Great Britain
The Shack
I am sorry to say that I am rarely surprised by new Christian titles – it’s not that they aren’t good, but just that I get what I expect. Not so with ‘The Shack’. This is the best Christian novel I have ever read; an absolute heart wrenching page-turner. The Shack is a breath of fresh air for the Church.
The plot centres round Mack, a father distraught and depressed over the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter. Four years after the tragedy, he receives a note inviting him back to the shack where the crime was perpetrated. The author of the note is God.
Through beautifully-crafted encounters between the novel’s characters, Young deals with the hardest questions of the Christian faith: Where is God in suffering? Who is the Holy Trinity? And, how can we understand God’s justice and mercy? As a vicar and apologist I have longed to read something that not only makes rational sense but also resonates with the heart. Surely this is it.
I cried, I laughed, at points the theologian in me shouted, but ultimately my heart was enlarged by the awesome love of God. This book has increased my excitement about heaven, indeed it has revolutionized it. I can’t wait to eat pies with Papa! Read it and you will know what I mean.
High: Pretty much all of it. It’s one of those books that you want buy five copies of to hand out to friends. Low: Should have been longer.
Reviewed by Rev Will Van Der Hart, co-director of Mind and Soul (www.mindandsoul.info) and associate vicar of St Mary’s, Bryanston Sq, London.
► From USA Today
Aim at 'spiritually interested' sparks 'The Shack' sales
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY 5-1-08

A little novel written by an Oregon salesman and self-published by two former pastors with a $300 marketing budget is lighting up USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list with a wrenching parable about God's grace.
First-time author William P. Young's book The Shack, in which the father of a murdered child encounters God the Father as a sarcastic black woman, Jesus as a Middle Eastern laborer and the Holy Spirit as an Asian girl, is No. 8 on the list.
Aimed at the "spiritually interested," the novel had an inauspicious start, says co-publisher Brad Cummings, who is still shipping books from the garage of his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and nearby mini-warehouses. Young says that when he wrote the book in 2005, "my only goal was to get copied and bound at Kinko's in time for Christmas as a gift to my kids."
Until The Shack sales soared, he was a manufacturer's representative for a technology company by day and did website design work on the side. But he had always been a writer, he says, who gave poems and stories as gifts.
He wrote the book to explain his own harrowing journey through pain and misery to "light, love and transformation" in God to his six children, ages 14 to 27.
Eleven years ago, Young says, he was hanging on by a thread, haunted by his history as a victim of sexual abuse, by his own adulterous affair, by a life of shame and pain, all stuffed deep in his psyche. "The shack" was what he called the ugly place inside where everything awful was hidden away. The book is about confronting evil and stripping the darkness away to reveal a loving God within, he says.
Why are so many heading for The Shack? "People are not necessarily concerned with how orthodox the theology is. People are into the story and how the book strikes them emotionally," Garrett says.

► Endorsements for “The Shack”

When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!
Eugene Peterson, Professor Emeritus Of Spiritual Theology,Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.

The Shack is a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God. Through my tears and cheers, I have been indeed transformed by the tender mercy with which William Paul Young opened the veil that too often separated me from God and from myself. With every page, the complicated do’s and don’t that distort a relationship into a religion were washed away as I understood Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for the first time in my life. -Patrick M. Roddy, Emmy Award Winning Producer of ABC News

Riveting, with twists that defy your expectations while teaching powerful theological lessons without patronizing. I was crying by page 100. You cannot read it without your heart becoming involved. - Gayle E. Erwin, Author The Jesus Style

Finally! A guy-meets-god novel that has literary integrity and spiritual daring. The Shack cuts through the clichés of both religion and bad writing to reveal something compelling and beautiful about life’s integral dance with the divine. This story reads like a prayer—like the best kinds of prayer, filled with sweat and wonder and transparency and surprise. When I read it, I felt like I was fellowshipping with God. If you read one work of fiction this year, let this be it. -Mike Morrell, Zoecarnate.com

Don’t miss this! If there’s a better book out there capturing god’s engaging nature and his ability to crawl into our darkest nightmare with his love, light and healing, I’ve not seen it. For the most ardent believer or newest spiritual seeker, the shack is a must-read.- Wayne Jacobsen, author of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore

An exceptional piece of writing that ushers you directly into the heart and nature of god in the midst of agonizing human suffering. This amazing story will challenge you to consider the person and the plan of god in more expansive terms than you may have ever dreamed. -David Gregory, author of Dinner with a Perfect Stranger

The path to God is paved with questions—sometimes frightening and deeply painful ones. While reading The Shack I realized the questions unfolding in this captivating novel were questions I was carrying deep within me. True freedom is born from facing those things we feel we don’t have the courage or strength to face. The beauty of this book is not that it supplies the reader with easy answers to grueling questions, but that it invites you to come in close to a God of mercy and love, in whom we find hope and healing.- Jim Palmer, author of Divine Nobodies
For more about “The Shack” visit http://www.theshackbook.com/

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