Tag Archives: Christian publishing

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.]

Is Christian Art Useless?

Fellow Christian writers and artists, do you consider this a challenge?

“Christian art is a knock-off.”

Maybe? Maybe it depends on what we consider Christian art.

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How do we define Christian art? Are the rules different than for regular art? Probably they are, and that’s fair since “Christian” should involve some specific differences about what’s artistic and what’s not.

So what does “Christian art” mean?

Is it art when it portrays some aspect of the glory of God? And are the qualities of the work less important, more important, or as important as the content, the message? Are the specific qualities merely the wrapping paper for the gift inside? Or is the packaging of the message the more important part?

Should “Christian art” mean what pleases God rather than what pleases man? Should it entertain or only be serious? Should it seek to convert its viewers by providing an alternative to unwholesome art? Should it be less interested in depicting the real world and more interested in what is pure, true, good, et cetera? Should it provide specific takeaways?

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And does this really matter? After 4 decades in the Christian subculture, I can finally say I don’t have the faintest clue. I stopped being able to judge Christian art somewhere around age 30. I can probably make a pretty fair argument for both sides, from “everything has to literally spell out the gospel in order to be Christian art” to “only organically Christian art is truly a witness.”

But the recent “film debate” between Fifty Shades of Gray and the Christian alternative “Old Fashioned” revived some of the unanswerable questions.

“This is the irony of the Christian film industry: movies that appeal mostly to Christians are marketed as if capable of bringing sinners to repentance.”

Is that true? Is Old Fashioned art for Christians? And is it really incapable of reaching beyond that? Why? And who really knows?

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And should we really spend time debating this?

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Every Christian industry–film, music, books and all those giftable products–exists for Christians. The art they sell is for people who want a message and aren’t as interested (though they still are) in the wrapping. Should we debate whether the message of Christian art is getting seen by regular folk?

Or should we be making art?

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My opinion? We should be making art. If the appeal of “50 Shades” proves anything, it’s that the wrapping of the message matters–a lot. Maybe more than the message, in many ways. (As Marshall McLuhan said back in 1964). So if you’re a Christian inclined to making beautiful art, you should probably spend more time working on making the package work, and not worrying so much whether the message is clear.

But my point is, whether Christian art is or isn’t largely miserable, useless and derivative, who cares? What if instead of debating we just got to work and focused more on making art than the distractions of others’ opinions?

Maybe that would be a more productive use of our gifts and time?

I’m reminding myself here. And now leaving to write.

Feeling better already…

Why All It Takes Is 5 Minutes

It may come as a shock, but I’m easily distractible.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Especially knowing how much my work depends on writers showing up and keeping up despite the battering hurricane of demands and requests that fly in through every open window.

It can grow dark quickly underneath the pile of debris atop the little flame of a writer’s voice.

To be seen and heard is always a fight.

Yet maybe being seen and heard doesn’t have to be the goal. Maybe sharing what’s been given you that day in the 5 minutes you have to share it, the flame will shine a little more, and the light will reach out into the dark it’s intended to reach.

Burn, little guy. Burn.
Burn, little guy. Burn.

I know from painful experience how selfish and pointless it can seem to spend much time in a private place that brings you and only you such joy. Especially if so many people depend on you. The responsibility and duty of “real life” can sap the love and light right from you and leave you dark and cold.

But if God’s love for us burns white hot, wouldn’t he want us to forget all else but the true “real life?”

That’s the premise of the novel I’ve been writing over 10 years about a young man who sells his soul for a chance to change his past. It’s been growing in me and growing with me for ages, waiting as I figured out what to do with it and how to write it. It’s grown and shaped me unlike any book ever has, and it’s still not done. But I’m going ahead and opening up about my process now because I can’t wait to share some of the jaw-dropping lessons it’s taught me as I’ve strived to show up between school, raising 2 kids and full-time editing books for publishers.

Jaw-dropping, I tell you!
Jaw-dropping, I tell you!

Some days it’s felt so pointless. But 5 minutes a day adds up. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to write a book this way. And maybe it isn’t–no one said it was good–but for years now, I’ve gotten up and for 5 minutes (which sometimes turned to 10 and 15), I’ve forgotten everything else and reveled in my dream world. It’s changed me, and it’s continuing to as I pull the disparate pieces together and learn to slowly fight back against the crush of too-great demands and urgent life, giving it the best I have, which often isn’t enough, but it doesn’t matter.

God is in it.

Unlike anything else, my book has shown God’s love to me. And I know it’s true because it’s been simple even when it could have and should have been mind-numbingly complex. In the end, I’ve believed the premise, that he wants me to forget everything else but that knowledge of his love. And in 5 minutes a day, I’ve found writing a book can teach you plenty about that.

Every day, I’m hopeful for what it’ll reveal next. If you know what I mean, give me a witness….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

What If All We Need Is 5 Minutes?

This is an experiment for a class I’m teaching Feb 1: The inaugural 30-Day YWG Story Course at Facebook. Since I’m teaching it, I figured I’d try a taste of my own medicine…

Just 5 minutes together, uninterrupted, in succession.

It seems like a luxury. A luxury I shouldn’t crave and yearn for like homemade lemonade in the desert.

I have the lemons…

This kid gets it.
This kid gets it.

Lemon 1: Work. It’s all-consuming. Just to keep up with the bare minimum takes all I’ve got most days. And that’s not a complaint because I love what I do and if it wasn’t hard, I know I’d get bored. But it’s a lemon.

Lemon 2: Writing. The demand to give myself entirely to it, to escape into the ether with the fantasy I didn’t choose but was chosen by, it speaks and sometimes shouts, to the point where keeping my mind on the task of editing becomes herculean.

Lemon 3: Writer’s group. I manage and moderate a writer’s group site and struggle to keep up with the work load. It, like all the other lemons, is fun and among the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. But, it’s demanding.

How many lemons does it take? Can someone tell me? Anyone...?
How many lemons does it take? Can someone tell me? Anyone…?

I’m not even going to list the other lemons. Because honestly, as it is, there’s a lot more than 3.

We all have a lot more lemons than we really want.

I was talking with a friend recently about this challenge of accepting everything that comes at us, much of it tough and pock-marked and sour-smelling. Naturally, being the spiritual paragons that we are, we gripe and resist and want to crow off the deck about how unfair and how we deserve and why can’t life send flowers?

Typical marmot.
Typical marmot.

And really the problem is time. Time to do it all. Time to spend 5 minutes uninterrupted, in succession on just one thing.

So to combat the continual theft of my time and sanity, I propose every day to write for at least 5 minutes on a topic that pleases me. Yesterday, it was “When All You Have Is 5 Minutes” and how that’s how life is, so you take it and find out it’s enough, because like with most things it turns you don’t really know anything.

I suspect I’m not the only one who doesn’t always use the 5 minutes he has to write because he thinks 5 minutes is a lemon…

The point is: who cares? So it’s a lemon. It’s not what we’d choose. But everyone gets lemons and life is about using the lemons you have. It’s about starting on the lemonade and serving as many people as you possibly can.

And that requires getting on the path and staying there for 5 blessed, uninterrupted minutes in succession.

And then doing it again tomorrow. Even when you don’t want to.

So have some lemonade. I whipped it up in 5 minutes from what I had available. Hope you like it. Can’t wait to taste yours.

What lemons are you currently scowling at?

The Writer’s Cross: Why Writers Need Community

It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.

It can get into your skin.

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So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.

Have you noticed?

Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.

Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.

This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.

But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.

And things start to get dark.

Waking Up Dead

Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.

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They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.

Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.

How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.

Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.

So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?

How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?

The Persistent Question

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.

Like Gallagher.

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When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.

And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.

It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.

But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.

And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.

And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.

It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.

And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.

 

Carriers of Our Cross

We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.

People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.

People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Samwise knew.

There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.

And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.

They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write. 

We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?

Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.

The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.

Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.

But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.

Have you thanked your community today?