Editor’s Note: The Shack is the bestselling work of Christian fiction in history—it was written by a first-time author named William Paul Young, who made 15 copies of the manuscript to give to family and friends, and never expected it to be published. The story follows Mackenzie, a middle-aged man who’s attempting to live through a shattering tragedy that debilitates him and causes him to question everything he thought he knew about God. The book enters territory that is rare for a Christian book, and describes in a narrative way the overshadowing goodness of God. It’s also controversial for its portrayals of the three persons of the Trinity—Young imagines the Father as a large, boisterous black woman, for example. I talked to Young when he was at his home in Oregon.
Rick Lawrence: I remember exactly where I was in my home when I opened The Shack for the first time. I remember exactly where I was sitting, the light through the windows, everything. I think that’s because I had never read a Christian book that took me into the heart of darkness like yours did. I just couldn’t believe you went there—it shocked me, actually. I had never read a Christian book that went there.
William Paul Young: You know, “Christian books” generally don’t want to deal with life as it is.
Rick: And why is that?
Paul: A lot of times our theology is so poorly constructed that we’re looking for ways to get God off the hook—we’re so caught up in this idea of omnipotence and sovereignty that we can’t help but make him the causal agent of “dark” things in our lives. We avoid really difficult and dark situations that are actually part of the brokenness of this world—we don’t want to deal with them. We have disengaged our heads from our hearts and largely created these mythological places of refuge within our own minds.
Rick: So you’re saying we don’t know how to defend God in the context of our own dark experiences, so we just avoid talking about them.
Paul: I think that’s largely true. A lot of our “intellectual” responses to hard things are a cover-up for what we really feel about them. What surprised people about The Shack was that I wrote it for my kids. We have six children, and our youngest was just turning 13 when I wrote the book. People asked, “How can you write a book like this for your kids?” Well, the greatest loss in our human experience is a loss between a parent and a child. There’s nothing more devastating or deep than that. So that kind of loss asks the best questions.
I grew up a missionary kid, a preacher’s kid, a Western evangelical fundamentalist. And I grew up struggling with these questions. One of the beauties of this younger generation, the Next-Gens that are coming up, is that they have great crap detectors. They know when you’re avoiding the question or something is just not coherent. So my wife Kim wanted me to write something as a gift for the kids.
Rick: What kind of gift did she think she was asking you to write?
Paul: She said, “You know someday, as a gift for our kids, would you write something that puts in one place how you think, because you think outside the box.” And later, when the book eventually got put into print, she said, “You know when I asked you to do this, I was thinking like four to six pages.” (laughs)
I was almost 50 at the time. So I wanted to tell them about the God that I actually met along my journey—who actually healed some of the most broken places in my own heart, not the God I grew up with. The God I grew up with never showed up and never really healed anything. I don’t think that that God actually exists. I think that’s the God that atheists are upset with.
So, what if my kids go through a horrendous loss—what would I say to them? How would I address questions about the goodness of God amid conventional ideas about omnipotence and sovereignty? That’s partly why the book caught everybody by surprise.
Rick: In the book you stare right at the thing that no one could stare at, and you describe it for myself and others like me. You took me to a heartbreaking place. So, it was directed at your kids. What was their emotional reaction to reading this?
Paul: The Shack is so layered that it impacted people differently, depending on where they’re at. So my kids’ response was different, depending on their age and how long they’ve been around the conversation. My oldest—the tragedy part of it didn’t faze them at all, because they’ve been inside this conversation. They were a lot more impacted by Cross Roads [Young’s second novel] than The Shack, in that sense. But each one of them was impacted deeply. I’ve got a lot of readers who read Stephen King, or horror, or really edgy, dark stuff—they don’t have a problem with the darkness in The Shack.
Rick: It’s obvious from reading what you write and listening to you speak that you’ve been on a journey—often very painful—of transformation. And youth ministry is all about creating environments that influence transformation. So what must these kinds of environments include if they’re going to be transformative for young people?
Paul: I think they have to include authenticity. If it doesn’t have the integrity of authenticity, this younger generation is going to say: “You know what? It’s not for me.” They can find out the veracity of something pretty quick, and they’ve got great sensors. And I think story has to be a part of it, because story is how truth is communicated in a way that accesses their hearts. Story has a way of getting inside the precious places of their hearts without asking for permission. Authenticity allows them to bring their own story to the table.
I think a third element is action—some way in which they can extend their hand and do something. Instead of a movement from the head to the heart to the hands, it’s reverses—it’s from the hands to the heart to the head. And I think that’s a huge shift and an important one. It’s, “I’m here because of an authentic expression of something that actually matters to me and I want to be part of something active.”
Rick: That’s good. You know, “authenticity” is a buzzword within ministry circles, and has been for a while. It’s the kind of word that everyone nods their head and says, “Oh yeah, that…” But I think it’s one of those words that is ill-defined. How do you define authenticity?
Paul: Well, to me, “wholeness” and “authenticity” are basically synonyms. “Wholeness” is when the way of your being matches the truth of your being. That’s authenticity. That begs the question, what’s the truth of your being? This is where this understanding of Jesus at the center of all the cosmos becomes absolutely critical. How are you going to know the truth of your being unless somebody tells you what the truth of your being is? Unfortunately, we grew up believing the truth of our being was depravity. That’s the most fundamentally massive deception within our evangelical family traditions. And we have not believed in the goodness of God, which is the question that I’m after in The Shack.
The truth of your being is that you are a very good creation and you’re a new one. The old creation has been refurbished and transformed in Jesus, and you are in him, and he is in you—John 14:20.Click to tweet
Rick: Is this transformation you’re talking about possible outside of pain?
Paul: Actually, yes. But it’s not likely. “Pain” is the friction between the lies that we have embraced—that have become our prison—and the truth that is revealed to us in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. If that’s pain, and it is, then transformation’s always going to be linked to it. You’re going to have give something up. Everything’s going to cost you. So letting go of the lies is going to cost you. If you begin to believe that the truth of your being has been revealed by the Truth himself, Jesus, then it’s going to cost you.
Rick: So, if there is a blockage between me and the transformation that comes from intimate connection to Jesus, then the “bulldozer of pain” is necessary. But if the blockage doesn’t exist, then pain—the bulldozer—is not necessary.
Paul: Yes, and I think I’d even go deeper than that and say that the blockage itself is painful.
Rick: You’ve been very controversial within Christian circles because you’ve been seen as unorthodox in your theology. Do you see yourself as orthodox?
Paul: I see myself as very orthodox—and not only very orthodox, but historically evangelical. Most of we hold onto as modern evangelicalism is not orthodox at all. I’m not saying anything that is of a quality different from the early church.—they were saying the exact same things that I am. Baxter Kruger, a theologian from Mississippi, wrote The Shack Revisited—his whole point in that book is that the Gospel I describe in the book has been there from the early church.
Rick: You have seemed, at least publicly, to remain calm under the onslaught of the backlash you’ve received within Christian circles, and I‘m just wondering is that calmness fueled by the fact that you’ve sold 18 million copies of The Shack, or does it come somewhere else?
Paul: That calmness is very real, and it goes back to a couple of things that I tell people about all the time—I never intended to publish The Shack. The first 15 copies I made at Office Depot did everything I ever wanted that book to do. So I didn’t have a sense of identity or worth or value connected to it. Everything that matters to me was in place before I wrote it: my identity, my worth, my value, my security, my meaning, and my destiny. So the book has added nothing to me, in terms of those things. And so the calmness is simple: I’ve got nothing to lose here. My identity is not at risk.
Rick: When you re-imagined the Trinity in The Shack, how did you cope with the pressure to get it right? And if you could change anything now, looking back, would you change anything about the way you depicted each person in the Trinity?
Paul: Oh no, I wouldn’t change a thing. Remember, I’m writing this as a Christmas present for six kids. I’m not thinking the world is going to read this—it never even crossed my mind once. So I felt none of that pressure. I didn’t want my kids growing up with the God that I did—white, distant, unreachable, unknowable, the darkness behind Jesus that needs to be appeased. Imagery is all over in Scripture, but it was never intended to define God—it was to help us see some facet of the character and nature of God. So God is a rock, or a fortress, or a strong tower, or a nursing mother, or a father who waits, or a woman who loses a coin and searches, or a shepherd who goes out on the hills looking. So I wrote Papa as a large, black African-American woman from day one. I mean that was the easiest. The Holy Spirit was also fairly easy and Jesus basically gets to play himself.
I grew up multicultural, so I wanted the revelation of the character and nature of God to be much more immense than the littleness of his ethnicity and his culture, and this was a way to do it. I think what really was the surprise was how all of a sudden, the Trinity made sense. The three in one made sense to people. And it’s not because I defined them; it’s because I described them in relationship. I think that’s what the early church did so well—to center everything on the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Rick: You’re speaking to ministry leaders who have intimate access to the most malleable people in our culture—teenagers. What’s one priority you hope these youth pastors are pursuing as they engage these students?
Paul: I’m not a big fan of priorities, generally speaking. I think that it becomes a great dance—it’s a circle centered on Jesus rather than a set of priorities of which Jesus is just near the top somewhere. But I understand the heart of the question. And in terms of what matters most, I think it’s recognizing the uniqueness of each human being, and your ability to respond to her or him inside the grace of the day.
And the other thing is to begin to trust the Holy Spirit in you. I think that is absolutely central to this. We would rather trust a program because we actually believe the lies about the truth of our being ourselves. We believe we’re not good enough for this, that we’re not worthy to be here, that we’re not smart enough. So every one of these young people are precious human beings. If we miss that, then we won’t really have a conversation, we just have technique. And when all you have is technique, you’re on the road to ruin.