Category Archives: The Shack

What does The Shack really mean?

It’s hard to think of a book as significant for religious publishing in recent times as The Shack. I believe a good portion of its success comes from the spiritual hunger that the public face of Christianity has forced so many believers to accept and endure. Many people believe the true cause of Christ and his love has been relegated to the background. Others—including some strong Christians—don’t always see that. But in The Shack, the love and acceptance of God comes back to bear on our human failings, answering not only our personal shortcomings, but our corporate ones as well, as part of this fractured and frustrated movement created in his name.

What most people love about it is what some people hate: it’s a deceptive little nut of a book. One of the things you notice in reading The Shack is that it’s open to interpretation. Much like the Bible. You can read it and interpret it differently by your own emphases and background. That was apparently intentional. Part of the revision process was removing any overt messages that might have taken over the story and made it into a theological argument rather than an engaging experience. The power of this book is certainly due in part to this intentional commitment. Fiction is by nature relational, not propositional, and just as grace is not a theological argument when it’s experienced in relationship, coming to The Shack as a story is intended to be incarnational truth, beyond arguments and words on a page. And however you feel about the writing itself, a lot of people are getting it.

To me, what’s most significant about The Shack is that it is meeting this great hunger for an authentic experience of God’s love, sans Christian “answers.” Many Christians believe they have all the answers and end up building pens around themselves and others, focusing on doctrine and orthodoxy instead of the real point. How many people have been looking for a book to say what they’ve been thinking for so long? How many feel vindicated by a book that points out the failure of church programs to replace personal relationship, that shows the inadequacy of “hating the sin, but loving the sinner,” and that portrays the real, humble love of God that’s bigger than any orthodoxy, right or wrong, or doctrinal superiority. How many have been waiting to hear the truth of God’s love in a way that doesn’t condemn them for it?

Some famous Christian detractors have said that The Shack is not serious enough about how we think of and worship God, one even going so far as to say that we should be “overcome with despair at our own unworthiness before God.” Overcome with despair? Really? And fretting over the too-familiar portrayal of the Trinity in the book, it is not appropriately high enough for The Godhead. Interestingly, the argument takes the same issue those who defend The Shack take: both believe the other side misses the truth of who God is, making real relationship impossible.

As an editor, what I struggle with is the fact that we live in an incredibly diverse world full of different audiences for the almost 400,000 books produced every year. Would those who encountered the truth of God’s love for the first time in The Shack ever have done so without it? I believe that unless you live in an isolated, primarily-Christian environment, you can’t make statements that relegate The Shack to “unnecessary.” In one sense, of course it’s unnecessary. God doesn’t need a fictional story to get his message across. The better question is, Is it of God? Is God using it? And if so, am I in danger of opposing God by speaking out against it? Setting the record straight about differences in theological interpretation is one thing. But to dismiss the book because you quibble with a few points of interpretation? That’s treading dangerously close to the sin of the Pharisees. And I won’t even start with those who condemn it without even having read it.

I’m not trying to defend The Shack. Or maybe, not only The Shack. All creative fiction about God is subject to the possibilities of story. No question, God is not who our creative imaginations make him to be. And yet, it’s only through imagination that some people can even begin to conceive of a God who loves so recklessly, so inappropriately, so unGodlike. At what cost do we hold to our interpretations of creative works? Is it our job to ensure that everyone interprets it “correctly?” Or do we trust love to overrule our limitations and indeed all restrictions on it but the one of our own acceptance? In this light, The Shack poses the ultimate question: Can we accept this inconceivable love or must we build barriers and intellectualizations around it? Any of that is ultimately our own choice to bring to the art, or leave off. As a story, the Bible requires interpretation. Does God’s love transcend the mistakes we make on the way to deeper understanding? And can we ignore the lessons of history when it comes to Christians demanding exclusionary control on orthodox beliefs and the damage that has caused?

I think of the kindergartener in the familiar illustration. He’s coloring and his teacher points out that he can’t really draw God because “No one knows what God looks like.” And the boy goes on drawing. “They will in a minute.”

The boy, the artist, can draw anything. He believes, reaching beyond his limitations. And God will accept him, suffering the little children to come, where his fathers saw only planks and stones.

Interview with Wayne Jacobsen, publisher of The Shack

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. 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 as common as dirt. 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. The possibility of something momentous seemed to be opening up between the lines.

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 the book. Wayne’s own book, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is a fictional speculation about what would happen if a disillusioned pastor began getting advice from a modern-day apostle who knew the true Jesus. It skewers much of the same religious baggage Young deliberately sought to unburden himself of in his book, and targets readers Jacobsen calls the “missing middle” who exist between the mainstream Christian book houses and North American publishing. That's significant background because I'm convinced this is one of the biggest and most under-served readerships worldwide: the group I call the "post-religious." How to reach this elusive audience is the subject of much study and debate, but The Shack provides what I think is the best case study to date. Beginning outside both ABA and CBA and succeeding, at the very least, it testifies to the hunger for something beyond the typical Christian fare.

YWG: I understand The Shack underwent fairly extensive revisions and rewriting. Can you talk about that?

Wayne: Yeah. Paul (Young), Brad (Cummings) 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.

YWG: 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.

YWG: 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.

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

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

YWG: 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 responding to the truth that God is loving and boldly relational. And the implications—of the message of the book, and the reception it's received—is that He’s forceful in breaking down the very walls the religious establishment wants to build in their preference for safe, non-confrontational literature. I think there’s much to be said about how Jesus used some 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.

YWG: 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.

YWG: 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.

YWG: Can you talk about the way forward for Windblown Media?

Wayne: We’re currently contracted with Hachette to do 4-6 books a year, fiction or non. And we don’t have to do any if we don’t want. That lasts 5 years and then we’ll see where we stand. But we’re not taking manuscripts (see specifics here) and we don’t have a staff. We’re beholden to no one but God. No employees. No sales quotas. No requirement to pay back anyone.

YWG: Wow. Pretty cool situation. Sounds like the way to change CBA.

Wayne: Well I don’t know about that, but we’re going to try to have fun.

YWG: Thanks, Wayne. And thanks for inviting so much challenging discussion through this book. I know I'm not alone in just being grateful for the opportunity to finally explore this stuff in a larger way.

The Shack Shake-Up

There’s so much to discuss in this book. I’m not sure I realized when I started, just how many different discussions we could open up about it, all meaningful and worthwhile probably, but not all equally helpful to the stated goals of this group. And I think Susan Meissner’s comment from last time is the question I want to focus on now.

Why are so many people interested in this book?

I find myself agreeing with most who commented here and I’ve done a lot of thinking and talking about the reasons for this book’s uncommon popularity. Why are people so eager to talk about this book that most agree needed a good editor and breaks many rules about overindulging in attempts to philosophize and pontificate on points of theology in fiction?

When I first read the book, I only half-heartedly wanted to. I wanted to see what the big deal was (this was in December, 2007 before it really became a big deal). My buddy Mike Morrell was going apey about it and I figured I’d give it a shot. But still, I put it off, knowing it was probably the sort of self-published thing I normally rejected (you think I was being cynical here, but sadly it takes a lot for a book to push its way up my stack. Hmm. The Stack could make a good book. Anyway…). I actually asked my overachieving assistant to read it and tell me if there was anything worth discussing in it (I know, but like I said…sadly). She thought it was cool, little wiggy, but definitely not CBA material, so I let it slide a while longer until someone told me it was being released in hardcover and included the story of how it was initially published. I checked it out. That quickly became my favorite part of the book.

     “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

We live in a nation that’s weary of heavy-handed, guilt-laden messages about God. Everywhere are examples of people wounded by the condemnation that comes from supposedly biblical sources. We talk about a personal relationship with Jesus, but we can’t allow ourselves to believe God really wants us to have that with him. We experience fear far more than we understand joy. I’d recently worked on Susan Hill’s book, Closer Than Your Skin (Buy it. Now.) in which her story says largely that: “there is more to this spiritual fulfillment stuff than what you’ve currently seen.” (Last chance.) Her book had a similar effect on me of opening my eyes to something I hadn't considered before. So I thought, That’s pretty cool. These guys had a message to get out that didn’t fit the gatekeepers, so they went around them. And that’s basically what got me through the book.

So now, all of you who have read the book, I want to hear what you think. And those of you who haven’t read it, think about the dialog it’s creating in the Christian community. Sacrilege, heresy, a breath of fresh air, or the best book ever, I see it opening up a conversation that was skimming beneath the surface for a long time. Who is God really? What’s he really like? And what does he really want from us? What’s required? And can we talk about this in fiction, or do we need to keep it strictly within Bible studies and church?

I think talking about this here may help us figure out some things, mainly, what is happening in CBA and some of the ways in which this book is creating a sea change for the way the gatekeepers do business.

Remember, there are no bad comments when phrased as a question. So let your voice be heard.

The Shack “Too Edgy” for Christian Publishing

Long have I bemoaned (in an apparent vaccuum) the sad state of Christian publishing. As an editor at one of the larger Christian publishing houses makes me something like a pastor complaining about the state of the church. But I've slowed down on the frequency of my whining for several reasons, primarily because I started to see it as futile. Those who want to hear it already agree, and those who don't aren't going to be convinced by me. How many publishers are appropriating the world's values and being motivated by things other than God's glory? I don't know. And I certainly don't want to be the one to say whose standard of measurement we should be using. I'm no spiritual or literary standard bearer. I believe in high standards, but those are mine alone.

And what I found was that my moaning about the kinks in the system, the low quality, and the low moral standards, only served to encourage and perpetuate those spreading ill will and their own vindictive agendas against the Christian establishment. They carry grudges about the church that did damage to them which gives them license to judge the judgers and turn the cause for high standards into a finger-pointing, self-seeking vendetta.

How do I know? Look at my past. I share the justifications.

So I stopped whining. I found value in the all-too-human failings of the industry cogs. I started to see with more compassion. We're all  in the same big happy family here, folks. When I claim Christ and don't act in love, I'm a hypocrite. When I forget the industry is actually sincere souls slaving to make a difference, I become a clanging gong. 

There are problems in here. We can't ignore them and allow them to define us. Some of them stem from a love of the world's system, the celebrity effect, greed, selfishness, and power plays that have no place in the true kingdom. That hasn't changed. But The Shack is a change. I wanted to title this post "The Shack Shake-Up" because the book is shaking things up. At his website, the publisher of The Shack, Wayne Jacobsen says it well: "The Shack offers as engaging a look at the reality of God in the midst of human tragedy as any we’ve ever read and can stimulate hours of discussion about spiritual life." I agree. It tested my literary sensibilities, but it excited me at the same time.

It was too edgy for Christian publishers. Reputations would be at stake. Relationships would be threatened. And there were good reasons for that. It's "theologically questionable," bordering on universalism, or at least universal reconciliation. And as my wife pointed out, there's something a little strange about the way Jesus and Papa interact that's "ooky." 

But no one in Christian publishing can deny the power of over 4 million in print and still continuing to grow. In the words of another recent bestselling spiritual book, it is A New World.

I'm going to explore that a little over the next few posts, so I hope you're ready to come on back for a good, old-fashioned water cooler discussion as we look at the impact and significance of this book and the Christian book industry that has yet to figure out how to respond.