'Shack' opens doors, but critics call book 'scripturally incorrect'
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Mists of faith: William Young found inspiration on a trail at Multnomah Falls near Portland, Ore. The falls are featured in the opening pages of The Shack.
By Craig Mitchelldyer for USA TODAY
Mists of faith: William Young found inspiration on a trail at Multnomah Falls near Portland, Ore. The falls are featured in the opening pages of The Shack.
No. 7-10: Pope, Orthodox Christians 
PORTLAND, Ore. — By rights, William Young, 53, should be a mess.

Emotionally distant from his missionary parents. Sexually abused by the New Guinea tribe they lived among. Grief-stricken for loved ones who died too young, too suddenly. Frantic to earn God's love, yet cheating on his wife, Kim.

Young functioned by stuffing all the evil done to him and by him into a "shack" — his metaphor for an ugly, dark place hidden so deeply within him that it seemed beyond God's healing reach.

His adultery, 15 years ago, finally blew the doors off that shack, forcing him to confront his past. "Kim made it clear," he says. "I had to face every awful thing."

Now, his first novel, The Shack— centered on dialogues between a miserable main character, Mack, and three unorthodox characterizations of the Holy Trinity — telescopes Young's transformation to a man spiritually reborn and aware every moment of God's love. It slams "legalistic" religions, denominations and doctrines. It barely even mentions the Bible.

Instead, Mack's secrets, lies, pain and fears are swept away in a 48-hour encounter in the woods with a sassy black woman who embodies God the creator. Jesus is portrayed as a big-nosed carpenter in a plaid shirt; the Holy Spirit is an Asian sylph called Sarayu.

So why are critics calling it heresy?

They say Young's surprise hit, which has been in the Top 50 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list for 10 weeks (it's now No. 17), promotes a wrong-headed view of universal salvation, as free to all as an open bar at a party.

They read Young's message as saying you can just discover Jesus' love inside yourself, turn your life over to him, and you're on your way to heaven. No need to put in time in the pews or know theology.

Albert Mohler, a leading theologian of the Southern Baptist Convention, which takes the Bible literally, trashes The Shack in his weekly radio show, calling it "deeply subversive," "scripturally incorrect" and downright "dangerous."

Says Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle: "If you haven't read The Shack, don't!"

Driscoll, whose multi-campus non-denominational church is packed with 6,000 people each weekend in the least-churched corner of the nation, says he is "horrified" by Young's book. He says "it misrepresents God. Young misses the big E on the eye chart."

To Driscoll, doctrine is essential, like a fence the Almighty erects to safeguard the saved from error.

The Shack has fans, too. Young gets nearly 100 e-mails a day from readers saying they found solace and inspiration in his novel.

They overlook the clichés ("Religious machinery can chew up people," Jesus says), stereotypes, like the Jewish Jesus' big nose, and the awkward prose. The black female God, incongruously called Papa, tells Mack, "Don't just stand there gawkin' with your mouth open like your pants are full."

Incredible journey

Minister Steve McVey of Tampa, author of Grace Walk, praises The Shack.

McVey says Young connects with people outside of, or unhappy with, institutional churches that "tell us what we ought to do for God, while grace focuses on what God has already done. A person discovers grace when you come to the end of your own self-sufficiency and realize you have been made acceptable through Jesus Christ and him alone. You can't score points with God."

Today, Young, who goes by his middle name, Paul, happily recounts how he finally tapped the wellspring of God's love he says was always there for him to find.

He exudes quiet calm, disrupted now and then by bursts of enthusiasm, like bear-hugging strangers on first meeting.

Ordinary things delight him. He walks up to Multnomah Falls, his plaid shirt and fleece jacket coated with the mist of the cascading water, his smile irrepressible.

This majestic waterfall plays a role in the novel's opening pages. Mack tells his little daughter, Missy, the legend of an Indian princess who hurls herself over the falls to save her people from death.

Will I have to die to save others? she asks him. No, he tells her, Jesus has done this for you, and she sleeps soundly, secure in Christ.

The foreshadowing is hardly subtle: the sacrifice of an innocent life for the sake of salvation. Missy is kidnapped by a serial killer and is murdered in a filthy, deserted shack in the wilderness.

Years later, Mack, still devastated, receives a note inviting him back to the shack. It's signed "Papa," the name his more resilient and spiritual wife, Nan, uses for God.

Mack's weekend at the shack is a compressed journey toward belief, forgiveness and acceptance.

But what a trip. Instead of a dump, this shack is a mansion in an Eden-like garden where God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit embrace him. For two days, they talk, eat, walk, garden and share visions of heaven, where little Missy romps happily.

They tell Mack they live in a loving relationship without hierarchy, guilt or shame, all fully human, all divine. They say that through Jesus' death, God is "fully reconciled" to the whole world, so that all might discover God's love.

It's a vision of joy to Young, however far it strays from most evangelical dogma.

Young was born in Canada to missionaries who brought him as an infant to New Guinea to live with the primitive Dani tribe. He says he was subject to the harsh verbal attacks of his unhappy father, and sexual assaults by tribesmen. He went to a missionary boarding school at age 6, he says, and was molested by older students.

He never lost a sense of God, but to Young, God was distant and judgmental. "I learned to survive by becoming a performer/perfectionist," he says.

Even as he roamed the world and eventually wound up in a Bible seminary for the Christian Missionary Alliance, he knew he wasn't meant to be a pastor or missionary. He finally graduated from Western Pacific College in Portland and landed at a Four Square Gospel church, working with collegians.

There he met Kim, who poked holes "in my version of being a perfect performer to earn God's love. You can't perform for God. You can't run. You can't hide. You can adapt, but that won't heal the stuff you've buried deep inside, in your 'shack.' "

Soon after they married, waves of tragedy gouged their life. When he was 25, his 18-year-old brother died in a work accident, Kim's mother died unexpectedly, and his niece, 5 years and one day old, was run over by a cement truck while riding her new birthday bicycle.

Grace seemed nowhere in sight.

Young was 38 and the father of six when his life took a hairpin turn after his adultery. He spent a year in counseling, years more soul-searching, marveling at Kim's steadfast commitment, before he reached wholeness in faith, he says.

He wrote The Shack in 2005, prompted by Kim. She wanted him to open up his heart and his thinking to their children, now ages 14 to 27. The book was meant to be like the box top on a jigsaw puzzle, the picture that shows where all the pieces fit, Young says.

An open life

Eventually, he sent the manuscript to a writer he admired, Wayne Jacobsen, a former pastor and author of So You Don't Want to Go to Church Any More, under the pen name Jake Colsen. Jacobsen and another former pastor, Brad Cummings, spent 15 months editing the book with Young to clarify the focus and rip out pages of theological jargon, Young says.

"We had great conversations about how people are the church. The church is not just a place you go to quote Scripture and feel guilty," Young says.

Jacobsen and Cummings published it through their own company, Windblown Media, after established publishers rebuffed it. They promoted it on Christian websites and broadcast outlets, trying to attract a New York publisher.

Now there are 1.1 million copies in print and, two weeks ago, FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, signed on as co-publisher with Windblown. Hatchette agreed to a 500,000-copy press run in June and a national campaign in the secular market in July.

The Shack's success has changed Young's life — a little.

He no longer works three jobs running a manufacturer's sales office and working on websites. Kim still works at Gresham High School as a baker, but she's driving a new Honda. They've moved from the tiny rental house, where he wrote The Shack in the windowless basement near the washing machine, to a bigger rental nearby.

Holding hands and beaming at one of their grandchildren, the Youngs say they'd be fine if the money vanished tomorrow.

"Mack is me, a guy who has made a mess of everything," Young says. "The book takes him outside everything familiar, back to the worst experience of his life and lets him recognize God is so much greater."

Yet, as McVey, the minister from Tampa, says, "This pure grace of God has always divided people."

Mohler, Driscoll and other evangelicals pick The Shack apart plank by plank.

No, God can't be a presented as a woman. No, the three parts of the Trinity did not all become fully human. Yes, there is a hierarchy in the Holy Trinity with God the Father in command. Yes, God will punish sin.

Young shrugs them off. Out there in America, where only three in 10 people attend weekly worship services and millions are ignorant of the Bible, his readers struggle to find a good God amid their pain.

As for critics, he shakes his head.

"I don't want to enter the Ultimate Fighting ring and duke it out in a cage-match with dogmatists. I have no need to knock churches down or pull people out," he says.

"I have a lot of freedom by knowing that you really experience God in relationships, wherever you are. It's fluid and dynamic, not cemented into an institution with a concrete foundation."

"But it's not about me. I have everything that matters, a free and open life full of love and empty of all secrets."

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