I am currently attending the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Montreal, and decided to stop in on a session this afternoon where Young was talking about his book and interacting with a panel of theologians in front of a roomful of theologians on what he wrote. To be honest I have not read the book yet, even though many people had recommended it to me. I have been quite ambivalent towards the genre of Christian fiction on the whole, because much of the time it is either poorly written, or not very "Christian" in what it communicates, and in most cases just poorly written, un-"Christian" trash.
The Shack is essentially a "theological novel" (his description) and in it he is trying to address who God is and how he has come to understand him in the midst of deep personal pain. He talked about the "shack" as a metaphor of the human soul and how it is a run-down, ramshackle dilapidated building that we try to prop up and pretend is really a beautiful mansion, or a least a nice suburban detached two-storey home. In reality it is filled with deep darkness, pain and every manner of uncleanness inside. As far as he is concerned, this is what most of us (especially Christians) will not admit to. We try to paper over the cracks, and pretend that everything is ok, when we know it really isn't. And one of the ways we do it is to turn to religion to do. For him, religion is "fear and guilt based performance to win the approval of God." Instead he believes that we need to find our relationship with a personal and loving God who is revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ.
What really grabbed me was the fact that he set out to write the book in obedience to a request his wife. She wanted him to write something to tell his 6 children about what he had learnt in a time of deep darkness. He went through a huge personal crash in early 1994, and this began an 11 year ordeal, that he only came out of at the end of 2004 (details can be found in the posted interview). It was in this context that he wrote to share with his kids what he had learnt about God in this time of deep personal darkness. So The Shack was his abreaction and I think this is why it has gained the readership it has all around the globe (over 10 million and counting!). One of the theologians in the audience described it as Young's "12 step" recovery process. It connects with people deep down in a visceral way, bypassing all the intellectual objections many people have to the Christian description of God. I think that it is telling that most of the critics are those who are within the Chrisitian establishment, some of whom have labeled it "heresy". (Just "google" it and you can find all manner of vitrolic against him and his book)
Young himself is a "layperson" but not an unschooled one. He has had some seminary education, and is very well-read theologically. My impression of him was that he was quite astute as an amateur theologian. He was working as an office manager for a circuit board manufacturer when he wrote this book, and initially meant it as a Christmas gift for his children. He originally printed 15 copies for them and some close friends and other family members, but was later encouraged to try to get it published. What is amazing is that it was turned down by 26 publishers (both Christian and secular), so a couple of his friends helped him get it published, and they actually sold over 1 million copies out one of their garages with a $300 advertising budget. As Young says, it was a God thing!
What was widely acknowledged at the end of the session (which was attended by some really well-known, and respected theologians) was that Young has succeeded in getting theology into the hearts (and heads) of the masses. Not just Christians, but also many who had either turned their back on Christianity or had never given it serious thought up till reading his book. He shared some wonderful testimonies of people who had come to faith in Christ through his work, and many of them were really amazing. The challenged issued to the group of thinkers here in Montreal is to do more creatively so that theology will break out beyond the hallowed halls, and "ivory towers" we theologians too often find ourselves in. I can't wait to get my hands on the book and actually read it for myself!