First published by William Paul Young in 2007, “The Shack” was quickly met with incredible success, selling over 20 million copies to date. Recently, the Stuart Hazeldine-directed film adaptation of the novel made box office headlines with the 4th largest opening of any faith-based film ever.
What's more, despite the roots of “The Shack” reaching deeply into Christian theology, this is a tale that resonates with secular audiences nearly as much as with religious and spiritual crowds.
So what accounts for the astounding success of Young’s story?
In a word: pain.
Suffering is a reality of human existence, and because of the problem of pain, as author C.S. Lewis once phrased it, we are always in search of a remedy, of some knowledge that might dull our human agonies, of a salve to place upon our wounded hearts.
“The Shack” provides that salve by connecting modern audiences—and their modern pains—to a very different aspect of God than the distant, angry old man to whom many are accustomed. This isn’t a book about God’s judgment or man’s depravity. No—this is the story of God’s healing love, and how that love can ultimately help us deal with our pain.
Let’s unpack what, specifically, makes the way “The Shack” deals with pain so universally compelling, and what it says about us as a culture.
It Embraces Unconditional Love
Our contemporary age is marked by the need for love, and by the pain of isolation and division over differences—both inside and outside the Christian Church. But “The Shack” gives audiences an example of how to unify through the power of unconditional love.
This story presents the image of God in the way that the world needs Him right now. Expertly brought to life by actress Octavia Spencer in the film adaptation, God is a kind, warm-hearted mother who wants nothing more than the good of her children. She is portrayed, as Tim McGraw said in an interview with Know News, in “a way that we can put our arms around.”
And right now, a big-hearted mamma we can put our arms around is just what we all need.
In the film, Mack is a broken man who has lost a huge piece of himself, and the reality is that the only thing that can heal that kind of pain is relationship. In the film, God’s kindness toward Mack will leave few dry eyes amongst audiences because it touches the innate human craving for unity and loving community.
Whether secular or religious, audience members have a lot to learn from “Papa,” as God is called in “The Shack”—she is an example to live by, not a doctrine to follow. She shows what happens when we love one another, and when we engage in loving relationships with one another.
That’s what our culture needs right now.
And so that’s what people are looking for—something familiar, loving, and kind that shows us how to be so, as well. That’s what heals the hearts of this generation, and this is a big reason why “The Shack” is, and will remain, so startlingly successful.
It Addresses the Reality of Grief
“The Shack” gets pretty real—more real than a lot of religious fiction tends to get. When Mack loses his daughter, there is no miraculous intervention. God doesn’t descend from the heavens and restore the little girl in a glorious deus ex machina.
Instead, the tragedy derails Mack’s life, sending him into a spiral of depression. Even Mack’s encounter with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the shack doesn’t bring everything back to normal—the end of the story is really only the beginning of Mack’s long, slow journey toward healing.
This is one of the greatest strengths of “The Shack.” Instead of denying grief, as religion sometimes does, it deals with it. It acknowledges the problem of pain, and the fact that grief doesn’t often just go away when we step through the doors of a church or fall to our knees in prayer.
Because of this, “The Shack” is a story that feels authentic and holds a mirror up to audiences, allowing them to see their own pain in its terrible fullness. Mack came to the shack with a serious lack of self-forgiveness, but everyone has their own version of the shack filled with their own particular pain.
And when God appears, she helps Mack work through the pain, spends time with him, and loves on him. Often, that’s what we need the most when we go through a painful experience, and the idea that there is a God out there who is willing to do that is compelling enough to make this story incredibly popular, no matter your beliefs.
It Guides Rather than Commands
The final element of the success of “The Shack” is that it doesn’t claim any particular theological doctrine. Here, you’ll find no warnings or stern commands to live a certain way—those are left for other texts to handle.
This is just a story about a man and his pain.
Mack is portrayed by actor Sam Worthington, who, in an interview with Beliefnet, talks about the power of stories.
“The Bible is stories, and out of these stories you gain insight into, alright, how can I parallel that with my life… and use the lessons they’re teaching to make me a better person?”
That’s it—rather than being a prescriptive religious text, Paul Young’s story is simply an example for audiences to learn from. It provides value to a viewer’s life without trying to take control of that life.
“The Shack” tells us that it’s okay to reach out to something higher for help in our processing pain and grief, but allows us to do so in our own way.
A Spiritual Balm
In the end, “The Shack” isn’t about theology—it’s about love, forgiveness, and freedom of choice. All of these ideas are vital to the relief of pain, and so as long as people feel the need for that relief, this story will continue to endure, giving audiences everywhere a spiritual balm that would be difficult to find anywhere else.