A God who looks like Aunt Jemima
And a Trinity to match: it's only one reason for a Canadian book's phenomenal success
BRIAN BETHUNE | August 20, 2008 |
Unlike many a secular observer, William Young is at no loss to explain the staggering success of his novel: "Clearly, it's a God thing," he says cheerfully during a phone interview. Who's to gainsay him? There is a deep foundation underneath The Shack: a moving story rooted in a childhood betrayed. And Young did bring literary talent and a nimble theological mind to bear in hammering its sturdy frame together. Yet even that hardly seems enough to account for the 1.5 million copies sold (a tenth of them in Canada), the two months at No. 1 on the New York Times Trade Fiction bestseller list, the viscerally positive response among Christian laity even as prominent clergy denounce it as heretical. If The Shack phenomenon is not an act of God in a Christian sense, then it's surely one in an insurance company's — an unforeseen bolt from the blue.
The main character, Mack, is a man who, years after his five-year-old daughter, Missy, is murdered, finds a note in his mailbox — a note from God — inviting him to a get-together in the wilderness shack where Missy died. Mack is a believer; his faith in God's goodness has vanished, but not his belief in God's existence. He goes, and is greeted at the shack door by God, in the form of a plump, middle-aged black woman incongruously known as Papa. Mack soon meets the rest of an offbeat Holy Trinity: Jesus, a Middle Eastern-looking guy with a big nose, generally covered in sawdust; and the Holy Spirit, an Asian woman who calls herself Sarayu. Together they heal him, over a weekend marked by intricate (yet highly readable) theological dialogue, plot twists and tears. And a lot of laughter — Jesus likes to crack jokes about his nose — for a story that tackles Christianity's most intractable issue: the problem of evil, how a loving God could allow what happened to Missy.
In one way, comedy in a story that casts God the Father in the guise of Aunt Jemima is only to be expected. But for most of his life, Young had little to laugh about. He is Mack, from their common age (53) and rural Oregon homes, to the six kids each fathered. With one big difference: none of Young's children are dead. His "shame, hopelessness and suicidal impulses" came by a different road.
A Canadian raised from birth by his missionary parents in Dutch New Guinea, Young was sexually abused by some of the people his parents preached to, as he was again back home, at a Christian boarding school. Young drifted through life as an adult, buoyed a little by his faith and a lot by his wife, Kim, keeping his secrets and building his shack: "the place we make to hide all our crap," he calls it. Until, at 38, he found himself at the nadir. "I had a three-month affair with one of my wife's best friends. That was it, that just blew my careful little religious world apart. I either had to get on my knees and deal with my wife's pain and anger or kill myself."
So Young went inside his shack for the first time, beginning an 11-year odyssey to restore his relationships with Kim, with God and with the rest of humankind. He came out in 2004 transformed and ready to talk. "I have no secrets anymore. Kim and I believe we are made sick by the secrets we keep." Young wrote his tale as a novel, with a print run of 15 copies "from the local Kinko's," for family and friends. But they made copies and passed them around, and soon people he didn't know were asking about possible publication. Easier said than done, Young laughs. "The faith-based publishers all claimed it was too edgy," and the mainstream ones "thought it was too Jesus-y." So two pastor friends founded Windblown Media, a one-title publishing firm, in May 2007, and sold 11,000 copies from a garage within four months. Fuelled by word-of-mouth, The Shack express was on its way.
Young has been slammed by preachers for any number of heresies, especially his broad hint that at Judgment Day, as the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich put it, "all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." That's a direct challenge to strains of Christian thought that foresee Jesus coming to cast most of humanity into the fiery pit. But ordinary Christians haven't been deterred. Some, sick of religious strictures that seem to them to separate rather than unite people, actually find the antipathy of organized faith a positive sign. Emotional postings to Windblown's website praise Young's compassion, his emphasis on loving relationships, his shattering of what one called "the shackles of religiosity." For Young, those are the readers who understand him best: "I know what religion can and can't do, and it can't heal you."