Category Archives: The Shack

How We May Finally Recover Ourselves

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

– T. S. Eliot

 

The life of faith is a rescue mission, I thought, listening to our pastor preach on the woman at the well in yesterday’s sermon.

He explained how she wasn’t necessarily promiscuous, since marriage was more a matter of survival in those days, and men could often die early. Her excitement in running to share with her neighbors isn’t likely to have come from being shamed by Jesus for having five husbands, but probably from having her pain and fear so clearly understood.

The living water Jesus really offered, I thought, is the recovery of our life.

As I sat in church yesterday furiously taking notes, it felt like one of those holy download moments where you just know you’re getting a peek through the curtain at the secret to life. I’ve had these a few times in life and they always seem to come at very inconvenient moments. This time, at least I wasn’t driving or in the middle of conversation. And these good, older Presbyterians would probably forgive me for being disrespectful and taking out my phone to capture the thought during the sermon.

I thought about the book I have to finish before I go on vacation next week, a book that’s all about recovering our lost self, the purer one undiminished by so much fear and pain. And I realized that’s the core idea that has made The Shack so successful as well. And really, One Thousand Giftsand How We Loveand so many of my favorite memoirs, novels, and nonfiction guides too:

They’re all rescue missions about a person in search of a thing we’ve all lost along the way.

It was a revelatory moment! Are most books at their heart about this very thing? I wondered.

When I got home, I picked up another book, A Faith of Our Own by Jonathan Merritt. He begins by sharing a quote from Goethe’s Faust:

“That which you have received as heritage, now rediscover for yourself and thus you will make it your own.”

Okay. I think I got it, God. Paying attention now.

You know those times when you sense everything has been leading up to this moment? Yeah. It was one of those times. Jonathan wrote that this is the journey his faith has taken. I think, This is the journey I’ve taken as well….

And maybe it isn’t just with faith and with books. I start to realize I’ve also experienced this same sense of recovery with Sheri, my wife, falling in love and feeling known and somehow re-connected because of her. And it was like that with my first love, writing, too.

Could it be? In love, in faith, in art, in writing, in life the goal may not necessarily be to become ourselves more, but to recover ourselves more?

And in doing so, maybe we do become more ourselves. But in faith, in romance, and in writing–that is to say, the three most influential things in my life right now–the fire may be less in discovering what I never knew and much more in rediscovering what’s been lost.

It’s the resonance–a connection struck with something buried or forgotten–that draws, woos, and delights us. Something inside longs to reconnect with a spirit that is somehow not us but beyond us, some vestige of a place we’ve seen before–even lived in–but hardly remember in everyday life.

We’re seeking to recover that sense of home.

Don’t we all seek this same recovery of home, of unity with ourselves, with God? Like Nicodemus, we’re confused, frustrated by the difficulty: how does one return to the womb?

Jesus said we’re to become as little children again. Similarly, Julia Cameron’s world-famous training for artists and writers, The Artist’s Way, originally described the work as:  “A Guide to Recovering the Creative Self.”  And anyone in love knows the sensation is like something in you feels known, reunited with itself again.

Recovering is the real work of this journey. 

There’s this great word: agency. It’s the capacity to exert power, and it’s used to express the amount of power someone has to help themselves. I believe a lack of agency is the biggest reason most people suffer, and the most misunderstood concept by those who have it. It’s easy to forget others don’t have much agency when we do. When we have it, we tend to think others around us do too. And we’re prone to judge and think they should just use their agency to improve their situation. But if it were that easy, simply exerting power, wouldn’t more people be doing it already?

Maybe higher purpose writers seek the recovery of agency because we’re acutely aware of this universal ambition to recover what’s been lost. Maybe we’ve felt that fear of losing what matters most to us. Maybe we fear we’ve even lost it. Certainly we know others have. And we’ve experienced the thrill of remembering and recovering personal agency from another writer who saw into our deepest heart and spoke hope, comfort, and we recovered our determination.

Accepting others instead of excluding them is the message of Jesus to everyone he encounters. Think of it. Who are you excluding?

Don’t you feel that longing to be reunited with them, free of any exclusion?

Before you write today, close your eyes and imagine them being inspired to go on and write books to inspire others to recover their capacity to exert power over their situations, a power drawn from the Source of Love so great that He gives His power to anyone who asks.

Especially those who feel too lost to be recovered….

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Interview with The Shack original publisher and collaborator, Wayne Jacobsen

For over a year now, people have been asking me what I think of The Shack. Mostly, I’m fascinated by how it’s gotten people talking—believers and regular folks, liberals and conservatives, long-time Christians and the disenfranchised. And it hasn’t even gone to mass market paperback yet (update: it now has). As a result of it all, The Shack is the little, unassuming book that continues to sit atop the bestseller lists and create controversy.

No denying it’s a fairly unusual book. Even with all its visibility, it’s difficult to call it a sensation. At first glance, most everything about it—from the book’s style, to its author, to the way in which it was published—looks fairly commonplace. Yet its unusual success story belies the unusualness beneath the pages.

I admit I was predisposed to give the book my usual surface treatment and be done with it. But as I started reading, I realized I couldn’t dismiss it so easily. In fact, I had to finish it, not just to see what all the fuss was about, but to experience something I rarely get to—a transporting experience. I read with increasing excitement and emotion. Something momentous seemed to be hidden between the pages.

So once I finished, I decided I needed to know the truth about all the rumors and accusations I’d heard. So I contacted Wayne Jacobsen, the man William P. Young claims largely inspired him to pursue publishing the book. Wayne is a writer whose own work has taken on what passes for Christianity in mainstream culture, targeting what Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” that exists between the mainstream Christian book houses and the general market.

That’s significant background because I’m convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group some call the “post-religious,” spiritually-curious, but tired of the typical packaging of church programs and Christian culture. How to reach this elusive audience has been a subject I’ve studied and debated for years, but I believe the larger story around The Shack provides the best case study to date.

Coming from outside both Christian and general markets, it has succeeded in transcending the categories to define a hunger for God the typical Christian fare so often fails to fill.

—–In June 2008, I caught up with Wayne—–

Me: I understand The Shack went through some fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?

Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young, writer), Brad (Cummings, Windblown Media), and I worked for about 16 months bringing out the more dramatic elements, the essence of the story, and cutting back on some of the more theologically loaded or simply curious elements. Through the restructuring, we wanted to be as faithful to Paul’s original idea as possible. The natural result of putting the story first was that the book catches the interest of a spiritually hungry reading public. By allowing the books’ statements about God to be experienced organically as story rather than as propositional truths or systematic theology, The Shack has resonated with a diverse audience, building bridges between all sorts of people.

Me: What did you see in the original manuscript of The Shack that made you feel you should commit to 16 months of work to it?

Wayne: We actually did a podcast with Paul on this where I talked about that very thing.

Me: I’ll include the link (“A Visit to The Shack“). Was it ever difficult to remain committed to it during that time, especially given your many involvements?

Wayne: It wasn’t a commitment at the outset, but I felt he had a great book here and Paul wasn’t motivated to do the rewrites we thought needed to be done. At one point the three of us and Bobby Downes of Downes Brothers Entertainment sat down to storyboard the movie and suggest changes in the book. Even with that, Paul wanted me to help. Eventually, I felt a nudge from the Spirit to do so and rewrote a chapter to show him what I was talking about. Then I did another, and then Brad got involved and it started to grab him, so we kept going. At one point each of us had written a version of the chapter with Sophie in the cave, and we just put them all together and kept the stuff we agreed on. A lot of it was like that. Paul was so generous with his gift, and I was using Paul’s words and working to keep it his vision. I’d never done that as an editor—I’d always just been a writer—so the commitment was more something that evolved relationally.

Me: How many people in Christian publishing—authors, agents, and editors—have contacted you about working with Windblown?

Using a garage as a warehouse, William P. Young, left, author of The Shack, helps publishers Brad Cummings, center, and Wayne Jacobsen pack books for shipping. CREDIT: Rachelle Hanshaw

Wayne: Oh, more than I can count now. Christian publishing people want to do it. The Shack is hitting the middle ground, but transcending it—church people, Jewish people, the spiritually curious, etc.—all having the conversations as it relates to their spiritual interests. It doesn’t necessarily identify that middle ground because it’s more diverse than that. It’s the reality of Paul’s pain and how he deals with it. It’s more an experience not a theology thing. Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice and they won’t follow a stranger.” We don’t have to take on the mentality of gatekeepers. The push-back from the religious Taliban is that they’re making it about “them and us”–like there’s those who are in and those who are out. But that isn’t what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to serve, not to be served

Me: One of the most exciting things about The Shack to me is that it provides hope to so many people who haven’t been served in the Christian mainstream for whatever reason. This “spiritually interested”  audience is not only receptive, but seems to be responding to the idea that God is even more loving and boldly relational than we tend to think, that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. Do you see a parallel here to how Jesus used parables that were offensive to the religious establishment he was denouncing?

Wayne: People are definitely trying to defame and marginalize the message. This argument about feminizing God, for instance. The book explains very clearly that God shows up as a black woman because that’s the image that puts Mack at ease. God could have shown up as whatever he wanted, but the people who say he can’t be a black woman don’t seem to accept that. There are also some people saying it’s promoting universalism, that all paths lead to God. Even though Jesus says very clearly and repeatedly that he’s the only way, the detractors want to insist that Paul really meant something else.

For too long there’s been a fear of offending the establishment. Publishing people don’t love the books they’re publishing. Our publishing The Shack was never about being commercial or pleasing people. It was meant to be honest and truthful, to find passionate readers who were looking for this. We want to do books that resonate with people’s hearts. It was never intended to be the full orthodoxy of the gospel, whatever we may have believed that to mean.

Me: That’s a really important point. When people talk about “biblical orthodoxy” what they’re really talking about is a bunch of different historical traditions of interpretation of a bunch of theological concepts that really have very little to do with the uninterpreted Bible. The concept is deceptive and notoriously divisive in the ways it’s applied. And I guess when you put words in God’s mouth and have him saying things that sound a little too out of the box…

Wayne: You get whacked! Yeah. People say they believe in things all the time, but they really don’t. Some Christians don’t believe in the Incarnation—the in-dwelling spirit of God in everyone who believes. And it isn’t that they don’t want to believe, they’ve just never experienced it. And I think it’s sad that so many can’t allow themselves to have that experience. But those who want to explore that and experience it shouldn’t be judged for it.

Me: Well said. It seems to me a big difference between those who embrace The Shack and those who denounce it are divided between understanding faith as an intellectual construct based in the interpretation of theological concepts, and faith as an experience of these things–one is mental, the other physical. And certainly we need a balance there, but how can faith be experienced if the familiar barriers of judgment and condemnation are always there? Do you think this is why there are so many disillusioned Christians and “spiritually interested” folks not finding much in mainstream Christian publishing?

Wayne: I’m sure that’s part of it. There are many reasons. Publishing is slow, expensive, and risky. But it’s pretty difficult to keep true to the edge–of actually living out these theological concepts–while you’re worried about offending the mainstream.

Me: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I’m not the only one who’s grateful for the opportunity to explore these ideas more.

Wayne: My pleasure, Mick. Thank you.

Note: Since first published in 2007, The Shack has garnered much acclaim and controversy and has gone on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. And despite being denounced as heresy, the movie releases March 3rd, 2017. 

[Please feel free to leave a kind, intelligent comment–all others will be denied, like CNN at a Trump press conference.]

The Value of Suffering

“As a boy, I’d learned that it’s the Latin, and maybe a Greek, word for ‘suffering’ that gives rise to our word ‘passion.’ Etymologically, the opposite of suffering is, therefore, ‘apathy’; the Passion of the Christ, say, is a reminder, even a proof, that suffering is something that a few high souls embrace to try to lessen the pains of others. Passion with the plight of others makes for ‘compassion.‘”

I just read this article at NYT and I need to discuss it. It seems to me the value of suffering is largely in what you do with it afterwards. Those who are suffering horribly (or recently) may feel little of value in the experience. I’m not suffering much currently, nor have I experienced much in the way of real tragedy. I will. And soon. But regardless, several people I know are suffering and live with it every day.

So I’m getting existential this week and wondering how do you find the courage to move on and embrace laughter again after having faced such undeniable tragedy at the core of life?

Many of my favorite authors have tried answering this with their books and even their lives. And I’ve read several who are pretty convincing. But there’s no “solution” is there? So many of my favorite books are all about this “work” of finding the ability to play again after suffering tried to convince them life could not amuse them. Ever. Again.

How could they forget or betray the truth they now knew?

Also: “Wise men in every tradition tell us that suffering brings clarity, illumination; for the Buddha, suffering is the first rule of life, and insofar as some of it arises from our own wrongheadedness — our cherishing of self — we have the cure for it within. Thus in certain cases, suffering may be an effect, as well as a cause, of taking ourselves too seriously.”

This deserves some further thought. So since it seems to be the deeper side of this morning’s Momo on “Pursuing Nothing,” I thought someone might be willing to check out the article and think about what this has for you in your life and your own book project.

Don’t feel obligated to be serious and somber, though it’s pretty much the default setting for this topic. I’m hoping for some discussion about books that are honest and fearless about the struggle for joy and laughter in the midst of pain and suffering…because to me, that’s all that makes sense to be reading and writing about. It’s just too much work otherwise.

How can we play when people are dying? 

Looking forward to exploring this more with you all this week…

The Power of Critique

So critique groups. Good or bad?

It's like asking if publishing is good or if a book is good. Of course the answer's yes and no. Like everything else. It always depends on the people in them.

And just like everything else, what you get out of them is largely dependent on what you bring to them. Know someone who didn't like The Shack? Maybe their theology caused them to bring something different to it than someone without that filter. The same people are now angry at Rob Bell for Love Wins even though it's nothing Don Miller didn't say before, a little differently, maybe less pointedly in Blue Like Jazz.

But after I experienced disillusionment as a 19-year-old kid, I wondered if disappointment with God is a universal, that necessary moment when your eyes open and your innocence falls away and you know that God is not always going to save you from the worst attrocities life may bring. Everyone gets to learn this eventually. Even believers and the faithful. Life happens. And the point is to recognize that even still, God is always good.

So I believe it's a "writer fundamental" that what I'm able to bring to my writing is largely dependent on my willingness to accept that life will bring pain. And this is not bad, not to be fought off, but embraced as the gift it is. Fear of pain is instinctual, elemental–those who deny it, deny the very thrust of existence. But facing the fear of that pain, peacefully but forcefully, is at least one essential benefit a good critique group can offer.

This week, I'm working with one of my favorite future authors who's writing a genre western romance (what? That's not strange–one of my favorite books is Redeeming Love. Okay, maybe it's strange). I've encouraged her to trust her abilities, to let herself feel the fear of failure and to courageously believe in her inevitable success anyway. At the OCCWF conference a couple weeks ago, author Simon Tolkien claimed that a big part of his grandfather's success was because he had spent years studying language–words, their meanings and origins–and this allowed him to know how his characters spoke and how that defined them. 

I'd argue that this is what every author has to do–study words, learn, and respect that training. And a good critique group encourages a healthy respect for the symbols of words, their meanings, listening for where your "translation" is inaccurate or not revelatory enough.

Does this involve fear? Yes. But can you face it with courage?

Some authors discredit critiques, which is understandable. It's nearly impossible to find a good group that understands what critiques are and consistently applies their full attention and effort to it. It's often hopelessly idealistic to believe you can find an honest, dedicated, knowledgable group of writers who can regularly meet to thoroughly discuss your work. Especially within 30 miles of you.

Maybe they don't have to be within 30 miles.

A professional editor knows how to fix the things that need fixing. And a good critique group can point those things out. Where it's slow, redundant, and even not fully developed yet, a critiquer who's well-read, knows you, and appreciates the process of writing (through having done it themselves and having read the best books on craft) is worth a fortune. Professional agents are good readers as well, though until you've risen in stature a bit, you won't likely be told what isn't working. You need someone you can trust, who gets both what you're trying to do and what you need to do to pull it off and get peple talking. This could cost you a bit out of pocket. But that's why I started YWG and it's proving that just like a great book, what's truly valuable doesn't have to cost what it's really worth. Is it worth it to you? I don't know. It's not perfect and there's work involved. But I do think it's worth it to check it out–there's no charge to read the critiques.

Pro authors know early feedback is the best "promotional" money you can spend. But what can't a good critique do? It can't replace the need for a copy editor who will look for grammar mistakes, misspellings, wrong words, weak constructions, inconsistent elements like Suzy being 9 on page 4 and 12 on page 37. Critique groups shouldn't waste time on the minor things until the big things have been addressed. So authors, do not skip this step or you will suffer the consequences. If you're a good student of language, you'll save money when it comes time to hire a copyeditor. 

But just like the earlier stages, this one can be painful. It's hard to give up the pieces of ourselves that are holding us back. We fight for our ignorance and call it personality, style, artistic license. Most often, it's plain prideful stupidity. Sure, readers will accept your incomplete sentences. Even love them. But respect the refinement process. It's not just making your book better, it's making you better as well. And that's the big point.

The artist who demands he has nothing to learn soon finds he has nothing to say.

A powerful critique group is about growth, a shared journey of trust, fear, empathy, hope, and faith. It's powerful because it's built on relationships over rules, on embracing acceptance and peace amidst the striving for what's better. I have been in a few of them in my lifetime, and I can promise you the people you learn to write with will remain lifelong friends.

It's about being your vulnerable, wart-covered self and finding it accepted and improved. And as a bonus, you get to discover the true meaning of gratitude.

One of my critique partners, Rob Stennett has a book releasing today called Homemade Haunting. (I know. I'm a lucky dude.) Rob is a one-of-a-kind genius with character comedy and this time he mixed it into a thriller and asked "If evil is real, what happens when someone doesn't have the only true weapon against it?" If you think it was easy to blend comedy with such a serious subject, you're dreaming. But Rob figured it out and critiques played a hand in that. I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you if you asked. Anyway, get the book (it's only $10), read it and ask yourself how many people it really takes to finish a great book.

Editor to Author: Letter to a Memoir Writer

Dearest Author,

I've been thinking about worth lately.

What's your story worth?

At a recent writers conference I taught a workshop on how I saw publishing changing. Modern publishing, the only time in history when we've had separate "markets" for books, has begun to fracture and redistribute. I've shared several times about how The Shack has shifted things. It isn't just a book, of course, it's a bridge. And those bridges are inevitable because it isn't only spiritual people or Christians who recognize God as creator.  

Blue Like Jazz came well before it and created connections between the Christian and secular markets. Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God made some connection points before that, similar to how Eat, Pray, Love did more recently, from the other side of the spiritual divide. Several spiritual/worldly, secular/sacred books have become best-sellers as bridges in the long history of such books since the beginning of print, and some people have traced this line back to the best-selling book of all time: The Bible.

The Secret. The Purpose-Driven Life. The Alchemist. The Celestine Prophesy. The Late Great Planet Earth. Pilgrim's Progress. Books you've never heard of have sold over 30 million copies: Steps to Christ by Ellen White, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, late-19th century Congregational minister and advocate of the ever-intriguing idea of "Christian socialism." Even Nikolai Tesla wrote about his life a true spiritual man and world-renouned scientist in My Inventions. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy by Dante, written in 1304, has "sold" more than anyone knows and we have no idea how it or any of these books have changed readers and the history of spiritual thought, becoming seeds for the trees of countless theologies.

But of course, we know this is what books are–seeds. And this is what they do: define life and defy death.

"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So this story that's a part of you, that is you, that defines your work and all of your effort and sacrifices to share it completely (or as completely as possible) for others to use–what's it really worth?

Don't answer. You can't. Simply try to see the fullness of the question clearly. Continue on…

Do you know where your worth is really found?

Yes, in God's ownership of the life and love he's created you to embody (1 John 4:7-12). His ownership, creating, protecting, guiding and infusing of his great, unchanging spirit into us. He dies that we might live (parents always understand this principle). And we die that others might live through our sacrifices. This is the daily work of writing.

Do you know what that is really worth?

Intimately known and held, seen and heard and helped in every way, this knowledge is invaluable, isn't it? We can talk of worth and value, and shift our understanding of that from copies sold to readers influenced, but it's the knowledge a reader will have by the end of your story that makes what you're doing truly valuable. And this understanding of how God fills us and dies for us is the greatest wisdom, the most valuable in the world. And if you are practicing that, that makes what you're doing invaluable.

I want to give you, as a witness of your discovery of that unchanging love, my invaluable opinion on it, my affirmation that you've been seen and heard and that what you've written down is completely worthy. And with your assurance that it's been well established and others will see it and respond, you can continue, knowing it's incredible and invaluable. 

So do you see what your story is really worth?

Because there's no true price tag you can put on it. There's no proper estimating the value of my work, my seeing it, or others' receiving it either. It's in-valuable. We have to simply trust together that whatever comes of it is just a small piece of its fullest value as a seed for God to use, and not at all connected to the worth of what you've written, or what I've done to help. I know you've sacrificed and given for your story, and I've been brought into the processing of it, but regardless of how it will be published and the realities of our modern marketplace, you must know:

What's your story really worth?

I remain your solid co-laborer in the process of delivering these invaluable words. Never assign its worth to money, public perception, publication, or anything else. Your heart is here, and that's established and it's something you have written definitively, and just as we have agreed together at the outset here, others will when they read it.

We don't know how it will all play out. But I'm on your side and not looking for specific outcomes big or small. Don't think in terms of what's "fair," but decide you will pay with your life what's necessary to give to this project. What you give is directly proportional to what that seed will be able to produce in readers. And in terms of return and profit, I believe Cohelo is right: the universe will conspire in our favor.

So what's your story really worth?

 

Your Loving Editor,

Mick