My husband sometimes tells me I'm stubborn. I guess it takes one to know one. But when Forrest Gump came out we were as stubborn as each other. Even when the movie was available to rent, it took us over a year to get around to viewing it. It was media hype that put us off. If everyone was that determined to tell us it was good, we knew we could only end up disappointed. Which was a shame because it really was just as good as everyone said.
The latest media hype to provoke my stubborn streak has been about "The Shack." First of all, it was something people at church were saying I just "had" to read. Then, as I was finally considering succumbing, the book and advertisements began to appear in style all over the place. Huge displays. Racks and racks of books. Study groups buying in bulk… Oh dear.
Like my husband says, I'm stubborn. I decided the Shack could only disappoint so I wouldn't bother reading.
Somewhere along the way I learned that the story was "controversial." Normally that would have excited my interest, but by now I was convinced that any apparent controversy would be mild and artificial, nothing more than an aide to sales. So I put the book on my "buy it when it's cheap and read it later" list. And I continued to smile "Not yet," when asked if I'd read it.
Last month our church magazine announced that Paul Young was going to do a book-signing on September 6th. I guess he's "William P. Young" on the cover of the book, but one of our church members knows him as Paul. And now, stubborn or not, I had to read the book. After all, how could I meet the author and confess to ignoring what he'd written?
Of course, last week was one of those endlessly busy times, and I couldn't get out to a bookstore. Luckily a friend met me on the green and offered to loan me her copy, so I spent Saturday afternoon reading…
Yes, I'm a quick reader. I finished it. I even made lunch and dinner too, and got down to church in time to buy my own copy.
The church was getting quite crowded quite fast, and filled with the noisy mumble of many conversations. But then the introductions began and we all fell silent to listen.
Paul was a surprise when he stepped out at the front. I'd never seen a photograph so I'm not sure what I expected. But it turns out he's about my age, very normal looking, the type of bloke I'd meet in Home Depot any day and promptly forget. He's not even all that tall.
Paul seemed to find himself a bit of a surprise too, and was pleasantly unassuming. He wasn't planning to be famous when he wrote the Shack – didn't expect to change the world or the book-publishing business. And he certainly didn't expect to end up giving major talks in public places. We were treating him gently; there can't have been more than a few hundred people at our meeting, but he has some huge events coming up in his schedule.
Paul told us a little about his road to getting published – big Christian houses turning him down because he might offend; big secular houses because there was too much of that Jesus character woven in the tale. He told us how the Southern Baptists had temporarily banned his book, but they changed their mind, so anyone who disapproves must be even more fundamental than they are. And he told us a bit about his life, how the book condenses his journey of many years into a weekend for Mack.
Paul talked about what happened after the Shack was published too; the amazing phone calls from strangers in Australia; the 10,000 copies that sold so fast they ordered 20,000 the next time and 30,000 the next; the phone calls from Barnes and Noble and Ingram's… And all of it just a surprise to be enjoyed, and a delight to be part of something bigger than himself, though he wouldn't have minded cleaning toilets if that was what God wanted.
Paul is a really good speaker, fun and open and fascinating. He invited us to think more deeply about God and religion and ourselves, just as the book does. And one thing that particularly impressed me was his comment about how easily we waste God's "grace for today" on the what-if's of tomorrow. Then we ask God to run after us blessing plans for a future that may never happen. How very true. And how very pointless.
At the end Paul took questions, including one which asked where the characters he used to portray God came from.
Even if you've not read the book yet, you've probably heard the controversy over God appearing as a black woman (can't wait for the movie!). But Paul spoke of his background as a missionary child, how in his earliest years he was brought up by tribes-people and really thought he was black. The God in the Shack meets Mack exactly where he is, meets him how he'll best be able to relate. And perhaps for Paul, it was easiest to relate to a delightful black lady portraying the parental role.
Jesus in the book is, well, Jesus – an Arab-type guy with a tool-belt round his waist, and the knack of walking across the odd lake here and there. Except he says he's just a close relation to the Arabs, and actually Jewish. Then the Holy Spirit is a delightful Asian lady with the Indian name Sarayu, blowing like a "surprising wind" through the tale.
Wisdom is Latino.
And no, it's not corny, or artificial. It's delightfully intriguing, and intriguingly new.
As to being banned, I guess they banned C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" back when I was at college – we all went out to buy copies straight away of course – so Paul's in good company.
I really love the book. I love the answers that are never quite complete, and the relationship that allows them to be so. I love the reminder that God's not a Western, let's all stand-up-kneel-down-sit-down-clap-hands-and-say-Amen set of rules and rituals, but a God who truly chooses to spend time with us. And I love the ending which, even though I saw it coming a mile off, still made me cry.
If you're as stubborn as me, you've probably not got around to reading this book yet. They're starting to sell it cheap in the book-stores now, so please go out and buy one or borrow one. Set aside some time to read it. You'll be glad you did.
© Sheila Deeth