Paul Young is an Oregon author who never intended to get published.
“It was a gift for my kids. Kim and I have six children. And, she had said, ‘someday, as a gift for our kids, would you just write something that puts in one place how you think, because you think outside the box?’”
Twelve years later, he’s a best seller. The Shack has sold more than 20 million copies. In 2017 it was released as a major motion picture.
It’s the fictional story of Mackenzie Philips, whose youngest daughter is abducted during a camping trip in Oregon’s Wallowa mountains. His grief leads him to “the shack,” where he meets three people.
Papa, Jesus and Sarayu represent the Christian trinity.
Many in the faith community have spoken out against The Shack because of Paul’s depiction of God.
“So God the father is a large black African American woman, the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman; and even in Hebrew scriptures, the word for the Holy Spirit is feminine.” He adds, “Jesus was the easiest. Even though my people have written me and said ‘How dare you make Jesus a middle easterner.’ I’m going, ‘Really? He’s a Jew.'”
Twenty-six publishers turned down the manuscript, refusing to work with such a controversial story.
“The faith community publishers thought it was too edgy. The secular publishers thought it had too much Jesus. So, I got stuck between edgy and Jesus.”
But, for Paul, it was never about getting published or becoming famous; this was his story.
“I’m both Mackenzie and Missy, right? Missy’s a five-year-old because that’s when sexual abuse started in my world. Both in the tribal culture, then at six in missionary boarding school. So, a lot of my life was trying to reconcile the character and nature of God, in the midst of personal tragedy.”
And, it turns out, Paul’s take on loss, pain and the search for God isn’t unique.
“One gal writes me a little note. She was a long-distance runner in high school. At 16, she got separated from her team on a practice day and got grabbed, taken behind a shed, was raped twice and shot three times with a .22 and left for dead. She wrote me because of a certain section in the book. And she said, ‘How could you write that without knowing?’ And she said, ‘Maybe because, in the middle of your abuse, you still felt that there was a God that was good, somewhere.’”
For Angela Thomsen, of Bend, the book forced her to question things she thought she knew.
“I read The Shack, it’s been about four years ago, now.” She tells Central Oregon Daily, “I kinda thought it was a little bit of heresy!”
While going through a difficult time with her husband, a marriage counselor recommended she read The Shack.
“One of my biggest challenges through the divorce, was the church said divorce is not okay; that was my interpretation of what God was telling me. And, at that time, he wasn’t a safe person for our family. I was seven months pregnant with my daughter and I had a one-year-old. And he had, unfortunately, gotten into some trouble. And it wasn’t safe to stay with him, but the church was telling me I had to stay. And so that book predominantly helped me challenge those things.”
The Shack, she says, gave her the courage to file for divorce, and offered a new way to look at her now ex-husband.
“And the forgiveness piece, which you see in that book, absolutely was part of my experience too, of forgiving someone who hurt me and my children deeply.”
Angela met Paul for the first time this week, at a theology conference in Sunriver.
“Usually when I’m walking up on to a podium or a stage,” says Paul, “I still don’t know what I’m going to talk about.” He adds, “I’m a storyteller. And, the stories that have come out around the book, the stories that have been told to me, what I’ve experienced, they are the backdrop for whatever folks that come want to have a conversation about.”
And, he’s grateful for the conversations with readers, whether they liked The Shack or call him a heretic.
“We all need to be challenged about what we believe. I don’t think we’re ever intended to get stuck in one place.”
If the book never sells another copy, if no one else sees the movie, Paul says the story served it’s purpose.
“For my kids, I wanted to say to them – and they know my story – I wanted to say, ‘look, let me tell you about the God that actually showed up and healed my heart. Not the God I grew up with. That’s what I wanted for my kids. And they got it.”