Why Is The Shack Still Selling?

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Earlier this year (2009), I led a discussion of The Shack and it’s impact on Christian publishing at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal. Response to that was overwhelmingly positive from the largely Christian group of writers, but as usual, I didn’t get to much of what I was excited to talk about. Most people were far too busy discussing its theology and the successes and failures therein. And though debate about it seems to have died down to a low rumble now, sales continue to clip along for this “heretical” “life-saving” pseudo-fictional book.

 

Whether you love it or hate it, if you’re interested in the question above as much as I am, you will at least like this post. Because what I was so eager to get to at the NCWR was this question of who is buying this book. Let’s do some quick analysis.

 

In early 2008, an article in USA Today defined the audience of The Shack as the rather broad, unwieldy category of “spiritually interested.” But who are they? This audience is curious about spiritual matters, but especially as found outside of organized religion and the religious establishment, however we might define that. Maybe most significant about readers who recommend this book, they tend to be interested in the uncommon approach to the Christian God, and most, how he responds to our pain. They may or may not be Christian, but they’re attracted to the God they meet here (who IS largely the Judeo Christian God of the Bible: http://bit.ly/5srJo), and they are eager for an honest experience of God’s love and transcendence.

 

We might discuss how much less eager traditional Christian churches tend to be for such “extra-biblical” experience and how that defecit created the chasm for this book. That’s a great topic. Or we could look at the growing dissatisfaction with and breakdown of the modern Christian retail industry being undermined by fundamentalists and the traditional establishment creating a bubble, a ghetto, an ivory tower set apart from the very people Jesus worked so hard to get us to serve. Another great topic. But let’s ask another question instead.

 

How do these “pioneers” differ from the more traditional Christian book market?

 

Pioneers value                                 Traditionalists value

Mystery over certainty           Certainty over mystery

Experiential faith                    Propositional truth

Freedom from structure         Structure to their freedom

Personal authority                  Authority figures

Love at the expense of truth   Truth at the expense of love

Authenticity over status          Status over authenticity

Relationship over rules                   Rules over relationship             

Maleable, interpretive            Concrete, quantifiable

A story over principles          Principles over a story

Seeking over knowing           Knowing over seeking

 

Pioneers have been conquering this literary frontier for a while. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis took this experience-based, non-propositional approach in The Sacred Romance and Journey of Desire. Meanwhile Henry Blackaby wrote Experiencing God for the church set and Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez revealed a God who longed to bless. Lauren Winner followed suit with her memoir Girl Meets God, quickly followed by Donald Miller’s meandering Blue Like Jazz and somewhere in this Brian McLaren released A New Kind of Christian. Soon, an unlikely pastor named Rob Bell jumped in with Velvet Elvis and the territory began to get fairly well carved out by various other new voices. One of my personal favorites—Closer Than Your Skin by Susan Hill (WaterBrook, 2007)—uses Susan’s amazing personal journey of discovery to show how to truly know the creator of the eternal reality all around us. No bubbles in there.

 

So to help these pioneers move closer in their journey toward God through authentic spiritual experience, and to encourage them to explore and process new questions about God, the Bible, and faith, we need to understand how to capture the tone, approach, and appeal in this blossoming category. More on that next time.

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3 thoughts on “Why Is The Shack Still Selling?”

  1. Very true and quite a challenge… an invigorating one… which is why I appreciate tracking with you Mick…. So am intrigued to read and learn from the next installment…. in the meantime will get hold of the book without bubbles :-) Thanks, John

  2. Just a few weeks ago, I got an interesting email from a long time friend who is not a Christian. She wanted to recommend a book to me that I might be surprised she liked. It was called “The Shack” and what she appreciated most about it was how it so aptly described things that she has felt for a long time were true but had no language for.
    This email shocked me. This was the very last book I would have thought she would read, and yet here she was, recommending it to me…
    The point is, the audience for The Shack is indeed a surprising mix. It’s success proves a hunger, a longing that will be satisfied, one way or another. It will be satisfied either by the soul or by the spirit. The soul feeds on thrillers and romances and the likes of Harry Potter. The soul is insatiable.
    And yet, the spirit can live for weeks on a single breath from heaven. I was only able to read The Journey of Desire a paragraph at a time in some parts. I would put it down and not pick it up again for a month or more.
    May each of us possess the boldness to write that which is breathed first by the Spirit, and so eclispe our souls.

  3. Who is reading The Shack? Hmm. My thoughts and discussions indicate that the Christian audience for The Shack consists of those who either might have slipped into religiosity and yearn for a fresh look at our huge God to those who wish to dispute, clarify, examine, or concur with the concepts put forth by Paul Young.
    Some of his concepts were indeed imperfect and some were downright incorrect as far as biblical view is generally imparted. A couple might’ve come close to heretical. A few others were good. It’s those couple that generally got the hackles up and the fear-mongers rattled.
    Of those in the world who are still reading the novel, I would agree it could be those who wonder about God, who are beginning to find that hole in their hearts won’t be filled with toys and experiences. Will they get a true and valid experience form the book to lead them into a saving relationship with Jesus? Who can answer that? Will they go off into some other religious vein and pursue a false hope? No telling. The Holy Spirit knows, though. He is able to draw and Jesus is able to save.
    You and I and others might argue doctrine until we’re blue in the face or agree to disagree, so if the salvation message is concrete and we strive to keep our faith real and connected to the Holy Spirit, what is the separation between a clumsy walk with Jesus and one that is sanctified by “diplomas” and individual church doctrines? I don’t have the answer to that.
    Any of this makes sense? Bleh.

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