I N N E R V I E W
Paul Young, author of The Shack
P. Young (Paul) had no intention of publishing a book. In 2005, at his
wifeís urging, he finally gathered some thoughts together and created
a story for their children that would describe his personal life
journey. Printed by four friends and promoted simply by website and word
of mouth, Paulís fledgling book had
hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Phil caught up
with the accidental author at his home in Gresham, Oregon.
Phil: Hi Paul. Have you heard of Servant magazine?
Yes I have. I went 3 years to Canadian Bible College in Regina before I moved to Calgary (near where Phil lives) and I was very close friends with one of Prairie's alumni, Scott Mitchell.
Scott and Connie lived upstairs from us when we were first married and we spent a lot of time together. So you knew Scott. What a guy! Connie told us that he had a part in this book. (Pastor Scott Mitchell, a friend and neighbor of Phil's was shot and killed.)
Yeah. Going through The Shack, which is a bit of a metaphor for the house of the soul, that you build and people help you build, Scott was definitely part of that for me.
I understand you
have six children. Are they grown?
Yes. Weíve got two grandbabies and one on the way.
I hear they are better than actual children, these grandchildren.
You know, people say that but we loved our kids. I think itís not so much the grandchildren but that Iíve changed so much over the course of my life. My attention span is much better. I listen more.
You were raised by missionary parents in New Guinea?
Yes, Christian and Missionary Alliance.
How did The Shack come about? Iím sure youíve told that a thousand times, but would you tell us again?
Iíve always written as gifts but never tried to publish anything. Iím an accidental author at best and publishing was never even on the radar. I just wrote all through my life as a gift for my kids, friends and this was really no different. Kim had been encouraging me for about five years to bring together in one place for the children just how I think because itís sort of outside the box. So finally I was ready to do it in 2005. I didnít know what that meant. A few months ago she told me she meant 4 to 6 pages. But I finally grabbed some time. I had come out of my ďshackĒ at the end of 2004; it was really an eleven year process, which I squeezed into a weekend for Mackenzie in the book. But it was just a gift. My goal was to give it to a local print shop by Christmas, maybe about 15 copies for the children and some friends.
So you wrapped it
up and put it under the tree?
It didnít make it. I didnít quite have enough money to do the printing so we made it to last Christmas. I put together enough money to finish the project and gave it to them as a gift. But then my friends started giving it to their friends and it ended up with people I didnít know and they were writing emails about how the book had impacted them. And I thought, whatís going on here? So I sent it to the only real author I knew and he immediately sent it to a bunch of his friends, two of whom are movie producers. They began looking at it as a potential screenplay. So that started a conversation and I didnít know what to do with it. I was trying to get Wayne involved since he was the only one who had some history in publishing, a whole realm that I knew nothing about. He didnít want to get involved because he had just come out of it and his experience with the publishing industry hasnít always been wonderful. But the movie guys were pushing me to do something and I didnít know what to do. Finally the four of us got together in Los Angeles in the spring of 2006 and began to take a look at the book, the screenplay, our relationships and we talked about collaborating on an editing process. We were all working regular jobs so over about 16 months we re-worked the material, sent it out to a whole bunch of our friends for their feedback. It was highly collaborative on a number of levels. Finally it was ready to send to a publisher. We sent it to a couple of dozen major publishers, faith-based and otherwise and nobody wanted it. The faith-based guys said we love the book personally but we donít have a niche for it and itís too edgy. The secular publishers said they loved the book personally but they didnít have a niche for it and it had too much ďJesus.Ē So Wayne and Brad (one of the producers) said we believe thereís this huge middle market, a group of people who are quite tired of the same old stuff under a different cover. Weíve always wanted to have a publishing company so we would have some latitude to do what we would like to do, so they created Windblown Media. So technically the book isnít self-published; itís published by a publisher but itís these guys. Windblown Media was born because of The Shack and it was born with just one title. So we borrowed money and pooled our resources for the first print run and ordered 10,000.
Thatís pretty huge for a first book.
Now we know that this was quite aggressive. But we didnít know what we were doing. We did a hard back at first because people wanted it, then we did a soft cover and set up a website so it wouldnít cost us anything and attached it to Wayneís. Because we werenít dealing with wholesale versus retail we were able to give multiple discounts so we built that into right from the beginning. Actually because of a computer glitch 11,000 copies were delivered to Bradís garage. From the garage we shipped out books. Brad and Wayne have a podcast called thegodjourney.com which goes out to 140 countries. We presold about 1000 copies through that because theyíd been talking about it for over a year. So those books went out all over the world and we started giving it to our friends and they gave it to their friends. It was just like youíd lit a fire and these sparks would go flying off and those sparks would start fires and those fires would cause sparks. We watched people come to the website and theyíd buy one. And a week later theyíd buy 5 and two weeks later theyíd buy 10 or 20 or cases of 36. We were thinking two years but it took only four monthsóthe whole goal was that down the road as this book might do ok we could hit 100,000 books which would open up the door for a potential movie, which was what the guys were most interested in. Four months later weíd gone through 11,000 books. So we ordered 20,000 and they delivered 22,000. People are looking on Amazon and all over for this book, they canít find the publisher, canít track it. So companies are now coming to us asking if they can put our book in their distribution chain and allow them to sell it in stores. So even up to today, weíve spent less than $300 in marketing and weíre at 1.7 million in sales.
Itís been #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for seven weeks. Weíre at #2 in all of Amazon, #1 in Barnes & Noble nation-wide and weíve done virtually nothing. Itís been through word of mouth. None of us have anyóthereís no doubt in our minds that this is something God has decided to do. Heís decided to bless something and we just carry the bags, not because weíre brilliant or had the perspective to do something for God. I just wanted to write a story for my children.
Has the success of
this changed you?
People donít understand that the book was not written as Ďpart ofí a healing process. Itís written after. Itís a metaphor. I built my shack for 38 years and it all came tumbling down and I had to deal with all the stuff in the shack for 11 years which ended in 2004. I came out of the shack, by the grace of God, one of the healthier people that I know. I had no addictions left, no secrets, no skeletons, no reputation. Itís one of these situations where my identity is in Jesus. I donít have an identity as an author so that hasnít changed. When I prayed at the beginning of 2005, not about the book but just about my life, my prayer was ďPapa, Iíll never again ask you to bless anything that I doónever because Iím so done with religious performance. But if youíve got something youíre blessing and it would be ok for me to hang around that, I would be all over it. I donít care if Iím cleaning toilets or shining shoes or holding the door open. And people donít understand where Iíve come from so they donít understand there is no way I would change the sense of being in the presence of the Lord and having him as a constant companion. I will not change that for anything. So this has some new and different challenges but the book doesnít touch anything that matters. Itís been real the whole time. The book doesnít add anything to my significance; it doesnít give me an identity now. The world will but I know better. I know I walk with a limp, I know where Iíve come from. I know every breath is grace. I used to think I understood what God was up to and I used to tell everybody. I donít do that any more. I donít understand anything about what heís up to. I like living this one day at a time inside the grace of one-day stuff.
You and I are from
similar backgrounds in the sense of coming to a point of knowing that it
is all about grace. Iíve
said that I want on my tombstone ďHe found Godís grace too amazing
to keep to himself.Ē
I love that. We both grew up with a God tainted with the face of a father whose expectations we couldnít live up to. And itís all guilt-motivated and performance-oriented. Itís up to us to find God.
I got pretty good at that and I was very proud of it. I could put on a show for whoever was in the room.
The faÁade in front of the shack.
You mentioned the
book was ďtoo edgyĒ. What were they talking about?
Itís different for different theological perspectives. Donít get me wrongótheologians love this book. Iíve gotten huge support from Catholic, Protestant, Eastern and Western Orthodoxóitís been all over the map as far as support for the book. But here are certain theological perspectives that are a little more tightly wound. So they have certain problems because theyíve got a lot invested in judgment and an angrier God. The Southern Baptists spent two weeks going through the book with their theologians before their convention and then issued a statement that they found nothing of questionable theology and nothing unorthodox about the book that would warrant it being pulled from the shelves or banned and theyíve reinstated it nation-wide. Some of it is that people in the west struggle with the imagery, they read things into it. People find their identity in Ďbeing right.í One insight we got from the publishing company is that if somebody else is doing it, we canít do it and if nobody else is doing it, we canít do it. Itís really there. So all the gatekeepers are saying Iím sorry, we canít publish this because itís going to potentially offend this person or this group or whatever. So all they do is what theyíve published before and thatís why you get a thousand titles on the same material.
As I was reading it I could see some people taking it out of context. You have the character of God saying ďIn Jesus I have forgiven all sins against me.Ē So for someone who sees Universalism behind every bush, what do you say to a person like that?
I say II Timothy, chapter 4 says ďThis is statement that is true and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ is the savior of all mankind, especially of believers.Ē Or ďGod was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself through Christ, not counting their sins against them.Ē To me the issue is not the issue of the finished workóhe died once for all. He will never have to die on the cross again. The issue is not an issue of God reaching down and accomplishing salvation; the issue is one of relationship. Heís not going to force a relationship on anybody. If you want outer darkness, you can have outer darkness if thatís what you really want. People hold to their idolatries and their false thinking and their blindness and their lostness and they donít want the light. And thatís respected. But itís not because the way has not been absolutely and certainly supplied in Christ and by the finished work of God the Father, and the power of the Spirit and the Son. Itís all because of Jesus. The path narrows to one man, the second Adam, Jesus Christ.
So you have not
accepted Universalism into your life?
I have never believed all roads lead to God. Itís clear in the one passage in the book where Jesus is talking to Mac who asks him, Do all roads lead to Papa (God)? And he tells him, No, most roads donít lead anywhere. But I will go down any road to find youówhich is the story of the incarnation. Itís the story of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety and nine to go and find the one. God knows how lost we are. And he will be the one who bridges the gap. We love him because he first loved us. He expressed his love first before we even had the capacity to respond. Itís always moving from Godís side toward us. Heíll go down any road to find us but that doesnít mean that any particular road weíre on is The Way. Just because The Way penetrated a particular dead-end road that youíre on, whether itís religious road or a political road or a business success road or an addiction road, heíll come down and find you, but that doesnít mean that heroin is the way to God. Itís just because thatís the road he found you on.
What is the
central message of this book?
Itís fundamentally first about the character of God. Is he good and is he involved? Is God a God of love? Thatís the underlying central issue for Mackenzie because love is what casts out fear. So often we have painted God as demanding perfection and setting the bar so high we canít reach it and communicating to us his disgust at our inability. So the central theme is who is this God really? What is his character? Because the character of God is the first thing thatís maligned in scripture. The first accusation against God is about his character. If that is in question, then everything else is uncertain. Life is uncertain; Godís behavior is uncertain. If the character of God is uncertain, then we are totally on our own in trying to make it. Besides who is this God really, the second question is well, then, who am I to this Godóthe issue of identity. And thatís the second major question. Who am I to this God? Am I someone who signed up for a test? Am I a servant? Or am I a son? Ephesians 1: 5 is right. It says that his whole purpose before the foundation of the world was to adopt us as sons. Am I to understand the adoption as a son as an identity issue or does he send his $25 a month to support a child? Whatís our understanding. Everything says that our adoption as sons allows us to enter into the same relationship with the Father as Jesus has. That relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is what we get invited into. Even more than the sense of inviting Jesus into our lives, weíre invited into his. And the affection of the Father to the Son is what I am now in the middle of. In the story of the prodigal son, there is never any question whether or not the two boys are his sons. At no time are they going to be disowned as sons. The question really is, when are the boys finally going to realize the love of the father? Because theyíre both functioning outside of the love of the father. The love of the father is constant throughout the story but the boys donít understand that so one turns to rebellion and one turns to religion. The beauty is that the one who turns to rebellion is the first one to come home. The other one has been in the house the whole time.
So which one are
Iím the religious one. For sure. But Iím a shame-based religious person, not truly pride-based. Shame was so deep in my life that it was the motivation for everything that I did. When I accomplished things or did things that people approved or applauded I always felt like Iíd lied my way to it or faked it. Shame was the reality inside my shack.
You suffered great loss as a child and young adult and were involved in an affair a number of years ago. In the wake of what weíve talked about regarding shame, how did you get through that?
It just about killed me, let me tell you. Thatís the piece that Scott Mitchell helped me through. Because when it all blew up I was 38 years old and my sixth child was born, thatís when the affair happened. But the childhood stuff that built the shack was not being connected to my parents, being on the mission field, growing up inside another culture, being a third culture kid, etc and all of the sexual abuse that was part of that culture as well as at boarding school, all of that stuff made me a damaged person seeking the approval of a father who is only angry. So that is the basis for The Shack. The Shack is a place that houses the decrepit house of the soul. Other people have helped you build its foundation on pain and lostness. You have rooms where you hide your secrets and rooms where you store your addictions and all your lies are the fabric that holds this house together. And meanwhile you build a faÁade thatís outside, the think that you want people to see. And you paint it and make it as beautiful as possible so that people will think itís perfect. You change the colors as peopleís expectations change but really the corruption in the shack is never touched by all the performance on the outside. My faÁade was the three-month affair with one of my wifeís best friends. She caught me so January 4, 1994 she called me on the phone and she said, ďI know and Iím waiting for you at your office.Ē I called the other woman and she said, ďRun away with meĒ which is part of the survival mechanism for abused people and I said, ďNo.Ē It was a sick affair in a real demonic sense in that I thought Kim was going to die, that this was a God-thing, that he was fulfilling some great romanceóit was way outside the box. And in the confrontation of that moment, it was--if I donít deal with all this crap, because I could just not hold the religious faÁade together in the face of this kind of devastation. So it was either do I face this or do I run? If I run you might as well kill me? So do I allow the shame at this point to kill me or do I face it? It took eleven years. And really it was Kimís anger. Sheís from a real salt-of-the-earth family and there are no shades of grey in her world. So she just came at me with every bit of fury that she had. And it was the intensity of her fury that pushed me to deal with everything. Iíve been saved twice in my life, once by Jesus and once by Kim. It took eleven very hard years for her and me to be ok. She didnít believe anything for the first two years. And Scott played a part in those first two years, just undoing stuff, unraveling my identity. The only reason Kim let me stay in the house was because she loved the kids and because they broke hard and because I never pointed a finger in her direction. I just didnít care any more; I needed to deal with stuff. Pointing the finger in someone elseís direction is a survival skill. And by the time I came out of the shack I didnít care whether I ever spoke again. Because I was a performer, a rising young Christian superstar and my identity was in being approved and always being right in a conversation. I knew I was out when joy had become a constant companion, my identity was in Christ, when Kim and I were good, and when I was the same person in every situation. Iím the same with my kids as I am at work, as I am at play, when Iím alone, when Iím travellingóIím the same person. And that was just unbelievable to me. The integration and the healing of the pieces of my heart took eleven years. I was in Indiana recently and talking to Kim on the phone and I told her there was a rumor out that she and I were separated and seeking a divorce. She laughed and she said, ďThe funny thing about it is that we are the best weíve ever been.Ē In a group last summer she said in front of me, ďI never thought I would ever say this in my life, but it was all worth it.Ē So I understand grace. For people to think that this is all going to go to my head they donít understand what I would have to give up for that to happen and Iím just not there. I know where I came from and the process that it took and I know what I have. If the book went away tomorrow and all of it, the speaking, the movie, if I was back where I was at the beginning of this year still shipping soldering tips out of a manufacturerís warehouse and cleaning the toiletsóif I went back to doing that I would be fine. I have everything that matters. This book doesnít add anything to me or take anything away. Itís a lot of fun, but I feel like Iím hanging around something God is blessing. This is not my gig. Even in the controversy it stirs up, itís at least opening up conversations that have just never been there before. Thatís the beauty of it. People are talking about things, even with people that they thought they knew really well, having conversations that are just unbelievable, transforming. Theyíre not just sticking the book back on the shelf and going on to another one. Itís not because of the book but itís because this is something the Spirit of the Lord has decided he wants to breathe on. I love being a part of it but Iím very clear that this is not because of me. I understand my role in it and I understand that it was my life and my fifty years before I could write this storyóI understand all that. But even scripture, if the Holy Spirit doesnít breathe life into it, itís just words on a page. My favorite quote about the book so far is from a college student named Tyson who said to Amy, my twenty-year-old my daughter, ďAmy, this book is just so far beyond your dad.Ē The beauty of being in a family is that we know that apart from Christ we can do nothing. There are no pedestals. How can I say Look at my nothing. Itís bigger than your nothing. Itís shinier than your nothing. Itís nothing. I love that.
God uses the
under-qualified to do his work, would you say?
Hereís proof that God still uses the foolish. I said to Nicholas, my 25-year-old, ďYou know whatís funny about this? Iím talking in front of thousands of people now. A year ago nobody cared what I had to say and Iím as dumb now as I was then.Ē Itís an enigma, Godís joke and I love it.
A lot of visitors to my site are missionary kids and I can think of one whoís been right where you are. In our conversations heís been in tears about being in boarding school. Any advice for parents involved in missions overseas? I know some things have changed.
A couple of things for parents. Youíve got to go at the pace of the slowest and thatís in scriptureógive honor to the weakest members. Because in Godís kingdom every person matters. A lot of times we get an objective, a vision, a goal, a ministryówhatever. And we get those in our mind and we think finally weíve got something thatís going to give us a sense of worth and identity and security and weíre going to do something great for God. And we run at it and in doing so we run right past our kids and our spouses and our friends and the people who would intersect our path if we just walked in the presence of God. So there comes a point where you make decisions based on the people in your life, not the value of a goal or product or end result. We live one day at a time and we only have whatís in our life today and how we spend it in terms of relationships that are right in front of us is significant. To your friend, I understand. I know the hardest question is ďWhere are you from?Ē You donít fit anywhere. And yet you can stand from the outside and see all the inconsistencies and see them as a weapon or in the healing that God does in our hearts we can begin to allow God to use that ability, which missionary kids have, an incredible ability to not to adapt to culture but to see its inconsistencies but to allow God to use that insight to bring healing in gentle sorts of ways. Both MKs and PKs can tend to be pretty screwed up and its because a lot of us came from homes where the parents were sold out to the ministry and they hadnít dealt with their own baggage so it got dumped on us. And then we end up in a hostile environment where all these kids who are somewhat fractured are trying to find acceptance through dominance or power, plus who knows the experiences theyíve had. Their parents donít know or are unaware. My parents had no clue about the abuse that was going on neither at the boarding school or inside the tribe. I was disconnected and disassociated from my own parents. I didnít have that sense of home except inside the tribal culture inside of which I was being abused as well. The path to come to healing to deal with the stuff is unique to the individual and there is a process of opening up and letting the light come in and moving toward authenticity which I think is one of the greatest drives of the human heart. And you know what? God has never done anything alone. Thereís always been three. Weíre made in his image; we canít do this alone. Weíve got to let people in and be a part of the process. The other piece is that God has begun a good work and he doesnít build roads that lead nowhere.
The character Mac experiences incredible healing to his pain, but what would you say to those who havenít heard God speak and long for healing?
Iíd say that the God who knows we can only hear at 10 decibels wonít talk to us at 9.9 and then get mad at us for not being able to hear him. There is a uniqueness to every human being and that uniqueness is so astoundingly intricate that it makes the physical universe pale in comparison and God respects that creation in a way that we donít. and the process of even physical healing, Jesus never healed twice the same when he healed physically. Even that responded to the uniqueness of the human being. So the whole process of the healing of the soul is unique to each person because the damage has been unique and damaged a unique person in very unique ways. And only God is big enough to take your pile of balled up, knotted string and untie that ball one knot at a time in the right order so that the string doesnít break. And that takes time and itís a process because he wonít violate you or abuse you in order to heal you. I donít think God heals us to use us; I think he heals us because he loves us and then begins to invite us in our freedom to play. The beauty of the affection of this God who pursues us is that he has come to set us free. And there is no plan B. I can say very confidently that you are right where you are and are known to be where you are at this time in terms of the purposes of God. It comes down to the basic questions: is he good and is he involved? Itís one thing to believe heís good but not involved. Itís another thing to believe heís involved but heís not good. But if you can put your feet down in the middle of the quagmire of whatever youíre dealing with in your life and you can plant your left foot on ďHeís goodĒ and your right foot on ďHeís involvedĒ then I can stay inside a dayís worth of grace. I donít have to scramble to figure out my healing. And you know what? The process of transformation is not one thatís hindered by shame. God can use shame to accomplish righteousness. Thatís why he nailed shame and condemnation to the cross.
Any plans for a
I donít think there will be a sequel, no. I have a website called windrumors.com and I write a lot of stuff on there. Iím starting to work on a lot of things, but thereís no pressure unless itís something God wants. Theyíre looking very seriously at a movie. I think theyíre about to announce a director. If itís done, it will be done right. Weíre not giving up creative control.
How are you going to make sure The Shack doesnít become this commercial marketing machine? You know, an amusement park?
Most of the time we just laugh about it. The commercial piece of it is going to happen even if people donít have permission. But weíre really not interested. You have to make choices along the way, whether itís to the praise of Godís glory or just stupid. You make your decisions one day at a time and Iíve got too much in front of me today to worry about tomorrow.
How would you like
to be remembered after all this is said and done?
Different things come to mind. An enigma of grace is probably one thing. My life just doesnít make any sense. Itís been such an extension of grace. The wastefulness of grace is all over my life. Wastefulnessóif youíre dealing with a human being itís easy to feel like, Iíve extended way too much grace. Iím done. Look at creation. How many shades of green are there? Thereís just this wastefulness of green. And in our relationship to God you can not go deep enough to run out of grace; itís not just enoughóitís way more than enough. And you get gifts all the time for things that are just, I sit back and think thatís just unexpected and unanticipated and not earned, of course, and undeserved and all of that. And heís doing it because thatís the way he is and he loves to do this. This flood of grace is in our lives and all around us.
You smile as you say that. Humor is a part of this book as well.
Well, where do we think humor came from? The fruit of the Holy Spirit didnít show up when we were created. They are expressions of the life that exists between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Note: We're sad to report that Paul Young and the publishers have begun bickering over royalties (you can get the scoop here). Phil's interview with Paul is helpful in understanding his mind, perhaps. We hope that those involved will consider an organization like Peacemakers to help mediate the process.