Why is ‘The Shack’ still selling?

The Shack is William P. Young’s first novel – a book of theodicy wrapped in a hunt for a serial killer, and subject to much overly florid prose about the Trinity. It is, in many ways, a reflection of the “desperate grasping after grace and wholeness” which Young describes as his own life. In other ways, it refuses clear categorization; it is not straightforward autobiography, and is very much its own animal.

The book continues to dominate. It now stands at #15 on the Paperback Trade Fiction list, having already enjoyed 105 weeks at some point or other within the Times‘ listing system.

Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum (who in April rightly termed the book “Oprah-esque“) noted on Thursday that

This is, needless to say, not exactly a cutting-edge contribution to the theodicy literature. In the end, God doesn’t really have any answers at all for [why terrible things are allowed to happen], at least not in the usual sense of “answer.” However, it does turn out that God and Jesus are really extremely charismatic folks, and that’s enough.

Drum was keying off Nathan Heller’s meditation on the book, also published Thursday, at Slate. Heller:

The Shack‘s success is puzzling in part because it is a book of puzzling intent. The novel’s subject is faith in God, but it is written as if to a reader who has little interest in religion. And although it is a Christian book, its author does not seem to follow any church.


Theologically speaking, there is something for everybody in The Shack, but mostly in the sense that there is something for everybody in a meatloaf. The book takes what it can from several systems of belief and bakes them together into a doctrinally unidentifiable mush. The novel is down on organized religion as a rule. Young is at times a biblical literalis–Adam and Eve really ate the fruit—and at other times a sort of teddy-bear deist, the best bud of a cool creator-dude who lets stuff happen as it will. Like many before him, he has difficulty reconciling the vengeful God of the Old Testament to the A.D. Lord who “cannot act apart from love.” He solves the flavor clash by tossing every spice at hand into the mix. The Lord inveighs at one point against “the will to power and independence,” which he further describes as “the human paradigm” and, shortly thereafter, as “the matrix; a diabolical scheme in which you are hopelessly trapped even while completely unaware of its existence.” If God rings you in a phone booth, say your prayers and bring a pair of shades.


This rough-hewn, handmade quality is probably what’s earned The Shack its fans. America often gets lampooned as a nation of Jesus freaks, but it’s even more a country caught up in the never-ending search for authenticity. Young’s too-weird-for-the-pulpit thoughts about how Adam’s rib and the female uterus form a “circle of relationship” have the appeal of knobby heirloom-produce in a world where much religion arrives vacuum-packed. His theories—how to believe in Adam while supporting particle-physics research; why the Lord is OK with your preference for lewd funk more than staid church music—accomplish what mainstream faiths tend to fail at: connecting recondite doctrine to the tastes, rhythms, and mores of modern life. The Shack’s wild success doesn’t reveal how Bible-thumpy this country is. It shows how alienated from religion we’ve become. And though the novel, as a novel, is a sinner’s distance from perfection, it’s an eloquent reminder that, for those who give some faith and effort to the writing craft, there is, even today, the chance to touch and heal enough strangers to work a little miracle.

Assuming continued word-of-mouth, if The Shack keeps moving people towards reading it (or at least buying it with every good intention), is it so wrong to further assume the person in the pew might actually benefit from a having a church-sanctioned conversation about it? [Warning: vanity link.]

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