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William Paul Young: Rebuilding The Shack on the Big Screen

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

William Paul Young is the true definition of an accidental author.   Writing what was intended to be a Christmas gift for his children more than a decade ago, his book, The Shack, eventually turned into a mammoth New York Times bestseller.  Young’s good fortune seemed like the ultimate feel-good story for aspiring unpublished authors everywhere.

However, despite its colossal success, The Shack received a fair amount of criticism for departing from the traditional view of how the Holy Trinity is portrayed.   Despite Young’s earnest and tender treatment of the subject, many theologians decried The Shack for presenting a non-Biblical view of Christendom’s most sacred tenet.

A box office success from earlier in the year, home viewers will now get a front row seat to see for themselves as The Shack releases on DVD, May 30th.  Starring Sam Worthington and Octavia Spencer, the movie is a strong, thought-provoking adaptation of Young's book that follows a father’s uplifting spiritual journey to find healing from tragedy.

I recently spoke with Young to discuss why he chose to feature the Trinity in such a manner, why he thinks The Shack has struck such a nerve with people, and whether the new movie captures his original vision for the story.

I don’t think you ever expected to have the success that The Shack the book has had.  You originally wrote it as a gift for your children.  Twenty-six publishers turned you down. Yet the book has sold more than 25 million copies.  Now a major motion picture is on the way.  What was your original hope for The Shack when you first wrote it?

It was a gift for our kids. I tell people I’m trying to do it like the Bible says and submit to my wife. She had said for about four years, “You know, someday as a gift for our kids, would you write something that puts into one place how you think, because you think outside the box?”

What I was trying to do was put 50 years worth of life and having to work through all kinds of deconstruction and reconstruction, both with regard to the character and nature of God.  I’m saying to my kids, let me wrap up my world inside of a story in which you will know better the God that actually showed up and healed my heart, and not the God that I grew up with.

This story has obviously taken on a life of its own.  Do you have a hard time coming to grips with all of the fanfare and some of the controversy that the story has received along the way?

I don’t try to come to grips with any of it. It’s like coming to grips with the ocean.  You get out in the wave and it’s like, there is no way you’re going to tell this wave what it’s supposed to do. The best you can do is you keep your head up and you hang on and just see where it takes you, and that’s how it feels. So none of it, both the fans, their side of it and the push back side of it; and in some respects, the push back side, there’s an element to it that is deeply rewarding in the sense that all of the movements in my life have come with some kind of internal push back.  I haven’t made really big changes in my life when things were controllable and going well, and where there wasn’t some friction. So my whole journey has required a lot of it, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of stuff. So, that this little book has ended up in the middle of so many conversations and has caused questions to emerge to the surface, I think that’s a really great thing, and I think that is something that the Holy Spirit has done, because it wasn’t my intention. When I wrote about Papa (God) being a black African American woman, I wasn’t trying to define God, but I was saying I want you to know that God is bigger than Gandalf with a bad attitude. So the only time when push back’s gotten difficult is when people went after my kids.

As you have mentioned, the book has received quite a bit of criticism for how you portrayed the Holy Trinity. This issue is naturally going to come up again as the movie releases.  First, how did you arrive at the concept of how you presented it and second, how do you answer your theological critics that dispute this? And there are many.

That’s an easy one for me.  It’s always been an easy one for me.  God is not more “he” than “she,” and imagery was never intended to define God, or God would be a rock, or a shield, or a strong tower, or a mother bear, or a lion. Masculine imagery is definitely used, no doubt about it, and even in the book and the movie, my main character Mackenzie, who has been so damaged by men in his life, that’s not the path through which God then approaches.  This is because God loves him and opens up a way for him.  He’s still going to have to deal with the whole masculine side of the nature and character of God, as well as the maternal side, which he does. God is a nursing mother in Isaiah, or God is a woman who loses a coin, or God is a father, God is a shepherd, and you’ve got all this mix and interplay, but orthodox theology has always declared that the entire spectrum of maternity and paternity originated in father, originated in son, and originated in Holy Spirit. So to play with some of the imagery was more to tamper with the assumptions that we have already concretized in our own mind.

I was privileged to see an advance screening of the new movie recently and couldn’t help but notice that several people left the theater in tears after seeing it – but in a good way!  Why do you think The Shack has struck such a nerve with people?

Because it’s so human. It’s not a religious movie. The book and the movie both are giving people a language to have a conversation about things that matter to them in a way that they didn’t have access to, and some of those things revolve around faith for many of us. The questions that are raised about living in a broken world and the goodness of God, how you put those together. So on the one hand, the book and the movie has given a language to people to talk about God in a way that’s not religious but relational. On the other hand, it’s validated our great sadness. It says to the individual person, you matter, and the story that you brought to the table matters, and you’re not alone in it. Plus there are all the other elements and layers, like the issues of forgiveness and the ways we have been hurt, and the confrontation with our judgmentalism. I think what I love about both the book and the movie is that they create a space that is respectful to the viewer or to the listener, or to the reader, so that that person can hear for themselves, trust the Holy Spirit to climb into that space with that person and begin to do some work. It’s an invitation towards something better and more beautiful, something in a direction of wholeness.

Let’s specifically dive into the film. What’s your general thought on the movie? Do you think it’s a good representation of your original concept, a horrible representation, or somewhere in between?

I think it’s terrific. I think it’s one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen.

There are always a couple minor things, but the more I’ve watched it, the more I appreciate the effort to maintain authenticity to the storyline and to the words that I wrote, and everything else. And I think partly because the producer, the director, the set designer, the people on the set, and the actors, they brought with them already an experience and encounter with the book, and it shows.

What is your greatest hope for the movie version of The Shack?

If this makes any sense, I don’t have an agenda in a sense like that. But if I do frame it, I would say I want the person who goes in there and watches it to hear for themselves what the Holy Spirit is saying to them, you know, and it’s going to be on so many different levels. For some it’s going to be an affirmation, for some it’s going to be a confrontation, but both of those are love. I would like them to leave with the desire that has always been within them to be authentic and fully alive, fully free, to be sparked and to be encouraged, and that they sense that there is such a larger conversation that they have already been included into and may not know or have forgotten, and that’s going to be right in the centrality of this relationship with the God who is good all the time.

Watch the official trailer for The Shack:

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