William Paul Young wrote “The Shack” as a Christmas gift to his children in a brief but productive flurry of creative inspiration. Paul was working several jobs at the time, struggling to make ends meet, and he hoped the book would give his kids an idea of how he felt about God. A few copies of his book were printed and passed around to other friends, and the feedback Young got was unanimous: You should publish this.
That was in 2005. “The Shack” was published two years later. Today it has sold over 20 million copies and has a film adaptation landing that stars Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington.
But the movie bows to a very different cultural landscape than the book did at its publication. Then, America was falling under the sway of a fresh-faced Chicagoan named Barack Obama who was viewed as a significant break from the religious-right-approved administration of George W. Bush. Grim, apocalyptic movies like “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” were giving way to stories like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “WALL-E” and “The Dark Knight.” “The Sopranos” got its cryptic final bullet in the chest even as America was introduced to a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White. Kanye released “808s and Heartbreak” and Coldplay released “Viva La Vida!”
The theme of all this new art wasn’t so much optimism — nobody would accuse “Breaking Bad” or “808s” of an overly saccharine tone — as much as stubborn resilience. Obama’s message of hope didn’t resonate because voters were optimistic about the future, but because they wanted to be.
It was a natural fit when “The Shack,” an almost unbearably sad tale that nevertheless draws meaning out of suffering, first came out. In the book, a man named Mack meets manifestations of God at the titular shack where his young daughter had been murdered several years before. So that’s a bit darker than your average runaway bestseller. But the story is really about the three persons of the Christian Trinity helping Mack find healing at the source of his suffering. That’s a timeless take, but there’s no denying that it had extra traction in 2007.
Another key to the success of “The Shack” was its Christian worldview, but that’s a trickier needle to thread. “The Shack” is in the world of Christian art, but it’s not really of it. The book dives into some pretty heady historical theology for an airport read, but it also angered some gatekeepers of the Christian subculture zeitgeist.
The most famous conservative religion exception to “The Shack” is its depiction of God the Father as a matronly black woman (that’s who the suitably divine Octavia Spencer portrays in the movie). California pastor Joe Schimmel told the Christian News Network that the story’s “pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, nonjudgmental, African American woman called ‘Papa’ … lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.” It is not clear whether Schimmel also objects to depictions of God as a lion (as in C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series) or an old white man (as in most of Western religious art.)
Some theologians have also accused “The Shack” of flirting with universalism, the theological notion that teaches that all people, not just Christians, will go to heaven. James B. DeYoung told Christian News that “every Christian should be gravely alarmed at the further advance of beliefs that smear the evangelical understanding of the truth of the Bible.” (DeYoung is the author of several theology books, including “Burning Down The Shack.”)
All this meant “The Shack” was an odd bedfellow for its Christian publishing contemporaries upon its release. The latter half of the 2000s was a bad time for the Christian subculture, with most of its brightest stars easing into retirement while the fresh wave of bankable new faces, such as Hillsong United and Lecrae, were still a few years out from making their respective splashes. The industry needed William Paul Young and his work to stay relevant, but many of the old guard weren’t happy about it.
Today, art with Christian themes occupies a much more prominent place in the cultural landscape. Chance the Rapper is singing “How Great Is Our God” at the Grammys; Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” were critically beloved and faith-oriented; “The Young Pope” is garnering cozy ratings for HBO.
The subculture that Christian art created and then regulated has been straining for relevance more or less since its invention, but when artists of Chance and Scorsese’s caliber are now creating faith-based art that sits comfortably in the mainstream it creates a new obstacle. If Andrew Garfield and Kanye West can tout the good news, then do the faithful really need shoestring budget alternatives like “God’s Not Dead”?
The elephant in the room is President Trump, a sharp refutation to the narrative that evangelicals are on the decline — an idea that was generally accepted as a given until November. White evangelicals are feeling pretty optimistic about their fortunes under Trump, while 62 percent of African/Hispanic/Asian American evangelicals told the Pew Research Center last summer that they planned to vote for Hillary Clinton.
In 2007, white evangelicals found the depiction of God as a black woman controversial. In 2017, many of them may find it to be “political” or, that most nebulous of modern-day pejoratives, “divisive.”
And so we come back to “The Shack,” a story with theology both historical and provocative, with plot beats both hopeful and agonizing, aimed at an audience that promises to be either hugely receptive or royally pissed off about the entire affair. None of this is particularly new; religion has always been a mass of tensions, which is why so much of it must be taken on faith. But in a polarized society ever warier of engaging with differing ideologies, the film’s well-intentioned layers of complexity feel like time capsules from a bygone era.