GRESHAM, Ore. | A year ago, William Paul Young was selling circuit boards in a Portland suburb, doing Web consulting and trying to market “The Shack,” an unorthodox novel aimed at disenchanted Christians.
Today, his 248-page allegory is in the Top 10 on Amazon.com, No. 1 in religious fiction in Publisher’s Weekly, the No. 1 trade paperback fiction at Barnes & Noble bookstores and on the New York Times best-seller list.
Rarely does a piece of Christian fiction sell more than a few thousand copies. But “The Shack,” with its cover of an arty drawing of a dilapidated building under a heavenly glow, has sold more than 2 million books. NBC’s “Today” show interviewed Mr. Young on July 17. Several film offers are on the table.
Sitting in a Gresham coffee shop, the 53-year-old author turned celebrity said the book had made God accessible to multitudes who see Him as “angry, distant and disappointed in us.”
“We’re so used to God being Gandalf with an attitude,” he added.
The novel’s hero, Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips, is the grief-stricken father of Missy, 6, who was slain during a family camping trip to northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.
Drowning in bitterness and sorrow, he receives a mysterious note in his mailbox from God four years later inviting him to revisit the site of the crime. There, he finds Eden-like surroundings and three people representing the Trinity. God the Father is a jolly, middle-aged black woman; Jesus is a 30-something Israeli; and the Holy Spirit is Sarayu, a wiry Asian woman.
The rest of the book details Mack’s adventures and conversations he has with the trio over a 48-hour period about why God allows evil. Missy, now in heaven, also makes a brief appearance.
“This is about the character of God,” said the author, “and how He won’t abuse or violate us to accomplish His purposes.”
It also is about whether God is truly good. Born in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and then whisked off to New Guinea by his missionary parents, Mr. Young had early life experiences that seemed to confirm a malevolent deity.
First, he was sexually abused by the natives, then by fellow students at a boarding school. He found happiness with his wife, Kim, and then was overwhelmed by the deaths of three close family members. He nearly torpedoed his marriage by committing adultery 15 years ago and lost the family home when he and his wife went bankrupt in 2003.
Then Mrs. Young prodded her husband to write a book about his spiritual healing for their six children. He sent a copy to Wayne Jacobsen, an itinerant pastor out of Moorpark, Calif., and Brad Cummings, a pastor turned film producer.
“It was an incredible story,” Mr. Cummings said. “It so honestly dealt with pain and didn’t provide trite answers and unveiled a God incredibly present and in love with us.
“What was so fascinating was the interplay between the three members of the Trinity. I have never seen something that so described the relationship within the heart of God.”
Mr. Jacobsen sent the manuscript to a dozen Christian publishers, all of whom rejected it.
“They just found it a bit too edgy for the conservative Christian crowd,” Mr. Cummings said. “They then shipped it to their secular imprints which found it too Jesusy for their readers. We think there is a massive missing middle - an audience that wants spiritual things and that is tired of being preached at.”
Mr. Jacobsen added that several Christian publishers privately acknowledged that they feared bad reactions from their leading “cash cow” authors who might bolt for another publisher. The two pastors then created their own company, Windblown Media, to publish the book. It was released May 1, 2007, with 1,000 pre-orders thanks to www.thegodjourney.com, a weekly podcast to 150 countries.
“We didn’t know how many books to print nor where to store them,” Mr. Cummings said. “But within three months we had sold our initial print run of 10,000.”
Print runs of 22,000 and 50,000 sold out by Christmas. Stories started to trickle in about churches giving out box loads of the book.
“People were really touched,” Mr. Cummings said. “They identified with the pain in this story and ended up with the revelation that God has not abandoned them but meets them in the midst of their tragedy.”
When the book hit the New York Times best-seller list this spring, the pastors struck a distribution agreement with Hachette Book Group USA.
Critics include Prison Fellowship founder Charles W. Colson, who chastised Mr. Young on May 6 in his prison ministry BreakPoint commentary for his “low view of Scripture.”
The Rev. Mark Driscoll, pastor of the Seattle megachurch Mars Hill, told his congregation in the spring not to read the book. “Regarding the Trinity, it’s actually heretical,” he said. “It’s goddess worship. If God the Father is God the Mother, that changes everything.”
Mr. Cummings dismisses such criticism.
“The fact that God shows up as a heavyset black lady leads some people to have their circuits fried,” he said. “The book is a way to help people to look beyond their stereotypes.”
After all, LifeWay Christian Stores, the official distributor for Southern Baptist books, is selling the novel despite a temporary sales freeze in June that allowed theologians to examine the book.
“The head buyer called me back two weeks later,” Mr. Cummings said, “and said the findings were [that] there was nothing in the book that warranted pulling it from the shelves. Now if you find anything wrong with the book, that makes the Southern Baptists more liberal than you. It holds its weight against any doctrinal challenge.”