I started noticing friends of mine from Oregon reading “The Shack” this spring. It’s not unheard of for best-selling evangelical Christian literature to spring out of the unchurched Pacific Northwest. Frank Peretti’s 1986 classic “This Present Darkness” was written on an island in Puget Sound.
Then I saw debates about the book on the blogs. I read “The Shack” in the space of two evenings, noting all the familiar Oregon landmarks. The book is set in the Wallowa Mountains, one of the prettiest - but least known - places out West. I’d camped at the very state park where one of the characters in the book was kidnapped.
I’d been to Imnaha, the Oregon wilderness town near where most of the scenes in “The Shack” take place.
I found the dialogue to be clunky and wondered why mention of the Bible was nearly absent in a book about a grieving father’s conversations with the Trinity after the murder of his 6-year-old daughter. “The Shack” portrays God the Father as an Aunt Jemima-like black woman; Jesus is a Jewish man in his 30s, and the Holy Spirit is an Asian sprite .
The many profundities in the novel have gotten a huge reaction - not to mention 2 million copies sold - around the Christian marketplace. It’s provided a forum for people to express their questions about God and bewilderment about suffering.
And so, two weeks ago, I found myself sipping coffee with the author, William Paul Young, at Cafe Delirium in Gresham, Ore., a few blocks away from Easthill Foursquare, a megachurch where Mr. Young was once on staff.
Dressed Oregon-style in jeans and a black plaid shirt, Mr. Young is not a member of any church at present. He had just appeared on NBC’s “Today” show the week before.
I asked why “The Shack” does not explain why God allows evil.
“The answer is all over the book,” he said.
No, I responded. His lead character had not pushed this question with God at all. Instead, the author had allowed the Almighty to get away with a you-do-not-understand-the-true-nature-of-the-universe excuse; somewhat like one can find in the biblical book of Job.
What followed was a long conversation on cause and effect. If God stops a potential murderer, he said, does He just stop at that?
“At what point does He prevent any evil at all?” he asked. “Does He tell you not to lie or have a bad thought? Where do you draw the line?”
We’re not going to know why God allows evil, he said; what we can know is that He helps those damaged by it.
“Too often religion tells you there’s this angry impersonal God, it’s our job to get from here to there, and our relationship with him is fraught with the requirement of perfectionism,” he said. “But if relationship with God does not work for the most damaged of us, then it’s not real.”
I realized that Mr. Young, who has had a lifetime of misfortunes, wants to describe a God who heals, based on his own personal breakthroughs. This touches a chord with legions of readers who have had it up to here with churches that blame the victim or refuse to acknowledge people’s suffering.
As to why God sometimes allows the innocent to suffer and other times prevents evil in this insane asylum of a universe, no, you won’t find that answer in “The Shack.”
Julia Duin’s column runs Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.