William Paul Young and C. Baxter Kruger, Discovering the Shack

William Paul Young is the author of the best-selling novel The Shack; C. Baxter Kruger earned a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen.

Together, they discuss The Shack, religion, and a new understanding of relationship with God.

Edited transcript

JMF: You’ve both been on the program separately before. Since that time you guys have met and you’ve been doing a lot of traveling around the world giving lectures, answering questions. How did you meet? How did this getting together for meetings around the world get started?

WPY: I’ll let Baxter take the first crack at that. It’s a great story.

CBK: Your guy Tim Brassell in Virginia is responsible for our first meeting.

JMF: The Grace Communion International pastor.

WPY: He wasn’t responsible for you getting the book?

CBK: No, he’s responsible for us meeting. Wendy Marchett, from Sault Sainte Marie, Canada, phoned me and says, “I’m not getting off the phone until you promise me you’ll read a book.” She made me write it down, and I’ve got the post-it note. It said, “William P. Young, The Shack,” and the ISBN number.

I said “Wendy, I mean, I’m not... Don’t do this to me.” She said, “I wouldn’t ask you to do something like this if it wasn’t really, really, important.” I said, “All right, what’s the book about?” She said, “I’m not going to tell you.” I said, “Come on.” She said, “Just trust me.” I said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. Deer season’s just around the corner. I’ll get this book by William P. Young and I’ll put it on the top of my deer-stand reading list pile.” I did.

Mid November comes along. I have a deer stand that we affectionately call the “Cadillac Stand,” which has nicer chairs than these. It’s covered and it’s got three or four books in there. I went to the Cadillac stand and I started reading. I’m thinking, “Well, the guy is writing a book about meeting God in the woods in a shack, maybe it’s an old hunting camp.” I’m clipping along, and he gets beaten, chained to a tree and I’m thinking “What’s going on?” Then he starts telling about great sadness, he starts telling the “Multnomah princess” story, and I’m thinking, “I don’t think I like where this going.” Then, Missy — and man, I’m sitting there crying.

Then it hit me (and I told Paul), I stood up in the stand and I held this book up and I said, “William P. Young, I don’t know who you are, but if you hand me the same old, same old, Augustinian, distant, removed, impersonal, unapproachable, legalistic, God who watches us from the infinite distances of a disapproving heart, as the answer to this problem that you’ve come up with here, I’m going to walk down that path 200 yards, and I’m going to lean the book up against a tree, and I will personally eliminate this copy from the cosmos.”

Then, I turned over to chapter 5: Papa comes out the door. I’ve got all kinds of things that are going off in me theologically because of my studies with Professor James B. Torrance, things that he used to emphasize. This was absolutely astonishing.

That was on a Friday. I couldn’t finish the book. I remember pulling a flashlight out, a little rubber flashlight that I had. I was trying to finish the book, and my son texted me and said that he was back at the base camp. So I finished it that night.

Then, Sunday... It was either that next, two days later, or the next weekend (I really don’t remember). My son and I were watching a football game and my phone rings. I look at it; it’s a 503 number, and I’m thinking “Sunday afternoon, I don’t know...”  but something told me I needed to take it.

I answered the phone and I said, “Hello.” He says, “Baxter, this is Paul Young.” I thought, “I don’t know Paul Young, never heard of Paul Young.” I said, “Well hey Paul, how are you doing?” I knew he knew that I didn’t know who he was, and he was enjoying it.

He says, “You may know me as William.” I’m thinking, “I don’t know William Paul Young,” but I’m trying to think of what... Surely I met him somewhere, we’ve talked, we’ve probably sat down and had a beer or some... I don’t know, I’m just racking my brain.

I thought, “William, William P. Young.” I said, “Are you like William P. Young?” He said “Yes, my friends call me Paul.” I said, “Are you the dude that wrote the best book that’s been written in the last 500 years?” He said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” I said “Well, did you write The Shack?” He said, “That would be me.” I was like, why in the world are you calling me? The whole world wants to talk to you.

Tim Brassell, one of the GCI pastors, had emailed Paul and said, “I don’t know if you know Baxter, but Baxter’s written a theology that goes along with The Shack and here’s his phone number, you need to call and talk to him.” So he did. We talked an hour and a half.

WPY: We did.

CBK: I’m thinking, “My goodness!” I have all these questions like, where did you come from? How in the world did you come to see this? People who study with J. B. Torrance, you can see the trajectory. But he didn’t know J. B….

JMF: Good story looking for a theology.

CBK: That’s right. Anyways, I was so excited. We hung up the phone (that was in November), and I called Tim, because I was speaking for Tim and Bill Winn at Bill’s church, doing a conference that next April.  I said, “You call Paul right now before he’s so booked he can’t breathe, and invite him to come to the conference and get him to do Friday. Just tell him to do whatever he wants to do on Friday, and I’ll take Saturday and do the theology of The Shack Saturday.” He did, and it all worked out.

We had adjoining rooms that weekend and I asked him four million questions, because I wanted to know all about how he came to see this. It’s a stunning story, it’s so rich with great theology that’s rooted in the history of the church. His journey to come to see this was a very different way than the way the Lord had brought me to see it.

WPY: Which is part of the beauty of the whole thing. It’s one thing to have gone through the theological training and come to it. To have somebody that comes from a totally ... I’ve got theological training, but I didn’t come through Barth or the Torrance brothers, or any of the Trinitarian community. Mine was much more having to slog it out in the trenches of being a preacher’s kid, a missionary kid, having all the questions and not having any answers. Nobody even wanted to talk about the questions.

Then having to work this out in my own life, to get to the place where I finally felt healthy enough to write a story for my kids, which was the original intention. Make my 15 copies at Office Depot and go back to work. Not thinking the thing was going to light up the world the way that it has. To have those two things come together, and in such a beautiful way. I was talking to Baxter today on the flight down here about how grateful I am for that voice into my life, that comes from that trajectory compared to the way I’ve come. I’ve come on a very lonely road, in a sense.

We’ve now traveled to Australia, spoken there, done a bunch of conferences, done a lot of little things. It’s a beautiful thing because our lives dovetail, the theology dovetails, it supports each other. The conversations are incredible as a result.

JMF: Your first trip together was in Australia, right?

WPY: That’s correct.

JMF: Tell us about some of those things that happened.

WPY: [first trip] out of the U. S.

CBK: In April, when I was there and Paul came, I said to him that night, “I would love for you to come to Jackson, and I would love for you to go to Australia through our network.” He didn’t need me to set anything up, but I just asked, “Would you go with me?” That worked out. Then from there it tumbles and...

On that trip what fascinated me about it was the way Paul’s book ... When he speaks, he doesn’t just talk about Shack, he talks more about his own life story. Some people are prepared for it, some people are not, because he had a pretty brutal childhood. He opens himself up and shares his journey. That means that the minute you have the end of the lecture or whatever and someone’s singing, there’s 150-200 people lining up and they’ve got to talk. This is not going to be “would you sign my book, thank you, move on.” I was fascinated by how many people.

There were some folks who didn’t particularly like maybe some of the things he was saying but, by and large, it’s like 99 percent of the people not only loved what he was doing, but they wanted to talk. They were so thrilled and they cried, and it was a moving, liberating, almost like an evangelistic experience, is the way I saw it, from where I was sitting.

WPY: I’ll give you an example that Baxter can dive into. For me, The Shack is a metaphor for the heart, the soul of a human being. It’s the house on the inside that people help you build. For a lot of us, we didn’t get good help. The Shackbecomes a centerpiece for the story line where you’ve got a guy who suffers, not unlike many of us who’ve had difficult relationships with our fathers – there’s been the abuse issues, all these things. He manages to make his way, he ends up with a family and then suffers a horrible tragedy with one of his daughters, Missy. He ends up having to go back to this place that is the center of his pain, with the sense that maybe God will meet him there.

I’m drawing this story together because it’s based in my own great sadness. It’s based in my history. I’m trying to communicate to my six children (who are grown; my youngest is 18): I want you to meet the God that you’ve heard me tell you about now for the last number of years. The God that actually brought healing to my life, not the God I grew up with. Which is G-o-d, right? He’s the omni-being watching from the infinite distance of a disapproving heart. That’s what I was trying to do – draw them into that conversation. Now Baxter is reading that whole thing theologically. What do you see when that’s happening?

CBK: It’s so beautiful. It’s a brilliant move. What you did in the scene where Mackenzie goes back into the shack, he goes to meet God, and G-o-d is a no show. It doesn’t exist anywhere but in our imaginations anyway. He’s in the shack, it’s dark, and he just explodes in his anger. He tears up one of the chairs, throws it against the wall, a leg breaks and he just pounds the floor. He screams out, “I hate you. I’m done. I’ve tried to find you. Where are you? You couldn’t even bother to let us find her body so we could give her a proper burial!” He just yells out at God; he finally leaves the shack and he’s pissed, just furious. He leaves and then things begin to change.

I think it’s something like two months of spring happen in 30 seconds. Now the snows melting, the shack transforms, or morphs, into a log cabin with a picket fence, there’s some smoke wending from the chimney. I’m reading along ... Then he thinks he can hear laughter coming from the shack. The first hint that we get of the real God, in The Shack is laughter. He’s thinking, “I don’t know what’s going on here.”

He goes back and he’s stepping up on those steps again and he’s not sure what to expect at all. All of a sudden Papa comes out the door, lifts him off the ground shouting his name, as if she’d known him and loved him all his life. The next thing he knows is this Asian looking woman, who is almost invisible, brushes up against him, and she says, “I collect tears.” He’s standing there… A third person appears, which is the figure of Jesus, in a carpenter’s outfit. He’s got dust all over him because he’s already preparing the coffin for Mackenzie’s great sadness.

As a theologian (someone who had the singular privilege of listening to J. B. Torrance, and one of J. B. Torrance’s phrases that he would say a hundred times a day is that he would say “Forgiveness is prior to repentance.” Forgiveness is logically prior to repentance), I’m thinking this is J. B.’s theology written into a story form and without a single theological word. What Paul has done is thrown us into the room where we can feel the total inadequacies of Western legalism. It rips our souls open and we don’t even know what goes on. All we know is we want to be there and be hugged by Papa.

The fascinating thing is all of a sudden, Mackenzie’s still mad, he’s still furious, he doesn’t know who these three people are, he doesn’t know if he can trust them, he’s being hugged but he’s like this, he’s bristling. He is already embraced, he’s already not only accepted but loved, he’s already included. The figures of the Father, Son, and Spirit are already inside of his pain and he hadn’t repented and believed! He doesn’t even know who these people are!

To me, coming from where I came from, studying with J. B., I’m thinking “This is the heart of the gospel.” That’s what the early church proclaimed, that’s what was recovered in the Reformation, then it got lost again in all these rationalistic, legalistic, crap. It’s being recovered again, now here it is in story form so people can feel it and see it. I was sitting on a deer stand thinking, “What is going on here?” I was so excited to see this, right there, so beautifully portrayed.

Who doesn’t want to be sitting at Papa’s table? Just what did Mackenzie do to get there? Where is Papa’s table? It’s inside his pain. How did Papa, how did Sarayu get inside Jesus’ world? The scene with the garden is the same because the garden turns out to be the brokenness of Mackenzie’s soul. There’s the Holy Spirit digging around with Mackenzie, the two of them working in tandem, digging up issues and pain. It’s the Holy Spirit that’s already inside our world of pain. In our legalistic deism we got God over here separated, until we get it all worked out they’re not even looking at us.

Then Papa comes walking into the garden with a sack lunch smiling. That was one of the first things I asked him when I got on the phone. I said, “Tell me you did that on purpose. Tell me that you knew what you were doing.” He said, “Oh yeah.” Well, when you hear his story, his life was shattered. Who was it that he met in his pain but the Father, Son, and Spirit? He’s found a way to help us see it and feel it with him. I think it’s beautiful. Very liberating.

WPY: If we can’t get to the place where we have a relationship with God, and the character nature of that God is trustworthy, we have no hope. The bottom line question in The Shack, and the bottom line question in theology is: “Who is God? What is the nature of this God really?” Frankly, if you don’t know God loves you relentlessly, with a full-on abandon, if you don’t know that God is for you, you can’t trust him.

A lot of us, the way we’ve grown up, the way we’ve been hurt, we don’t trust anybody. That’s why we resort to control, which is fear-based, because all we got is ourselves. Unless we run into perfect love we’re going to be full of fear. God knows that. God is going to work within the context of our pain, inside of it, in order to exchange, in a sense, including us into his life for climbing into our stuff and beginning to heal us from the inside.

JMF: Part and parcel of recognizing and receiving that has to do with being able to extend that to others, including those who are the perpetrators of the pain that you’re struggling with.

WPY: Absolutely. That’s why forgiveness becomes such a crucial issue in the context of the story. It’s not an event. This forgiveness issue is a process. It goes deeply into Mackenzie’s history, as well as it deals with what he’s facing now and ultimately with himself. We can, a lot of times, even forgive God before we can forgive ourselves for the mistakes we’ve made and the ways we’ve hurt people, what we didn’t even understand but acted out of. Forgiveness becomes a critical point.

One of the phrases that I used in the book (You have to remember, I’m not expecting anything from this book except 15 copies for my family and friends. That’s it. I’ve never published anything and didn’t ever intend to.)… We all hear “God loves you. God loves you,” which says something about God, but he loves everybody and he loves everything. But I used the phrase “I’m especially fond of you,” which is a lot more about you. That phrase keeps cropping up as a manifestation of the certainty of God’s relentless affection.

I’ll give you a little story. I was up in Edmonton, Alberta, at a women’s prison. I was speaking at the prison. When I’m done one of the inmates comes over and she just collapses into my arms and begins to sob. She’s sobbing so hard that she can’t even get words out and I can’t understand what she’s saying. Finally I get it. What she’s saying is “Do you really think Papa’s fond of me?”  I said, “Honey he’s especially fond of you.” She says, “That’s all I needed to know. That’s all I needed to know.” I’m thinking, “Honey, that’s all any of us needs to know. We just don’t know it!” It took me 50 years to get to the place where I could say with certainty, “Papa’s especially fond of me.” A lot of the reason I couldn’t, is wrapped up in the paradigm of theology that I was raised in.

CBK: We all were.

WPY: Yeah!

CBK: Variations on the theme. One of my favorite Athanasius quotes – he wrote it when he was 21 years old – he said, “The God of all is good and supremely noble by nature. Therefore, he is the lover of the human race.” When it’s all said and done, the issue on the table is “Is God really good?” Is God for us or is there a “maybe” in his heart? If we feel that there’s a maybe in his heart, there’s no way we’re going to be able to have any rest or any peace – certainly not love the Lord for any reason other than what we can get from him.

JMF: That is the way that virtually everybody thinks of God.

CBK: Fallen mind.

WPY: I met a girl named Jenny. Jenny lived in Atlanta, a preacher’s kid, like me. She grew up in a home where she was basically told, “When bad things happen to you it’s because you’re bad. The scales of justice have to be balanced. Bad things happening is an evidence of your evil nature, etc.” She was good girl, she performed well and all this, but in her early 40s was diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer.

You can imagine, inside that paradigm, what that did to her. It dropped her into a pit of despair that nothing could reach. She was gone. Her husband John was trying, with no results. Friends brought over a copy of The Shack, because they felt the Holy Spirit nudge them to say, “Go read her some of this.” She loves them, so she put up with it, with folded arms, sitting on the couch, while they read the first five chapters, first four, whatever that period was, up to the point where Papa comes through the door. Finally she just broke. She and John then spent the next two days reading the book.

The book (not the book, because words are words; they have no power to do anything), but the Holy Spirit used the story in the sense of manifesting a whole different paradigm of the nature and character of God that yanked her out of her pit. Just yanked her, right out of all this deep depression. She wrote me an email and she said two absolutely striking things.

The first one was “Paul, I wasn’t afraid to die. I was terrified of the look of disgust I would see on his face when we met.” That tapped deeply into the shame that a lot of us religious people have grown up with and feel. I identify with that.

The second thing is even more staggering as far as I’m concerned. She said, “When I was growing up I didn’t really know what the difference between God and Satan was. Except, with Satan I always knew where I stood. Which means with God I didn’t.” That’s that little shard of uncertainty.

CBK: Ambiguity on the face of Jesus’ Father.

WPY: Yep. You can’t trust him. If God’s character is not certain, we have no place to plant our feet. The world is uncertain; you can’t get God’s behavior to be certain. Where do we stand? I think that’s why the first conversation in Genesis about God is between the accuser and the children of God where the accuser is saying, “You can’t trust him! He’ll lie to you.” It’s a total attack against the character of God.

CBK: He’s holding back.

WPY: Yep.

CBK: It’s the beginning of all religion. In the end, if you can’t trust, if there’s ambiguity on the face of God, then you really don’t want to spend eternity with that being. You may want to avoid the furnace, the divine rotisserie, but if there’s ambiguity on the face of God, if he’s split between ... There’s two different parts of the Father’s face here, one of them may love me, the other one can’t stand me.

JMF: You have to pretend to love the ambiguity.

WPY: Religion will teach you to use the language.

CBK: Then you get 550 variations on what you do to pretend that. The point is, no one in that situation really wants to be with Jesus’ Father. We’re just avoiding the punishment of going to the other place.

JMF: That’s what preaching is, so much of it, you’re going to go to hell so...

WPY: Fire insurance.

JMF: Yeah. It’s to save yourself.

CBK: What The Shack is about, what I see there, it’s talking about moving to the place to where you want to be with this Father. To me, the work of the Holy Spirit (and it’s a Herculean task, it’s an impossible task) is to bring us to the place where we so know how much Jesus’ Father loves us that we throw ourselves at him and say, “Would you please judge me to the core of my being. I don’t want anything in me or my way of thinking, or my way of being, that’s going to keep me from sharing in the life that you have with your Father and the Son and the Spirit. That will keep me from not being able to participate in that.”

JMF: You’re talking about coming to where that isn’t just a platitude. You hear that, it’s a platitude all the time, but as a real...

CBK: You want to be there. You really want to be with him. You want to know him, you want to be known by him. You want to know life in his house. It’s not fire insurance.

JMF: There’s no fear in that relationship.

WPY: No. Fear is always connected to punishment, right?

JMF: Its complete trust. You don’t just work that up.

CBK: It’s rooted in the way that God really is from all eternity, which is revealed to us in Jesus. It doesn’t square with our fallen minds. Repentance doesn’t bring us to the place where we accept his love and forgiveness. Repentance is our coming to know it so we can begin to trust and walk in it.

JMF: Coming to know what is already the truth, the fact.

CBK: That he’s for us. That’s why I love the scene where they’re already in the shack. What the whole story’s about is the Father, Son, and Spirit are, as it were, scratching their head thinking, “How are we going to convince Mackenzie that we’re good and we love him? How are we going to find a way to reach him? How are we actually going to get there where we can help him to know who we really are?”

WPY: Mackenzie’s got all this damage, that already have all these lies embedded in them. God can’t just go in there and surgically remove those things without tampering with Mackenzie’s humanity at the core. God won’t do that.

CBK: Personhood.

WPY: Personhood. God has so much greater respect for human beings than we do. We would think that he would be like us and would go in and tamper with the bad stuff, right? No, there’s a respect there. There is a movement, a relational movement. As soon as you’ve got relationship like that, you’ve got mystery, you’ve got a loss of control, you’ve got things that truly matter coming to the surface. That’s the journey. It’s three quarters of the book before Papa finally says to Mackenzie, “Mackenzie, you don’t even believe that I’m good.” Finally he admits, “You’re right, I don’t.” It takes all this process before he’s at the place where he can even admit that.

JMF: Let’s get together again and talk about this some more.

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Last modified: Sunday, February 17, 2019, 11:02 AM