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William P. Young: How "The Shack" Was Written

Paul Young and Mike Feazell talk about how The Shack was written, and that the nature of relationship is embedded in the Trinitarian character and nature of God.

(28.3 minutes)
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William Paul Young

William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling novel The Shack and Cross Roads. For an edited transcript of all our interviews with him, click here.

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J. Michael Feazell: A new novel has skyrocketed to the top of the charts, capturing the imagination of Christians everywhere.

What’s so surprising about The Shack by William P. Young is its portrayal of God: not the solitary God of popular imagination, such as the one portrayed by George Burns in the film, Oh, God or by Morgan Freeman in Evan Almighty, but the God of Christian orthodoxy – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three in one and one in three, the Holy Trinity. The result has been hailed as life-changing. Let’s talk to the author, William P. Young.

JMF: What is it about The Shack that is capturing Christians’ imagination?

WPY: I have no idea. (laughter)

No, I have some ideas. I think that for a lot of us who grew up inside religious kinds of environments, The Shack allows God to become accessible and understandable in a way that hasn’t been out there in the same kind of form. There’s something about a story, there’s something about art in general, that has a way of getting past our preconceptions and our paradigms and everything else. Music does that. It has a way of going right past our intellectuality and penetrating us in the heart.

I think that’s why parables that Jesus would use were so effective, because they had a way of penetrating past people’s preconceptions and their stereotypes and everything else. As a story it has a way of doing it, when you come to the character and nature of God.

I grew up as a missionary kid and a preacher’s kid and I went to Bible school and seminary and we always try to find analogies or some way to comprehend the Trinity. I didn’t intend to write a great book on the Trinity, that was an accident. What I did was want to communicate to my children, the fact that the very nature of relationship has to be embedded in the character and nature of God.

JMF: So you wrote this for your children to begin with – publication wasn’t something you had in mind.

WPY: No. I’m the most accidental author you’ll ever meet. I’ve never published anything, I’ve always written as gifts, whether it was poems or songs or whatever, gifts for my children, for my friends, for events, and this was no different. This was in obedience to my wife. She wanted me to write something for the children. She said, “I’d like you to write something that would help your kids understand the breadth of how you think, cause you’re a little bit outside the box.”

JMF: There must be a reason she asked you to do that, there must have been something shaping. This is a pretty enormous undertaking…

WPY: It’s probably because I’ve done a lot of speaking, a lot of teaching, those kinds of things, and the transformation in my life came about through the process of the renewing of the mind, the healing process in my life, and she’d watched all that and then she also liked how I wrote. So the combination of the two things. My goal in 2005 was to get it done by Christmas, and get it to Kinko’s, put it in a spiral bound, whatever, and have it for them for Christmas. No thought whatsoever, it wasn’t even on the radar that somebody would want to publish it.

JMF: So what happened?

WPY: It got out of hand, is what happened. Even the electronic version, the first manuscript I sent to a couple of my cousins. It had this huge impact that I wasn’t anticipating. And it would spill over. People would send it to other people, and we started getting this feedback about the book, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

So after Christmas, I sent it to the only “for real” author that I know – that was Wayne Jacobson and he intentionally writes books. I just attached it to an email because one of his books had just came out that I really loved and I said, by the way, I’ve been working on this. Then he said, of course, he gets buried with these kinds of things. I understood that and said, no expectations, really.

I just had the nudge (and sometimes the Holy Spirit gives us a nudge just so we learn how to hear his voice, not for any outcome). But in this case he actually started reading and he promised me he would read at least 20 pages. He called me back up and kind of freaked me out, because (I’ve come to know that Wayne is like this, but I didn’t know it at that time) he started off – “What were you thinking sending me this manuscript?” I thought, “I have pushed all his hot buttons.” I’m backing up in the basement. “Oh man, what do I do?” I said, “My relationship with you is way more important than some sort of manuscript…just put it on the shelf.”

He said, “No, you don’t understand. I can’t print the pages fast enough. I don’t remember the last time I read anything where my immediate response was “I have six or seven people that I need to send this to right now.”

So I said, “I trust the Holy Spirit in you. Send it to whoever you want.” He said, “I already did.” This is from Friday to Monday. That sort of got the ball rolling.

I went down and met with him and his buddy Brad Cummings – they do the “God Journey” podcast, and Bobby Downs from Christian Cinema came around, and we began to just talk about and work on how to bring this about, which started a 16-month process, because we all have jobs and busy-ness and everything else.

We very collaboratively worked on the book – then nobody would publish it. We sent it to everybody. Nobody wanted it. Either they didn’t respond, or if they did, they said, “It doesn’t fit our niche.” It’s either too edgy or too much Jesus, depending what side of the farm they’re on. So the guys said, “Well, we’ve always wanted to be a publishing company,” so they created their own – with one title – The Shack – and attached it to a website.

Wayne’s and people from the podcast were the initial ones who purchased the copies, and then they’d come back and they’d buy four, and they’d come back and buy six, and then a dozen, and then a case, and we just watched this thing begin to blossom. Even to date, we’ve only spent a couple or three hundred dollars in marketing and promotion, total. It’s all been through relationship, which is the earmark of the book itself. It’s all about: this has got to be a relationship with God or else we’re just not going to be good enough to achieve that whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing.

JMF: There’s a perception of God that most people have, kind of a “God’s out there, we’re down here.”

WPY: He’s watching from a distance, like that silly song.

JMF: Yeah. What do you see as the problems of that kind of perspective – that’s how most people think of God?

WPY: Any theology of separation creates a gap that is up to us to traverse.

JMF: Now, theology of separation, you mean …

WPY: A lot of us grew up with an idea that everything was based on our performance. Instead of a new covenant understanding of union with Christ, we still function as if we lived in the old covenant …

JMF: Separated from God.

WPY: Separated from God. When we have any perceived separation, that separation’s our problem, it’s our fault and it’s our sin, it’s our whatever – and so it’s now up to us through behavior to get across that separation to wherever God is – to enter his holiness.

Even modern believers use language that is a language of separation. “We are now going to come into his presence” – as if we’ve been out of it. All of that language is old covenant language, and the whole performance-based paradigm is definitely old covenant, but we’ve just modified it – changed some of the words – and now we can eat shellfish. But we also have another thousand extra little rules that we’ve added as well.

JMF: When you talk about relationship, as opposed to this theology of separation, this is what you get into as you unfold the God-character in the book. The Trinity plays a very important role in that – but the Trinity is not something the average Christian thinks much about. It’s a doctrine, and the church holds it as a doctrine as important and key, but…

WPY: But it’s a more of an intellectual kind of affirmation than anything else, and people don’t see how crucial the reality of the relationships amongst or within God are to us. Again, I didn’t intend to write a book on the Trinity, but by describing them relate to each other, all of a sudden it makes sense.

JMF: That is, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

WPY: Exactly. You begin to see God within – God’s very character is relational and cannot be un-relational. For example, God has never done anything by himself. There’s always been three involved. In the creation, he says, “This is a great creation, it’s all good. But there’s one thing that’s not good. We have a creation here, a human being who doesn’t have anybody to collaborate with. And that’s not good.” In God’s very being, you have collaboration and relationship, that’s why there’s verses about the Father being the creator and the Spirit being the creator, and Word, Jesus, being the creator.

We think in our independent theology, individualistic theology, that somehow we can do this by ourselves – that we’re going to be alone. It’s relational for us because we are made in his image, and his very nature is relational. It begins to change everything – the dynamics of how this all works.

So when Jesus comes to us, when God the Father comes to us, the Spirit comes to us, it’s all about relationship. That’s why to me the central passage of the new covenant in Scriptures is John 14, 15, 16, 17, when he’s talking about, “this is what we’ve been going after. We are coming to live inside of you – we’re going to make this a habitation and not just a visitation. We’ve been dealing with visitation, but it’s all going to change now and we’re going to come live inside of you.”

JMF: Typically people think of that in terms of rules! God has a list of rules, commandments and we obey those, and that’s how we have a good relationship with God and with each other.

WPY: Good luck with that! If you think that it’s on the basis of behavior – especially those of us who’ve been damaged, which would probably include most of us. But the more damaged that we’ve been, behavior is not going to work for us. We have to have some form of transformation, or there’s no hope for us. We’re not people that are necessarily self-disciplined. Our flesh got hurt somewhere in the process and we don’t have the bent for that or the ability for it. So if we make everything behavioral in terms of relationship with God, we’re toast. This is not going to happen.

JMF: Does it take a degree of honesty for Christians to see themselves in that light?

WPY: Absolutely, and it takes time, it takes process, and for us, to become honest is a process by itself. You have Jacob, right? Jacob is in the later part of his life and he’s still not been honest. It has taken this whole time. God has been consistently working at him and present with him, and he’s now going to face his brother who he thinks is going to kill him. He sends everything out until he’s got nothing left to work with, and then he takes on God.

In the wrestling match, God finally says, “I’m done. We’re not doing this anymore. This is your whole life. I’m not going to play this game anymore.”

Jacob says, “I’m not going to let you go until you bless me.”

God says, “Ok, tell me your name.”

When I first ran into that during my process of healing, I immediately went back to Jacob as a young man and he goes in looking for the father’s blessing. I’m not going to leave until you give me the blessing. His dad says, “What’s your name?” And he says, “Esau.”

We’re right back there, in that sense, but all these years later – and now he’s wrestling and saying “I’m not going to let you go until I have the father’s blessing.”

And God says, “What’s your name?”

He finally says, “Jacob. I’m a liar, I’m a heel-grabber, I’m a cheat, I’m a usurper, I’m all these things.”

Then God says, “Ok, I’m not only going to bless you by putting your hip out, so that you have something that will remind you everyday of who you are and where you’ve come from, but I’ll change your name, too. You’ll be a conquered one, you’ll be conquered by God.”

That level of honesty is what The Shack is part of. It’s about being honest. The Shack is a metaphor. It’s the place where we got hurt. It’s the place where we got damaged, it’s the place that we messed up so royally – or that we’ve been piling all the stuff. And we don’t want to go back there. We want God to come in and just yank us from where we are, to somewhere where we think we ought to be. And he says, “No, we’re gonna actually begin to heal the emotions, and heal the thinking, and heal the heart, and do all these things. But to do that, we’ve got to go back there.”

For me, it took 38 years to get to the shack, it took 11 years to get through the shack, and I condense that 11 years to a weekend for Mackenzie Allen Phillips, the main character. And in that “shack,” it’s time for all secrets to come out, because we are as sick as the secrets we keep. A lot of times, the religiosity side – this performance-based paradigm – either forces us to hide our stuff, or just flat out lie about it.

JMF: To ourselves.

WPY: To ourselves and to everyone out there, and to God. It’s just like somebody said to me: “Oh. I couldn’t really tell God this.” It’s like he doesn’t know. All because he is separated again – he’s over there somewhere and this is just between you and me, I can tell you, but I couldn’t really tell God these things.

We again have that idea of God as not being inside this process with us. He is outside, seeing how good at the process we are, and judging us at every point for our inability to be perfect in it. We only feel as good about ourselves as our last moment of perfection, inside that paradigm. It’s a devastating paradigm, and I think it’s false.

One of the reasons I wrote the book for my children was to save them maybe 40 years of legalistic-performance-oriented baggage. I don’t want them to run with 750 million pounds of weight, and they’re so far ahead of where I was when I was their age, and I’m grateful for that.

JMF: Why, even though we know this about God, do we tend to be so addicted to rules?

WPY: Part of it is bad theology. Maybe intended or unintended – but we got the idea somewhere along the road that we’re still in the old covenant, the language changed a little bit. The other part of it is that – think of where we’ve come from, where before Jesus Christ came to live inside of us and make us spiritually alive, all we had was the flesh, all we had was this mortality, and everything was dependent on how we looked, who we knew, how good we thought, if we could sing or not, everything was performance and competition. That’s how we think about everything.

So when Jesus now comes to dwell inside of us, he doesn’t automatically transform the flesh. It’s in a process of being saved. I reject the Buddhist kind of mentality that says (and it’s in Christianity to a degree) that somehow we need to disappear so that Jesus can be revealed.

He’s already come – the Father is well pleased with the Jesus that is part of the Trinity. He doesn’t need a billion Jesuses – what he desires is to come and live inside of you – the epitome and apex of his creation. As great and incredible as the macro universe is, as incredible as the micro with quantum mechanics and everything else, it’s nothing compared with one human being. The intricacy and the incredible wonder of that person, he comes to make alive and then begins from the inside to transform out.

We’re not used to that – we’re so performance-oriented that we want to take the rules and think that they are going to affect my behavior from the outside. That’s the intention of rules, is that they will modify my behavior and they’ll tell me what to do. That’s why we love self-discipline without understanding that it’s a work of the flesh – as opposed to self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit that comes from the inside and works its way out.

We have this natural affinity with rules, because all of our sense of worth, our value, our security, all of our understanding of reality is attached to performance. I can judge you, I can compare myself with you – or I can find somebody else, if you’re better than I am. It’s all based on performance, and it’s what we’re used to.

How do I understand significance? Behaviorally. I’ve got to do something in order to be significant. God says, “That’s not the truth. You’re made in my image. I love you. There is nothing you can do to change that. You can’t add to your significance, you can’t take it away.” And yet the issue of significance inside the Christian community is as rampantly a driving force in the lives of people – especially men – as outside.

The whole paradigm is a very coercive, imprisoning paradigm – because it all comes back to “how good at this I can be?” You know what? It doesn’t change us. All it does is modify our behavior. But give us enough time – it will all explode again, anyway, because all we’re doing is repressing the shame and the guilt and the condemnation – the things that God nailed to the cross, because he knew it couldn’t achieve one ounce of righteousness. None of those things can produce righteousness.

The law can’t. All the law could ever do is say, “You’re guilty, I’m here to tell you.” In the book I used the illustration of – it’s like a mirror. You’ve been working under the car all day, you’ve been wiping your face and you don’t know how dirty you are until you look in the mirror. And the mirror says, “You need soap.”

And you say, “Oh if can just take the mirror and scrape myself clean” – which is what the legalistic paradigm says. Somehow, I can embrace these rules in such a way that I can accomplish them.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “You can’t even have the desire to break one of those [laws] inside of you, because if you do, the whole thing’s lost.”

Somehow we think, “No, God gave us this whole new set of rules – the Ten Commandments plus whatever our religious environment and sub-culture has added to it – to do certain things, to not do certain things, whatever. If we can just embrace that. And God gave us the Holy Spirit to help us do the rules now.”

I’m sorry, it’s not going to work. If you think you can do this, I’ve got a book for you: “One thousand and three hundred and forty two steps to holiness.” I guarantee you at step number two, you’ll be dead.

JMF: Now, surely, you get objections from some sectors of Christianity that say, “By saying this kind of thing, you’re just encouraging people to sin and you’re taking away any kind of …”

WPY: I’ve got good company there. Is this not the question that Paul raises in Romans? “So, are you saying that we should just go out and sin so grace would abound?” [Romans 6:1]

What’s his response? “You don’t have any idea of who you are, do you?” Because when it comes to God, the central issue is his character – who is this God? When it comes to human beings, the central issue is identity – who are you?

We have a theology that has told us that we are still stuck in a paradigm that identifies us as an old nature. But we have a new nature now – and these two are duking it out, and it’s kind of, “what nature are you going to feed today?”

But they don’t tell us if the feeder [the one who is doing the feeding] is part of the old nature, or part of the new nature. If it’s part of the new nature, it’s only going to feed the new nature. If it’s part of the old, maybe it gets confused. In that paradigm, which comes down to performance, you’re always going to consider yourself fundamentally as the old nature.

The issue is “identity.” Did anything really happen when Jesus Christ came to live inside of you? Or is it just all positional and intellectual? Because if it’s just positional and intellectual, I’m back working at this as hard as I can – just like I was before.

But maybe, maybe he came to dwell inside of this flesh, not to eradicate it, but to heal it. If that begins to happen, here are some things that I won’t be… There’s a possibility that I wouldn’t be. My emotions begin to be healed. I begin to feel things differently. My thinking obviously gets transformed. It’s renewed – all this transformation takes place because of the renewal of the mind. I begin to look at people differently. I begin to touch people differently. I begin to relate to my circumstances differently. Those changes, for a lot of us, we couldn’t go and say, “This caused this change, or that caused it.” God is the only one inside of us who can unwrap this healing in such a way that it doesn’t destroy us.

JMF: Isn’t it like a sheer force of will, that rules and laws are about you deciding you’re going to do something right? Whereas we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about actual relationship.

WPY: Yeah. You cannot use the flesh to defeat the flesh. You cannot use self-discipline to become self-controlled. That’s the whole Galatians 3 thing. Paul says, JB Phillips translation: “Dear idiots of Galatia, who has bewitched you? Having began in the Spirit, do you think you’re gonna be perfected by the flesh? Don’t you understand who you are?”

To use an easier illustration that might help – there are a lot of folks that pray for patience. Do you find anybody in the New Testament who prays for patience? Can you think of one prayer in the New Testament where somebody prays for patience?

JMF: Nothing springs to mind.

WPY: Exactly! Cause it isn’t there. There is an understanding that patience is a fruit of the Spirit, that when Jesus comes to live inside of me, patience comes to live inside of me. Patience has wed his life with mine in such a way that my nature is now patient.

But if I think I’m still the old nature, and I’m still impatient, I will continue to function because that’s what I think the truth about myself really is. Instead of beginning to understand that for me to act impatiently is to go contrary to my nature – that who I am in Christ – that’s the core of this new covenant that I’m a part of. That’s the central element of identity, is that union – relationship. Jesus says, “I’m coming inside. In fact, not only I’m coming, the Father is coming. We’re going to make a habitation in you.” It’s not a visitation, where you’re once in a while empowered so that you can create holiness in your life, or righteousness.

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