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Q & A
Q&A: The Shack helps reconnect with God Robin Russell, Mar 3, 2009
The Shack, by William P. Young
William Paul Young’s The Shack, a self-published novel about healing of grief and bitterness toward God, has topped best-seller lists since 2007 with six million copies in print. It tells the fictional story of a man whose daughter is abducted and murdered. Years later, the protagonist, Mack, receives an invitation from God to meet at the shack where the tragedy took place.
Mr. Young says he had suffered sexual abuse in New Guinea as the child of missionaries and spent over a decade in therapy. He wrote the book to recount for his six children—now ages 15 to 28—how he found healing through a new relationship with God. The author spoke recently by phone with managing editor Robin Russell.
Your novel speaks powerfully to the problem of evil, and how we view God when very bad things happen. Why do you think it has resonated with so many?
It’s a question that underlies so much of our thinking about life—and then to get an invitation to have a conversation! I grew up in a religious environment where you weren’t allowed to ask these questions. And I don’t want my kids to be in a place where they’re not allowed to ask questions, especially if they experience terrible things.
Your book mentions no theological traditions or church doctrine, but small groups at churches everywhere are studying it.
Churchgoers are already involved in these kinds of questions. But it’s happening across the board, regardless of religious affiliation or not. It’s like the book has given them a language to have these conversations. They’re happening around people who care about each other: parents and kids and friends. And it’s given them allowance to tell their own stories. To me, that is so beautiful, so wonderful.
In what ways is the novel your own story?
Many ways. I’m kind of an accidental author, but I’ve always written to express my heart towards people that I’m in a relationship with. Kim, my wife, prompted me to write something that the kids could have. I didn’t have any plans at all to publish this thing. The great sadness is my great sadness; it’s just not wrapped up in exactly that kind of situation.
The way you depict God really breaks the mold. How did you come up with God as a large, black woman?
Most of the pain in my life has been perpetrated by men. But theologically, God isn’t male or female; God isn’t black or white. To use imagery that violated the paradigm was important because Mackenzie, who is me, has a real father issue. So God comes to him in a way that bypasses some of that resistance. And I see God that way, as always working toward our healing.
How did you envision the interaction among the Trinity?
When I imagine how God the Father looks at God the Son, or God the Spirit, what do I see in their face? What do I see in their eyes? Everything you hear in the gospels is about the way that God the Father adores his son, even when he hasn’t done anything yet. So it’s not performance-based, it’s not about trying to earn the approval and the affection of God the Father. It’s an embodiment of the tender, mutual submission and honoring and care that must exist within the Trinity in order to validate it among us. Three Persons in the one being of God is so important to me as a reality. Anytime you don’t have relationship within the very nature of God, you end up with a God who can’t love.
Some people are uncomfortable with the anthropomorphic way in which you portray the Trinity. How do you respond to such criticism?
I say, good on it! It becomes part of the conversation. I think it’s very healthy. It allows people to bring to the surface their own bondages.
Some United Methodists, on the other hand, have praised the book’s grace theology and Arminian view of free will. Is there any Methodism in your background?
I’ve been a student of history, so I know what the Wesley boys brought to the table, and I’m very grateful for that. I have great resonance for some of that openness that exists in that tradition that doesn’t in so many others.
I just read Finding God in the Shack by Roger Olson, who agrees with most of The Shack’s theology. One of his criticisms is whether God has already forgiven everyone, as you suggest, or just laid the groundwork for that to happen.
For me, that’s a very central theological issue. I believe that everyone has been wrapped into the forgiveness of God. I’m not one of these folks who say, “Nah, He only died for those who ultimately would request that relationship.” To me it goes all the way back to the early church fathers’ understanding that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit perpetrated our salvation from before the foundation of the world, and then every single human being who’s ever existed was included into that. Whether we then want to be in relationship with Him is the question. But it’s not because God hasn’t done everything on His part. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says: “For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”—the world to himself—“not counting their sins against them.”
Another criticism: Is God really never disappointed in us?
To me, disappointment is linked totally with expectations. I believe that God is transcendent (outside of time) as well as imminent (with us in time). And from that perspective, there is nothing He doesn’t know. That takes all the expectation out of it—therefore, there is no disappointment. That doesn’t mean that He doesn’t grieve with us when we are hurtful to ourselves and to each other. I believe that God is very much an emotional being and does grieve. And that’s a very different thing than disappointment.
Mack seems to go it alone. Does he reflect your own views on church life?
I love the faith community, and I am very committed to very many layers of it in my own life. But it’s always people—not the institution. If I felt that God was directing me to become a member of an institutional system, I would, but it would be because of relationship. For me, the church is people. Always has been, always will be. The structures and the formalism are just man-made creations to enable that community of faith to exist. What so often happens is that those systems begin to dominate the life they were supposed to enable. And they become restrictors, not enablers, of the life that’s there.
Tell me what happens when you lecture on The Shack at a church.
I never know what I’m going to say when I get up. So far, it has never failed to happen that the Holy Spirit has showed up, and people are deeply touched—deeply touched. I don’t know how to even describe it. They see in my own story that there’s a possibility of getting to a place of hope, and that’s for many people a very shocking thing—I mean, they just haven’t heard that. I don’t have any secrets, and I lay out my life in all of its ugliness and all of God’s grace and glory. And they begin to realize, “Hey, this is not some special person endued with special powers that could do this—this is just an ordinary guy who’s proof that God still uses the foolish.”
Can you share some stories of how The Shack has affected people?
I’ll tell you one. Jenny, a girl in Atlanta, grew up in an environment where she was told that if anything bad happens in your life, it’s because you’re bad, God’s punishing you. So when she was diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer, you can imagine how she dealt with that. She’s in her 30s, and it just took her in a nosedive.
Friends came to her house one day, and she just sat there, arms folded, while they took turns reading through the first five chapters, which are pretty wrenching. And she just falls apart. It just yanks her out of her depression. She writes me this e-mail: “Paul, I wasn’t afraid to die. I was terrified at the look of disgust I would see on His face when we met.”
I was with her two weeks before she died last fall, just sat with her for a few hours and talked. And she was totally at peace, totally at rest. To me, that’s the tenderness of the Holy Spirit communicating, “I am in this with you. I am not apart from your pain.”
Has anything surprised you through the experience of having written the book—beyond its huge sales?
Just how much this resonates multiculturally: They’ve got 35 or 40 translations coming out; it’s been 22 weeks at No. 1 in Brazil in Portuguese. It doesn’t matter your faith history, it doesn’t matter whether you even believe in God or not. It’s just opening up this intense conversation that is so wrapped in grace.
Is there a film in the works?
We’re very slowly and carefully moving down that line. We really want to do it right. The interest is absolutely phenomenal. I’m not talking about from just inside the faith community. I’m talking about film producers who are agnostics and atheists, and the book has deeply touched their lives.
Will there be a sequel?
No. But there will be other stuff. I want to be involved with things that God is blessing. I don’t want to be trying to convince Him that things that I want to do are good ideas that He needs to adopt and bless.