In 2007, a self-published novel by first-time author William Paul Young surged onto the USA Today Best Seller List – selling more than 1 million books in its first year. The Shack found a publisher and also found a spot on the New York Times Best-Seller List, where it remained from June 2008 through early 2010. Since its publication, more than 22 million copies of The Shack have been sold.

The Shack was widely read, especially in Evangelical circles; but while many found it inspiring, its detractors called it heretical and theologically inaccurate – largely because of its depiction of God. In the book, Young had imagined the Trinity as three unlikely characters: God the Father is manifest as an African-American woman who calls herself Elousia and “Papa”; the Son, Jesus Christ, is a Jewish carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

The Shack comes to the big screen March 3, in a film version starring Sam Worthington (as Mack Phillips), Octavia Spencer (as “Papa”), and Tim McGraw (as Mack's neighbor Willie).

 

Is God an Old Man With a Beard?

Not everyone is ready to accept the Trinity as portrayed in the book and film. Among those crying “heresy” about The Shack's unconventional portrayal of God is Joe Schimmel, a California pastor and filmmaker. In a recent issue of Relevant Magazine, Schimmel is quoted as saying that the

“...characterization of God as a heavy-set, cushy, nonjudgmental, African-American woman called 'Papa' (who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ – Hebrews 1:1-3), and his depiction of the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with the Hindu name, Sarayu, lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.”

But the familiar medieval paintings, which portray God as an elderly, bearded man on a throne – while they may signify something of God's wisdom and power – also fail to adequately illustrate the God of unending glory.

In a roundtable discussion with members of the media February 11, author William Paul Young explained his intent in creating the characters: “I see this as a poetic depiction of God,” Young said.

“...The imagery is not, and has never been intended, to define God. Our image of Gandalf [as representative of God] has become tantamount to idolatry. It has limited God to a polarity of gender. But in Scripture, there is both masculine and feminine imagery.”

As evidence of this, Young cited Scripture passages in which God is compared to a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15), or even to inanimate objects (a rock), or a living creature (a lion). He uses the imagery, he explained, to present a relationship:

“Here is a way to look at the maternal nature of God, which is so powerful and is going to bring joy. It helps to break down one of those walls that we've established.... As you watch it, you are drawn into the moment. The focus is on the emotions, not the head. It stays out of the intellectual realm.”

 

Does The Shack Mislead With a Message of Universalism?

Another criticism leveled against The Shack concerns its message of mercy. Papa explains to the heartbroken Mack that his abusive father was himself victimized by his father. Mack came to understand that the severe childhood beatings his father faced had hardened his heart and crushed his spirit, and had taught him ineffective ways of discipline. This brokenness was transmitted through generations, back to the time of Adam.

In showing us God's eternal love, is The Shack promulgating the idea that all will be saved, and that there is no hell? It's a question for which I have no solid answer. Despite the sins of mortal men, Papa loved them passionately – and wanted to draw them to him/herself in heaven. What was important, Papa showed Mack, was that he forgive those who had sinned against him: his own father, and even the serial murderer who took the life of his youngest daughter Missie.

Bishop Robert Barron, in a video recorded seven years ago, after The Shack had reached the top of the best-seller lists, describes the story as a modern retelling of the book of Job – of a good and righteous man who confronts the problem of terrible suffering. Mack is a devoted father who has lost his daughter Missie to a serial killer. He is paralyzed by grief when he receives an invitation in his mailbox to come to a shack in the woods to meet “Papa,” which is the affectionate title given to God by Mack's wife Nan.

In The Shack, the tri-personed God is portrayed as boundless Love. The relationship of Papa with the Son and with Sarayu, the Spirit, is loving and joyful. And God is not some distant ruler, as in Deism, but is deeply personal. God knows all the details of Mack's life, of his terrible loss; and Papa explains that she was there, accompanying Mack, even at the hardest moments of his life. This, observed Bishop Barron, is the God of the Bible, the God of Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

That is the God, says Bishop Barron, who is portrayed very effectively in this book. And isn't the goal of the spiritual life to be “friends” with God? In the Old Testament, Adam walks with God. In The Shack, Mack cooks with God the Father; he gardens with the Holy Spirit.

God's knowledge of all things transcends our capacity to understand; and so in The Shack, God helps Mack to understand that the events of his life fit into a greater framework. Mack is permitted a glimpse into Missie's new life in heaven, riding on Jesus' shoulders and bouncing through the gardens with her friends.

But while Bishop Barron appreciated much of the story, he drew back as it neared the end and as God, in Bishop Barron's estimation, “began to sound too much like Martin Luther.” The book and movie looked, like Luther, at the Law and Grace as opposed; the Law, Martin Luther said, was given us to prove to us that we cannot achieve heaven on our own. In contrast, for 500 years the Catholic Church has balked at that idea. The Catholic position is that Grace and Law are not in opposition. The Law is a structuring logic of the spiritual life. We don't see the Law as the enemy of Grace; rather, it's Grace's partner.

But Bishop Barron, despite his reservations regarding this aspect of the book, recommends the story for Catholics, especially for those who have experienced suffering. “It's like a watermelon,” he says. “There's a lot of sweet stuff – but you do have to spit out a few seeds.”

In preparing for my conversation with William Paul Young, I watched The Shack not once, but twice. It was inspiring, beautifully portrayed, and thought-provoking. The love and humor and the sheer joy of the Trinity, bantering over the dinner table in the Shack, was heartwarming, and it made fresh my awareness of God's love for me.

The Shack opens in theaters across America on March 3.