Recently an acquaintance of my wife’s, a woman she’d met a few times through work, presented her with a gift for our two-month-old daughter: a tiny, hand-knit, beige sweater, a wrap-around tunic that ties at the side with a button in the shape of a ladybug. “Isn’t it wonderful?” my wife asked. She likes wrap sweaters, herself, and she thought the ladybug was adorable. I’m sure it is. But I could only feign agreement. My stomach was lurching with the adrenalized vertigo peculiar to new parents, torqued between deep fear and cold aggression in the face of a perceived threat to one’s child. There was no threat in the sweater, of course. Rather, just the dangers of free association, between its ladybug button and the toy ladybug left behind as calling cards by the child-killer who sets in motion the plot of The Shack, an evangelical bestseller self-published in 2008 by an Oregon motel clerk named William P. Young. I read The Shack with the intention of reviewing it several months ago, but until that moment with the ladybug, I couldn’t account for why this awkward allegorical novel has won the hearts and minds of Christian America like no other fiction since the 1995 debut of the apocalyptic Left Behind series, which went on to sell some 50 million copies worldwide.
The Shack is as unlike that violently fundamentalist fever dream as possible: almost action-free, clogged with philosophical allusion, soundtracked by a series of chapter epigraphs drawn from Bruce Cockburn songs, and dedicated to a transgendered God who takes the form of a jolly, fat black woman in an apron, seemingly borrowed from a bottle of Aunt Jemima maple syrup, and calls herself Poppa to remind you that even though she’s a a mountain of maternal love she’s also your father. The Father, in fact—The Shack is ultimately committed to the same muscular faith that ripples through Left Behind. It’s not the theological destination that differs, it’s the path. Left Behind, perhaps the definitive evangelical text of the 1990s, attacked secularism and liberalism head on, its story of a small band of evangelicals doing battle with a United Nations bent on eradicationg religion an outright declaration of culture war, at the least. The Shack isn’t like that. The Shack loves everybody, even liberals. They’ll learn, if they’ll just relax for a minute and pull up a seat for pancakes with Poppa. The Shack is fundamentalism a la Alice’s Restaurant.