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William P. Young: Is God a Christianized Zeus?

Paul Young discusses the popular view of God as a Christianized Zeus or Gandalf-with-an-attitude as opposed to the loving Father portrayed by the “prodigal’s father.”

(30.4 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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JMF: Thanks for being with us again, Paul. And, by the way, you do like to be called Paul, even though your name is William P. …

WPY: It’s a family thing, my dad is William Henry, I’m William Paul, my firstborn is William Chad, and my first grandbaby is William Gavin.

JMF: And the thing you have in common is no one goes by William.

WPY: No. You know what’s funny is, I’ve had people recommend the book to me who are my friends, because they did not connect that I’m the Paul.

JMF: Hey, there’s a guy by the name of Young who’s written a book…

WPY: Yeah, you related to him?

JMF: What kind of people are reading The Shack?

WPY: It’s across the board. It’s people who are from a conservative Christian framework, there are people who are totally outside. There are people in prisons, and people from every kind of walk of life you can imagine. I get 30 to 50 e-mails a day, from all over world. It is really across the board – theologians, to people who have never ever read the Bible, and so we’re getting people who are attracted to the story and it’s impacting their lives – from every walk that you can imagine.

JMF: What are some of the common themes of positive response that you’re getting?

WPY: Believe it or not, there have been a lot of people who’ve been hurt by religious institutions.

JMF: That’s shocking!

WPY: Totally shocking. I don’t mean that facetiously – there’s a lot of hurt out there because of – systems have a way of manipulating people of accomplishing their goals in a very non-relational or un-relational framework. So there are a lot of folks who are coming with a whole lot of hurt that way. There are people who are in the middle of great sadnesses themselves – who have issues with their family or health, and they bring that.

One of my favorite quotes – not because I love it, but it was so penetrating to me. There’s a gal in Atlanta who is struggling with cancer who said that the book really yanked her out of the depression that she was in, and it’s serious. She is facing life and death. When she wrote, she said, “I wasn’t afraid to die. I was terrified at the look of disappointment on his face when we meet.” That encapsulates, for a lot of us, our experience within religious systems.

People are coming with their own stuff. I got a note from a gentleman who’s in prison. And another one from the guy who is the chaplain of, I believe, Leeds Prison in London – the largest prison in London – he was saved under Nicky Cruz – he was a Hell’s Angel and doesn’t like Christian fiction, but really loves this book. It’s penetrating into those areas.

We’re finding that it’s being a bridge for reconciliation even between the African-American community and the arch-conservative White community – just because, for a lot of people, they’ve never been able to use any imagery of God other than Zeus. We’ve Christianized Zeus – or Gandalf with an attitude. But now for the first time it’s like – let’s get God out of the box that we’ve placed him in, because he’s frankly left anyway.

JMF: The old gentleman, kind of like Gandalf with a flowing beard, out there … judging..

WPY: And with the lightning bolts, and it’s all our behaviors, so as soon as we step aside…

I had some young men, and I know about a discussion that they had about the character of God. One particular young man who’s a friend of our family was struggling last year with his relationship with God because they had concluded that God was Zeus, and that doesn’t create a lot of relationship. My wife, Kim, handed him the book last summer at a wedding and said, “Just read this.” He called me up about three weeks later and said, “Paul, when Papa came through the door, my whole world changed.”

It’s not about me coming up with all the effort necessary to bridge the gap – but that God actually crosses it himself in pursuit of us. The only time you see God running anywhere in Scripture is when the object of his affection is coming toward him – that’s the prodigal father – he runs. Other than that, it’s all walking, it’s all relationship. I wanted God to just come across that divide – because that’s how I believe he is, and everything that I understand about Scripture says that’s the God that we are in love with and who loves us, and pursues us.

JMF: You’ve had objections from religious circles.

WPY: Yeah, I had a few.

JMF: The question comes up, “This is just your idea of God that really isn’t biblical.”

WPY: I wrote God as good as I knew how, and he is better than I wrote him. It’s fiction. This was not an attempt for a systematic theology, so there are things that are not in there. This was a story for my six kids. It’s a fictional account. There’s a lot of truth behind it, in terms of – the pain’s real, the process of coming to wholeness is real, the conversations are very real conversations and the character of God is as good and as real as I could write him.

We are getting some push back, but it’s very minor, and very small. Just some people who are vocal minorities. It just tends to be that way. I have a couple thousand emails from people whose lives and relationship have changed – and stories all the time. That stack is what I really care about.

I am not opposed to answering any of the [doctrinal] questions, but a lot of times [this type of] conversation doesn’t push us across into loving people. It’s just kind of a theological place. Unfortunately, there are some folks who, when they ask you a question, they’re asking for a piece of wood they can burn. They’re not asking for a conversation. Those are not the conversations I get involved in. They’re just not valuable.

But I got an email the other day and this gal writes, “Your book’s the most juvenile piece of trash I’ve ever read. It’s pedantic, it’s slow…” it’s whatever. She really gave it to me. She’s the kind of conversation that I love…

To just step back a second. I had a fellow say to me this weekend: “When somebody asks me about The Shack, this is what I say to them: ‘Your response to this book will tell me more about you than about the book.’” That is so accurate. I don’t have a sense of ownership. This was a gift, all of what’s happening with the book is so outside the box. My favorite quote is from Tyson, who goes to Oregon State. He says to my 19-year-old daughter, “Amy, this book is so far beyond your dad.” That’s my favorite quote. With all that in mind, when people are telling me, I have nothing that I need to protect. I don’t have a territory here. This is not my identity. I’m not a writer in terms of… I wasn’t doing this in order to be significant or because my security was involved here, my sense of worth.

So when this gal writes me this note, I wrote her back. I was very careful because I wanted my response to be affirming and positive. People who are word smiths, we know how to put a knife just under the surface of a word – you know what I’m talking about? So, I wrote her back: “I’m so impressed that somebody would have the self-confidence to write an author and trash their stuff like this.” I said, “I am so impressed.” And I said, “I’m attaching about two week’s worth of emails that I get, about 20 pages, and email snippets, and you maybe absolutely right. This could be the most juvenile piece of trash you’ve ever read. But look at how it’s changing peoples’ hearts and lives, look at how it’s bringing people into a relationship with Jesus Christ? The beauty of that is that God could take such a juvenile piece of trash and impact peoples’ lives this way. I am so pleased to be a part of this.”

Four days later she wrote me back and said, “I need to ask for your forgiveness.” Which is beautiful, because if I’ve been all defensive and said this or that or “you can’t even spell all your words right” or whatever, there’s no relationship in that. All I’ve done is protected my little kingdom, my little territory, my little sense of identity or worth.

So yeah, we’re getting some push back. I’ve been labeled a Hindu, and I’ve been labeled a Universalist and I’ve been labeled somebody who hates the local church. But there are folks out there, and they’re bringing everything they’ve got to the table, and part of what they feel they’ve got is that there are people behind them, and they want to protect them from people like me. It’s what they’ve got, this is what they’re bringing to the table. I think they’re wrong, that the people behind them don’t need protection – that the Holy Spirit can speak to them – all of that. But it is what it is.

We can deal with individual questions, like being Hindu, because I’m not, being a Universalist, because I’m not. All of these kinds of things are part of the ongoing conversation. But it is a small group compared with how this book is simply, in the best way, ruining people’s lives – in the best way. It’s just transforming, and all of a sudden God in Three is becoming accessible, and is on their side to help them deal with their stuff and there’s no shame in that process.

JMF: The common perception of God is being a Judge, and you are separated from him until you say the sinners’ prayer. You deal with that in pretty clear terms as the characters are unfolded in the book.

WPY: Absolutely. If you look even at Jesus, and I always go back to “how does this play out in the life of Jesus?” He called them “disciples” a long time before they were alive. He even said to them, “I no longer call you servants – reflecting the old covenant kind of mentally – but I call you friends.” They’re not even alive yet.

In the same passage he’s saying, “I’m going to go to the cross, I’m going to come back, receive you to myself, on that day you’ll be alive.” Then he says, “The work that I do, you will do also.” Which means, not the work that I did. “I didn’t come to model this. I came to continue to do my work. But now, I’ll be in you together, we’ll be able to collaborate, participate together in what I’m doing.”

Even in relationship to the disciples, you don’t have this sense of separation. The whole point of the Incarnation is his identification with us – it’s not a sense of separation. This is where we’ve done a huge injustice to the Trinity. It’s like God the Father is the Holy One. Jesus is the one who’s allowed to get his hands dirty. God has to be at a distance, you know, like you’re saying earlier – watching us from a distance, because holiness means he can’t look upon sin or he can’t be around it. And we’re going, “how does that fit with the omniscience of God? How does that fit with the Incarnation? Isn’t Jesus fully God, and fully man? If he’s fully God, then God must be in the middle of it.

One of the dominant metaphors or images that I used, is that there are nail scars on Papa’s wrists – God the Father. I’ve been given some push back about that. But that’s scriptural, and everything that is embedded in the story – and I didn’t do this just by myself – I had help from some very smart theologically trained people to make sure that the realities that are inside this parable, this story, are validated by Scripture.

This one’s 2 Corinthians 5:19 For Papa – God, “for God the Father was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself not counting their sins against them.” Is that separation? Where did reconciliation take place? It was on the cross! Where was God the Father? He was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This was a collaborative event where God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in Christ was involved in getting inside all of our loss and all of our pain with the express purpose of healing us. Not “I’m sorry, you’ve got to deal with all the bad stuff, I’ll be back in three days.” That, again, would be separation, and that’s what I was trying to go against.

JMF: “I and my Father are one.”

WPY: Yeah, “you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.”

JMF: Yet at the same time, in the book, you maintained the distinctions, Father, Son and Spirit while also bringing together the unity.

WPY: Which turned out to be so beautiful. I’ll tell you, a lot of people have asked me, “Who did you read in order to portray God this way?” I hardly read anybody about the Trinity. I’ve started to read a lot more, because it’s out there from the Catholic experience, from the Protestant experience – there are some beautiful things, Eastern Orthodox has beautiful portrayals of the Trinity. My guiding phrase was Ravi Zacharias’ little phrase: “Unity and diversity in the community of the Trinity.” That little phrase was what framed everything that I did when I was talking about how they related to each other – how they loved each other.

I wanted my kids to stand back and say, “That’s the kind of life – that’s the kind of dynamic relationship that I want, not only between me and God, or involved with me and God, but I want it in terms of my experience with the people that I love. And with my enemies even,” because it continues to extend.

God’s nature is agape. I want my children to bask in the love of Father – and that’s the central thing that I was trying to communicate, as well as his character and the consistency of his character. Then, let’s take a look at some of the worst situations that we could ever imagine, and let those situations ask the questions that all of us feel in our hearts.

JMF: In light of the response, the overwhelming response that you didn’t even expect as the book has been distributed – word of mouth, not even by …

WPY: It’s through relationships. It’s people who care about somebody, who gives it to them, and it’s like these conversations just emerge. How you respond to the book will tell you more about you, as you respond, it tells me more about you than about the book, a lot of times that’s very true. But it raises conversations that have never happened before among people that thought they knew each other.

There’s a lot of people who respond, “This is exactly the way I always thought God must be like.” And there are people who are responding and going, “I’m so afraid to believe this because I’ve been disappointed so many times… Is God really like this? Is this a possibility?”

And there are folks who are saying, “There’s just not enough wrath in this book,” because there’s wrath in Scripture. Yes, of course, there is. A friend of mine who is an Old Testament professor and theologian, when asked that, he says, “Can you name me one thing that God lets Mack off the hook on and says, ‘Oh, that doesn’t really matter’?” There’s nothing. God goes after every single thing.

JMF: Mack, being the central character.

WPY: God goes after everything in Mack’s life that is wrong, everything that’s not truthful, that’s not honest, everything that’s a lie, everything that’s false, and to me the wrath of God is God’s very character against everything that is wrong. The fact that a doctor comes to someone and wants to perform surgery to cut a piece of your body out because it’s got cancer, doesn’t mean that he hates you. In fact, he’s after that which is destroying you.

When you look in [God’s] face and you see anger, you might misunderstand that he is making a value statement about you. But he’s not. He is coming after everything that keeps us from being free and being whole. The full set of his fury is against that. Even what he did in the Old Testament in terms of what we call the plagues, many times is referred to as the miracles, or the great workings, or the wonders, the nine wonders – because he went after every point of idolatry that was locking the Egyptians into their losses, as much as it was locking the children of Israel into that bondage. That’s a beautiful thing, you know.

If we want to understand the Old Testament, we’ve got to first look at Jesus, because he is the most obvious expression and manifestation of the character of God – “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father; I and the Father are one.” All those things are true. Some people think that God got saved somewhere between Malachi and Matthew and during the 400 silent years. This is the same God who’s been there. Just because our conceptions are so wound by performance – and by these kinds of frameworks that we don’t see clearly – doesn’t mean that he is what we thought he was. Like one gal wrote and said, “My daughter just came in, she’s 21, she wants to know if she can divorce the old God and marry this new one.”

JMF: Already been done. The concept of wrath itself – the definition of wrath, when we talk about the wrath of God, we like to put the definition of our own wrath, when we are angry about something that’s offended us – and we project that onto God, and so that’s the way God must be.

WPY: Absolutely. For a lot of us, our theology has been maybe our own father, or authority figures in our lives, projected to the ultimate level. And we don’t…

JMF: Angry…

WPY: And out of control, and I’m constantly disappointing him and I’m constantly failing. It’s a, “You got an A minus – that’s ok, but I know you can do better.” “Yes, you played great defense, but your offense was awful.” Whatever it is, we are constantly put onto a scale of performance and say, “You failed.”

What’s the main question in legalism? It’s “How much is enough?” And the answer is always, “More.” How much is enough prayer? How much is enough reading Scripture? How much is enough giving? How much is enough? And legalism says, “More.” We can’t do that.

JMF: And even if it’s more, it’s got to be better.

WPY: Yeah. More as in perfect. Yeah, you figure it out.

JMF: And then how do you define perfect?

WPY: Exactly.

JMF: Your life has changed as a result of an enormous amount of… You have everything from interviews, everything’s turned up-side-down, I imagine, in you life as a result of the spread of this book.

WPY: Yeah, it’s had a little impact.

JMF: So, what do you do for relaxation to get away, hobbies, or…

WPY: I have two grandbabies. Part of my relaxation is to spend time with them. Any grandparent knows. That’s as close to being in heaven as you can imagine. I have six children, I still have three at home. So I’m involved with some sports activities and drama and being involved in their lives as well. And I’m married to the woman who saved my life, and I think all men, for the most part, marry up. I have a community of friendships and relationships that are all a part of that, that are wonderful.

Life is lived at one day at a time. This is a funny, different kind of season for us, and we’re tracking it one day at a time. We don’t have any guarantees we’ll be here tomorrow. So I want to spend this day in the present, in the presence of the one who loves me best. I don’t want to project it into what’s going to happen into the future and be freaked out. This is where he lives with me.

It goes back to the prayer I prayed at the beginning of 2005, when I came out of the shack: “I will never ask you again, Papa, I’ll never ask you again to bless anything that I do, but if you have something that you’re blessing that I could hang around, I would love that. Because I want to know at the end of the day, you did this.” My whole life is religious. At the end of the day, I couldn’t tell you whether I did it or I performed it because of insecurity or a need to be significant and I coerced people into getting things done and I shamed them into doing stuff. I’m done with that.

JMF: Isn’t there a certain confidence … like Mack finally saw in the book that, regardless of what you wind up being involved with, you can rest assured that God is there with you in it – whether it might have been the best choice or not-so-best, he’s there.

WPY: Absolutely. There’s a huge rest in that. Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Where does he live? He lives inside of us. If my yoke is not easy and my burden is not light, what part of God have I picked up? I picked up something that doesn’t belong to me.

Rest is the environment in which we do everything. We live our lives and that happens today. Today is the day of salvation. Today, enter my rest, today. This is where eternity intersects my life – today.

I love the bride of Christ. I bash any institutional systems generally. I don’t care whether they are political or religious or whatever, because frankly, they are part of the world’s system – a way to coerce and manage human beings. But I love “the bride.” I don’t care whether “the bride” meets in a used building or has a steeple.

The church is “people.” It’s people, always has been. You either are the church or you’re not. To gather together is a gift – always has been. We were intended to be in community. How you do it, it’s going to be different from culture to culture and situation to situation. If you are under persecution, it’s going to look a whole lot different than when you’re not.

All of that is to say, “God decided to do something with this story.” When I asked him if it would be okay for me to hang around something he was blessing, I never thought it would be something that I did – actually wrote. That wasn’t on the radar. I was just saying, “I’m available.” I said, “I don’t care if I shine shoes or open the door, or clean the toilets. It doesn’t matter to me, if I can just be hanging around you.” Because that’s where I am in my life, that’s all that matters to me.

All the gifting of family and friendships and community of faith – all of that – is just the gift he brings to encompass his presence. That’s where I want to stay, that’s where I want to live. Between you and me (and I guess everybody out there), if this all went away tomorrow, I’d be fine. My identity is not in this book. My significance in not connected to this. My security is not. He’s everything. If it goes away, great! I want to be around whatever he’s blessing. This doesn’t have to be it.

When somebody attacks it, and attacks me or whatever, it’s just part of being part of this process. They don’t know me, so they can’t be attacking me. If they knew my history, they’d go, “Why in the world would God have loved a man like that?” I’d say, “It’s just the way love is. Grace is wasteful, and he wasted it on me – like he wants to waste it on all of us. He has already.” Don’t we love being in the middle of his embrace? Absolutely. Do we want to leave it for some temptation, for something else? Not anymore.

JMF: Any more ideas for writing on the horizon?

WPY: I write little things, so far, and I post them on WindRumors, which is the website that I write stuff on. I’ve got ideas, but you know what? The beauty of this is that I want to walk it out a day at a time. If I do it, I’ll do it as a gift. I don’t even know if I’ll do it under my own name. I don’t know. I don’t know any of these things today. But I’m always thinking about stuff and working on different ideas and things, I love that.

I love the freedom that says, “Just stay in my presence, everything will be fine,” and if I get the chance to do some other things and creative stuff, if I live past today, he’ll be there, we’ll figure it out – we’ll work it out. It’s a journey and it’s a process. As much as we’d like the blue or the red pill, it’s a process, and it’s a great one.

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