Papa (Octavia Spencer) comforts Mack (Sam Worthington) as he tries to come to terms with his daughter’s death. Photo courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.

'The Shack' brings its Holy Trinity to the screen

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  • March 3, 2017

William Paul Young initially made 15 copies of The Shack in 2005 as a Christmas present for his six children and for a handful of his close friends.

Today, the self-published phenomenon has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and a film version hits the big screen March 3.

“I made 15 copies at Office Depot that did everything I ever wanted that book to do,” Young told The Catholic Register. “To be on (a set) with 60 people working right in front of you and getting paid to work on something that was a Christmas present for your kids, it was really wild.”

The Shack, starring Avatar’s Sam Worthington and Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer, is based on the Canadian-born author’s 2007 novel about a man named Mackenzie Allen (Mack) Philips who sinks into a “Great Sadness” after his youngest daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer.

In a remote shack in the middle of the woods, Mack encounters God and spends the weekend speaking to each member of the Trinity in an effort to confront his inner wounds.

Much like the book, Young anticipates the film will also garner controversy for its depiction of the Holy Trinity.

Papa, who represents God the Father, is described in the book as a “large, beaming African-American woman.” Jesus, God the Son, is depicted as a Middle Eastern carpenter, dressed in jeans, a plaid shirt and a tool belt. Sarayu, which means “wind or holy river” in Hindu, is a “small, distinctively Asian woman” that is meant to represent God the Spirit.

Many theologians have spoken out against the book, saying Young’s interpretation of the Trinity neglects Scripture and Divine Revelation.

“This is one of the key tenets of traditional Christian faith,” wrote Dominican Br. Ezra Sullivan in the weekly Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor. “That the one God, the Almighty, revealed Himself as Father to the Israelites, through Jesus and with the apostles.”

Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles said there are many flaws in Young’s depiction of the Trinity, but it also carries some truths.

“There’s a lot of things I like it. It’s robustly Christian. The image of God is Trinitarian,” said Barron in his Word on Fire video series. “More to it, this Trinitarian God is love right through. That’s all the Trinity truly means for us…. God is someone to whom we can talk to as a friend.”

Young insists that he chose to depict the three persons of the Trinity in this way to shake the reader from their “religious conditioning.” He said it is a rejection of the Church’s history of depicting God as a white grandfather figure with a flowing beard.

Despite the controversy, Young said he believes the story brings more hope than dissension. Every day, he receives dozens of emails from readers, thanking him for inspiring them to enter into a relationship with God once again.

“I think the movie will do fantastically, but I think the book has become a phenomenon because it is so authentic and so honest,” said Young, 61. “It just tells you that there is a huge conversation going on in the hearts of people that are much more honest than the theology that we are presenting, generally speaking.”

Young never intended to publish the book for the general public. He was first encouraged to write the story when his wife urged him to write his perspectives about God and His loving mercy.

Young was born in Grande Prairie, Alta., the son of a travelling Protestant missionary pastor, and grew up in Netherlands New Guinea. He wanted to take the wisdom he acquired over the years and pass it on to his children in the form of a fictional story.

“There was always this sense of the presence of Jesus in my life,” he said. “Even when I was really struggling with my questions about God and who I was as a human being.”

Young’s friends, Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings, urged him to publish the book.

Twenty-six religious and secular publishing companies rejected the manuscript before the three friends decided to form Windblown Media. Cummings, president of Windblown Media, spent the maximum credit limit on 12 of his personal credit cards in order to publish the first 10,000 copies.

The novel debuted in May 2007 with a marketing budget of $300 (U.S.) for a website. It largely went unnoticed for over a year, but it began to garner attention through word of mouth in churches and in Christian media.

In June 2008, the novel surprised the literary world when it suddenly appeared at No. 1 on The New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list and remained there until early 2010.

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