The story behind ‘The Shack’

You were never meant to read “The Shack.”  The allegory of a grieving father who meets God Himself – in the form of a bouncy, African American woman – in the shack where his daughter was murdered, was not meant for your eyes. William Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” says he wrote the story at the request of his wife, to explain his way of thinking to his six children.

Young actually printed the first 15 copies of the book himself at a print shop and distributed the text to friends and family as a Christmas gift. So just how did the manuscript end up in the No. 1 spot on the New York Times Trade Fiction List for more than eight months?  Young says it was a “God thing.”

Publishing history
When Young’s friends got ahold of “The Shack,” they encouraged him to publish it. However, 26 publishers turned it down. Christian publishers found it too edgy, and secular publishers found it too religious. So his friends started their own publishing company, designed the cover art, ordered 10,000 copies and stored them in Young’s garage.  With less than $300 in advertising, the book miraculously found its way into the hands of millions of Christians and non-Christians around the world.  “I’ve always been a writer … but I’m a total accidental author,” Young said in a recent interview at Jacob’s Ladder Christian Bookstore in Coconut Creek. “This was a way to communicate to my kids some of my history, which they all know anyway, but also how I think about God, pain and suffering.”  Young says the book permitted him to ask the “questions I was never allowed to ask growing up.”

Personal history
Young was born in Alberta, Canada, in 1955, but his parents quickly moved to the Indonesian province of Papua to be the first missionaries to the Dani tribe, who Young describes as “a technologically stone age tribal people.”

“[They] became my family, and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community,” Young wrote on

“Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.”

Young says that because he was the first person to speak both English and the Dani’s native tongue, Wycliffe Bible Translators used the young boy’s as a translator.

“By the time I was flown away to boarding school at age 6, I was in most respects a white Dani,” Young shares on his website.  In fact, Young says he was disappointed to learn he wasn’t black like the Dani when he arrived at boarding school.

Sadly, in an interview with USA Today, Young describes his missionary father as verbally abusive and recalls that he was raised more by the tribe and his boarding school teachers than by his parents.

Unfortunately, both members of the tribe and the older boys at his school molested the young boy.

That abuse, combined with the tragic loss of loved ones, ultimately led to an extra-marital affair with his wife’s best friend. 

“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,” says USA Today.

The questions and the controversy
Young’s recovery process from these experiences shaped his “out-of-the-box way of thinking” and carved the way for his tale of life’s pain, “Papa’s love” and Jesus’ redeeming forgiveness.

Young adds that it took him 50 years to finally come close to figuring out what his faith was really about – an organic and raw relationship with Jesus. But he’s hesitant to call himself a Christian.

“In the world it doesn’t mean what we think. When we say ‘Christian,’ it’s like dropping the C-bomb,” he says. “If you’re a ‘Christian,’ you’re in a Ziploc baggy: You hate gays and you vote Republican and all these other things. That’s not what a Christian is. It’s about an absolute dependence on a union relationship with Jesus,” Young explains.

Despite his unabashed declaration of faith in Jesus, “The Shack” has raised controversy in certain Christian circles.

Some readers say the book’s viewpoint borders on New Age philosophy. Other have criticized Young for portraying God as a woman and say he presents the idea that all roads lead to God – and that God does not punish people for their sins.

“This book includes undiluted heresy,” says Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “It is a deeply troubling book.” Chuck Colson, a leader in evangelical circles, agrees.

He says that the book portrays the Bible as “just one among many equally valid ways in which God reveals Himself. And, we are told, the Bible is not about rules and principles; it is about relationship,” writes Colson in his blog.”Sadly, the author fails to show that the relationship with God must be built on the truth of who He really is, not on our reaction to a sunset or a painting.”

Despite criticism like this, plenty of readers continue to buy “The Shack.”

In fact, Young says he doesn’t mind the criticism because it simply creates more conversation.

“I had a guy in a Q&A not long ago … stand up, tears running down his face. He’s in his 40s,” Young said. “He says, ‘I just got a phone call from my mom, and she’s been a devout atheist all her life. She said, ‘Son, I just read, ‘The Shack.’ I now believe there is a God and that Jesus is the Son of God.'” “You get one response like that, and I don’t care who the critics are,” he says.


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