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Controversial book ‘The Shack’ makes the leap from page to screen

Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington in a scene from “The Shack." Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

(RNS) The 15 copies William Paul Young made at Office Depot did everything he had hoped they would do.

And more.

Young fulfilled a promise he’d made to his wife to write something down for their six children that captured the way he viewed God, and the 15 copies were given to his family and friends as Christmas gifts.

Then friends started sharing copies of the story. And Wayne Jacobsen, an author he’d briefly met and shared the story with, urged him to publish it.

After it was rejected or ignored by 26 publishing companies, Jacobsen and his friend Brian Cummings set up a small company to publish the story themselves. And Windblown Media sold nearly 1.1 million copies out of Cummings’ garage in just over a year.

Now Young’s best-selling book “The Shack” is completing its decadelong journey from the page to the screen in a Hollywood film opening this weekend (March 3), starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington.

“The rest of this, as far as I’m concerned, is God’s great sense of humor,” Young said.

Radha Mitchell and Sam Worthington in a scene from “The Shack.” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

“The Shack” is the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips, whose youngest daughter is abducted during a family vacation. Later, in the midst what Young calls Mack’s “Great Sadness,” he receives a letter from God inviting him back to spend the weekend at the shack in the Oregon wilderness where evidence of his daughter’s murder was discovered.

“Beyond all the political divisions and the ethnic and cultural divisions and the economic divisions, we all know love and loss, and this kind of loss asks the best questions about God, about who we are as human beings, and because it goes so deep, it picks up all the other losses with it,” Young said.

It’s a work of fiction, but it draws on the author’s experiences growing up in New Guinea as a missionary kid and “modern evangelical fundamentalist” as well as his experiences of physical and sexual abuse and his distant relationship with his father.

He spent 11 years reconstructing his faith, asking where God is in the midst of grief. And all of that is represented in the weekend Mack spends at the shack, he said.

“I wrapped that whole history into that storyline, and it just turned out it accomplished some pretty unexpected things,” Young said. “It gave people a language to have a conversation about God that was not religious but relational, and it validated people’s Great Sadnesses.”

Sparking controversy

It also raised controversy in some evangelical Christian circles.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in a 2010 blog post that the book’s dialogues between Mack and God “reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.” Mohler accused Young of “universal reconciliation,” or the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus has reconciled all of creation to God.

(Young, for his part, said he’s a “hopeful universalist” but he has tried to be careful not to declare universalism as doctrine.)

Tim McGraw as “Willie” in “The Shack.” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

In December, after the movie trailer was released, Joe Schimmel, a pastor and host of the documentary “Hollywood’s War on God,” told Christian News Network that the depiction in “The Shack” of God as “Papa,” a motherly black woman, and Sarayu, an Asian woman who is a gardener, “lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.” Schimmel did not comment in the article on the portrayal of Jesus as a Jewish man.

And more recently, evangelical blogger Tim Challies wrote he would not see or review the movie because it dared depict God at all.

But Spencer — recently nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures” — said she accepted the role of Papa “because I simply loved God being introduced in this way.”

“I love the way the Holy Trinity is presented in The Shack,” Spencer said in an email to RNS.

“It represents a very diverse group of people, which is what the world is. It sort of dispenses with the conventional images of God and what we have in our minds as God. But it’s not saying this is what God looks like, but rather this is what the characteristics of God look like.”

Going from book to screen

Playing the role of Papa in the film adaption of “The Shack” drew Spencer closer to God, she said, and it showed her what communication with God looks like. That was something she feels audiences need right now, too.

Octavia Spencer as “Papa,” or God, in “The Shack.” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

“There was just something about this project that I feel the world needs. It’s a balm. It just created a calm for me in my life and there’s just so much light around it,” she said.

While Spencer said, “You can’t be from Montgomery, Alabama and not have a background in the church,” her co-star Sam Worthington, who plays Mack, said he didn’t grow up with religion. He described faith as a journey he started about 20 years ago, when a friend gave him a Bible — and “The Shack” is part of that.

“The journey that Mack does in the book and in the movie, that’s what I could kind of associate with, and by doing the movie, it kind of popped me out this other side, and now I’m starting to understand my relationship with God and how strong faith can be,” Worthington said.

In particular, he said, he was sold on the role by a scene at the end of the movie, in which Mack admits to his oldest daughter, who blames herself for her sister’s death, that he knows what she’s going through and is only starting to learn how to deal with those feelings himself.

“That’s one of the most honest lines I’ve ever said because it was exactly how I was feeling,” he said.

For producer Gil Netter, who also was behind inspirational films like “The Life of Pi” and “The Blind Side,” it was the theme of forgiveness that led him to “The Shack” — that, and his wife. Cummings, who had been distributing the books from his garage, was a youth pastor at Netter’s church and had given his wife an early copy.

She, in turn, had given copies to everybody she encountered, he said.

Sam Worthington as “Mack” in “The Shack.” Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Summit Entertainment bought the rights to make the movie in 2013, and Netter said he probably supervised more than 60 drafts of scripts. It was so important to him, and his vision for it, so clear — almost like a vision from God, he said — that he personally was involved in everything from shopping for Spencer’s wardrobe to placing flowers on the set.

“I have a mission or a goal in life, and I guess I’m lucky enough to do it, but I only make movies that put positive things into the world,” he said.

A decade after publishing the book that started with a handful of photocopies, Young said he was surprised to be invited to give feedback throughout the filmmaking progress and pleased with how it turned out.

“I think readers of the book will recognize the distinction between a book and the movie, but they will not be disappointed in the movie,” he said.

But the popularity of “The Shack” is just the tip of the iceberg, Young said.

There’s “no doubt” evangelicalism is changing, returning to an understanding of God in line with the early church fathers and mothers — an understanding he tried to capture in his book, he said.

“As the structures start to crumble, which they are, all of a sudden permission to ask the questions is emerging,” he said.

“I think that’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. … I think we’re on the cusp or inside the beginnings of a reformation.”

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

21 Comments

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  • I’m anxious to see it, even though I believe the story is hackneyed and insipid. The book’s author sought to mix a spiritual treatise with a crime story (about the daughter’s abduction and murder) and it came off as junior high school level exposition. But it inspired countless people, including many people who seldom read books and probably voted for Trump. The fact that christofascists like Mohler criticize it is the icing on the cake.

  • Emily McFarlan Miller, something to add here, if I may. For I think you’ve left out one other personal crisis in your statement that The Shack “draws on the author’s … experiences of physical and sexual abuse and his distant relationship with his father”. And that is W. Paul Young’s adultery. For like he said elsewhere, “All I had left was the shame (of my adultery) … and I had to make a decision to either kill myself or face (my wife) Kim” (W. Paul Young, interview, BookPage, December 2008).

    Which means The Shack is W. Paul Young’s catharsis, then? How does that work? By having “the structures [of my ‘evangelicalism’] start to crumble”? OK, elsewhere he calls that paradigm tampering: “I wanted to play with the paradigms we have theologically … to re-think how we view God, how we view our relationship with God … to tamper with some of your sensibilities just by virtue of what it is … to challenge the existing narrative” (W. Paul Young, interview, TitleTrakk, 2012; and interview, Eden, January 11th, 2013; and interview, Goodreads, September 2015). What else, though, is his means of catharsis? Elsewhere he says he has been using secularism and pushbacked imagery as such useful tools for self-healing: “I am constantly trying to find … huge amounts of resonance within secularism that religion has created inhibitions to address.” (W. Paul Young, interview, Goodreads, September 2015) “I have had this pushback about the imagery” of God. “Imagery doesn’t define God, it helps us understand the character and nature of God.” (W. Paul Young, interview, NPR, December 1, 2012; and interview, Eden, January 11th, 2013)

    Fine. Congratulations, W. Paul Young, for having arrived “on the cusp or inside the beginnings of a reformation.” To each her own, I guess. But must you go on and on calling yourself still a “modern evangelical fundamentalist” or, like you’ve confessed elsewhere, “I’m a protestant evangelical fundamentalist”?! (William Paul Young, interview, Eden, January 11th, 2013) Why is that? Perhaps because your “mom had read the book … then called [your] sister. Horrified by her son’s portrayal of God as Father-goddess, Mrs. Young stated, ‘Debbie, your brother’s a heretic'”? (Shepherd’s Organic Bible Verse Tea, May 11th, 2011)

    Heretic or not, you ain’t no “protestant evangelical fundamentalist” no more, dude. Just change your choice of religious affiliation already! No shame in that. Though not inconsequential, either, mind.

    Oh, by the way, here are the film review ratings of The Shack: 16% by Rotten Tomatoes. 1.5/4 by Roger Ebert. And 3/5 by Common Sense Media. Not so good, as you can see. Oh, well. But, hey, I’m going to see it anyway – but only to feel (ministerially, pastorally, whatever) what you must’ve gone through as a disenchanted “protestant evangelical fundamentalist” all your life, dealing with sexual abuse, authoritarian patriarchy, and adultery, while seeking spiritual self-healing.

  • I haven’t read the book yet, nor am I in any hurry to see the movie. What I do know, is that these are hard times for American Christianity (evangelicals and everybody else too), and it’s likely to get worse down the road. Even those who are raised with Christian backgrounds are having trouble sticking with the clear claims and teachings of Scripture.

    But who knows? Maybe some who see the “The Shack” movie or read the book, will come away with personal questions that Bible-believing Christians will have prepared themselves to answer (1 Peter 3:15). That would be an interesting development.

    So for me, my only two questions are:

    (1) What’s a “Christofascist”?

    (2) How does Dr. Albert Mohler qualify as one?

  • I read the book a few years ago. A concerned-for-my-soul ex-nun who couldn’t explain what she thought she believed suggested I read it in order to get a hint of how she felt. In truth, I knew she was irrational before I read it so learnt nothing helpful.

    If, as is suggested, the act of writing was the author’s equivalent of exorcising his demons, I hope it worked for him. I just wonder why he thought that Jesus saw fit to make the Gadarene swine pay for the privilege of being infected with the nutter’s problems; Oh he didn’t? – Jesus 1 : author 0.

  • What might have been a legitimate point of view is marred by your condescension in my reading of it.

  • Fascism is authoritarian government; Christofascism claims to be a “Christian” variation of it just like Islamofascism is an Islamic version. Mohler’s writings confirm this is what he advocates. He is an enemy of freedom.
    These are NOT “hard times” for Christians in the U.S. The assertion otherwise is not based on facts.

  • There’s not a litmus test for religious ideologies per se. I would agree the fellow is “Protestant” and “evangelical,” but not “fundamentalist” any more given that he wrote a book like this, but that’s his call, not yours. He can call himself whatever he wants. People seek labels they are comfortable with. It’s not unlike party-switching politicians who claim “I didn’t leave the Democratic [or Republican] Party; it left me.”

    I’m not sure about this part: ” … the author’s … experiences of physical and sexual abuse and his distant relationship with his father”. And that is W. Paul Young’s adultery…” My response is “So freaking what?” There are plenty of persons victimized as children, and plenty who have committed adultery, both, or one or the other. and I’d certainly trust the fellow’s judgment better than that of someone seeking to discredit him by mercenary means. In a form a classism and religious bigotry, “church people” often attack those they determine come from “dysfunctional families” while ignoring the fact that their own upbringings produced mean-spirited and vengeful persons like themselves. The very term, “dysfunctional family,” is a redundancy.
    Kudos, however, on the research and its presentation. That was well-written but it is rendered inert by the personal attack.

  • I hear you, Kangaroo52, my comments can sound judgmental. Not my intention. Except at the conclusion, where I must second-guess the guy for claiming secularism, pushback imagery and paradigm tampering have healed him from sexual abuse, paternal alienation and spousal infidelity. I don’t think salvation comes easy. Not if it took Son of God to go kaput for sorry folks like me. No way. Go write your book, convert it to film, fine. But don’t you dare dismiss ransom price of salvation paid for by Father & Son in Heaven. Or claim you’ve got a better way out. Is all. I was judging him on this ultimate matter. For which I plead, Guilty.

    Now when it comes to background materials on W. Paul Young, however, I wasn’t being judgmental of the guy. If you must know, they make me cry. Then to read conservative Evangelicals with no tone of commiseration or empathy or even intellectual curiosity toward his very personal reasons for artistically creating The Shack in the first place (Emily McFarlan Miller is an exceptional exception, to be sure), it occurred to me, They don’t really care that he really was one of them, from among them. How cold. No compassion. Not even wondering, where in Evangelicalism did we ever go wrong in your case, Brother Young?

    Me? I wanna know his reasons. And so I forced myself to get a read-up on his interviews. Like this one by Brother Maynard (“Blog Interview: William P. (Paul) Young, Author of The Shack”, Subversive Influence, Sep 28, 2007). To the question, “Do you think of this (The Shack) an ’emerging church’ book?”, to this day I still think W. Paul Young should’ve confessed, Yes, yes, yes, alright?! Now leave me alone. Guess what his answer was: “There was no intent that this be part of the emergent movement – the intent was a gift for my 6 kids.” Now guess what the interviewer said to that: “I want to quip that that’s very ’emerging’ of you.”

    So, for you to say to me, “He can call himself whatever he wants”, isn’t it obvious that I agree with you, even though that really isn’t the point here? Ask yourself, Why is W. Paul Young playing hard to get here? An early onslaught of Celebrity Fever or Nouveau Riche Syndrome, perhaps? I don’t know. And so I just threw in there what he said his mom called him, A heretic. Maybe that’s one explanation. He’s HER missionary kid after all, if you know what I mean.

    Next, though, you’re being unfair with this statement in light of his own confessions, with which I conclude my reply (thanks for getting this burden off my chest): “I’m not sure about this part: ‘ … the author’s … experiences of physical and sexual abuse and his distant relationship with his father’. And … W. Paul Young’s adultery…’ My response is ‘So freaking what?'”.

    Go ahead, Brother Paul, you were saying …

    (1) SEXUAL ABUSE – “With the kind of history that I have, with growing up in a culture where sexual abuse was a part of my world before I was five years old, … it took me decades to work through the damage with any sense of coherency or integration (and to be) inside the conversation with regard to the healing of the human soul.” (William Paul Young, interview, Goodreads, September 2015)

    (2) PATRIARCHY – “A lot of my imaginations of God was a projection of my own damage because of my father (which) end up with a God who’s not even a very good father.” (William Paul Young, interview, New Statesman, 3 January 2013)

    (3) ADULTERY – “The Shack is a metaphor; it’s my soul … All I had left was the shame (from my adulterous infidelity to my wife) … and I had to make a decision to either kill myself or face Kim. So I chose Kim (and) her fury … that drove me to the edge to feel every single piece of garbage in my history.” (William Paul Young, interview, BookPage, December 2008)

  • “condescension”, judgmental, I get that a lot, cajb11. If you must know I tried to comment at The Gospel Coalition and Christian News Network on author’s personal reasons for writing this book which they reviewed. Nope; they aren’t interested. They just want to pigeon-hole him as Not One Of Us. I got deleted. OK, my friend, this is just to say, can you please chime in at Kangaroo52’s thread? You both have similar issue with this Hypocrite HpO. Just kidding. Calm down.

  • A long post, but it really shines a lot of light — much more than the RNS article — on where this book and movie is coming from. Thanks.

  • Albert Mohler and John Haller have this fiction figured out as heretical..i’ll go with their judgement on it and save 7.50 at the theatres.

  • You really can’t go wrong with the president of Sothern Theological Seminary Dr. Albert Mohler

  • I’ll go to see it with an open mind, and I hope a willingness to accept Jesus’ word that the Spirit of God is like the wind it blows where it will.

  • Given the book’s shaky theological foundations (and even shakier implications for further thinking), I cringe to think how Hollywood will handle the story.

  • A video response?
    I’m seldom in a situation where I’m able to watch/listen to videos while online. And I was enjoying the verbal ping-pong, Spuddie had a clever reply, and then you post a video link!
    Aargh! Guess I’ll never know your reply. :-/

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