The Shack author on God the Father, sexual sin and the afterlife

William Paul Young in Australia to discuss new movie about real Prodigal Sons

God is a woman. That was one of the controversial images presented in The Shack, author William Paul Young’s bestseller turned international hot potato.

Polarising for its presentation of the Trinity, the afterlife and salvation, The Shack encouraged as many as it incited. Despite global debate about a novel originally intended for his children as a Christmas present, Young has never backed away from The Shack’s metaphors and messaging.

“There was no intention for it to be a corrective, whatsoever.” – Paul Young

So I’m a bit surprised at Young’s eager involvement with The Heart of Man, a new docu-drama based around real people (including Young himself) confessing their own versions of the famous Prodigal Son parable. Their common thread is the abuse and misuse of sex, leading to devastating consequences which only “improved” when these damaged people cried out to their loving heavenly father, God.

Young shares on camera how, as a child, he was sexually abused and abused others – and that he later cheated on his wife – but The Shack author doesn’t break rank from the ‘God the Father’ references flowing throughout The Heart of Man.

Is this something of a corrective to one of The Shack‘s most controversial depictions of God?

“No,” Young simply responds to Eternity, ahead of The Heart of Man’s limited release at select cinemas across Australia this month. Along with producer/writer Jason Palmer, Young is touring Australia from June 20 to speak at special Q and A screenings of The Heart of Man.

“It was because the film is based around the story of the Prodigal Son, which is the story of a father and son. There was no intention for it to be a corrective, whatsoever.”

For the record, The Shack also depicted God as a father figure but not in the definite terms Young was used to, growing up in what he describes as a “‘modern evangelical fundamentalist holiness’ type of religious background.”

The Canadian-born son of Protestant missionary parents, Young has admitted to painting “the face of God with the face of my father for many, many years and that was a God who is distant, angry, the deistic G-O-D ‘out there’ who was looking for an opportunity to hurt us, punish us, or whatever.”

Having developed a much different view of God throughout his adult life – a God more like Jesus, he says – Young has concluded that “the language is more fluid than we think it is, in terms of how God is presented in Scripture.”

“Imagery was never intended to define God, or God would be a burning bush [Exodus 3:4] or a nursing mother in Isaiah [49:5]. Imagery doesn’t define God; it’s a window through which we can apprehend some element of God.” Young also lists references to God’s “womb” in the gospels of Luke and John (chapters 1 and 3).

“… You’ve got to go to the place of greatest loss.” – Paul Young

But can Young see any difference being made to our understanding of God’s character due to the Bible’s frequent references to him as Father?

Approachable and assured Young aims to answer that question but ends up narrowing in on the Prodigal Son parable, particularly how it’s used to anchor The Heart of Man’s presentation of the misuse of human sexuality.

Despite the docu-drama’s title and it only featuring one woman confessing to problems similar to her male peers, The Heart of Man does not suggest sexual deviancy or destructiveness is the sole domain of men. Without quite going to the question of God the Father’s attributes, Young instead hones in on masculinity.

“I think the portrayal of the whole issue of father and son is because God has got to go the place of greatest loss. The brokenness of the cosmos is never placed at the foot of Eve or women; it’s through one man,” explains Young about his view of the Bible’s thread about the “original sin” of the first humans, Adam and Eve.

“Both times when Eve is mentioned in the New Testament [2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:13], it says she was thoroughly and completely deceived. But he [Adam] wasn’t; he never was deceived. And the brokenness of the cosmos came through one man. So the question begs itself: why did Jesus come as a male? Is it because God has always been masculine? No. It’s because you’ve got to go to the place of greatest loss. God cannot come as a female incarnation and reach the depths of the first Adam, who was a man.”

“This is a conversation about the devastation on the male side. Part of the beauty of that is this is a God who is going to come after all of us.”

“But here’s the deal: for many of us, shame is our sanctuary.” – Paul Young

Young is no stranger to devastation. On the mission field and boarding schools of New Guinea as a boy, Young was sexually abused. He also abused others and kept hidden the pain and shame he was plagued by. Fast forward to his married life in Oregon with wife Kim and, in 1994, she confronted him about a three-month affair he had been having with one of her best friends. As Young outlines in The Heart of Man, he then spent days telling Kim all of the secrets of his past. He stopped hiding. He confessed.

This extreme unloading began an 11-year process of healing which Young believes, ultimately, has been positive. Despite the costs along the way. “It’s way better but it’s so hard to get there. The work of transformation and change is very hard. I had to have help with that, in terms of therapy …[but] hiding is always terrible. We’re not designed to be all covered up and hidden; we’re designed to be authentic and open; ‘naked and unashamed’, as Genesis would say.”

“But here’s the deal: for many of us, shame is our sanctuary. It gives us a sense of certainty; we know it. We don’t know freedom, so freedom feels scarier. But let me tell you, I wouldn’t go back to hiding for anything.”

Young is convinced that “one of the greatest gifts that the Holy Spirit does in our lives is to expose” our sins and brutally contrast them with God’s truth. His hope is that viewers of The Heart of Man have such an experience, as they are confronted by real-life tales of addiction, brokenness, confusion and hope of healing, forgiveness and change.

The Heart of Man is a very human conversation. As a result, I think it will have a tremendous impact, whether someone comes specifically from a faith perspective or not.”

Young acknowledges that The Heart of Man could suggest that sexual sin is somehow more of a problem than any other sin. But he stands by his assessment that “there is nothing that is quite as powerful as sexuality in the human experience, to not only be a transcendent experience and a unifying one, but a devastating and damaging position of power. I think that comes from being made in the image of a God who has never been alone.”

This passing reference to the three-in-one nature of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – underscores another of Young’s conclusions about the enormity of sexual sins. He reckons that if you can can grasp even a little of the intimacy and purity of the Trinity, you can begin to understand why sexual sin – against our body and/or someone else’s – is so big, major, devastating.

“I don’t think death is our damnation.” – Paul Young

One of the strengths of The Heart of Man is its effortless depiction of how real people do match the Prodigal Son parable. Any of us can go our own way, pursue pleasure, hit rock bottom and, yet, can still return to God. And God has dealt with our sin and shame, in the salvation offered through Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. While The Heart of Man is light on when it comes to discussing the role and importance of God’s beloved Son Jesus, the docu-drama does point to eternal implications of rushing back to the heavenly Father.

Young also created a firestorm with The Shack‘s treatment of the afterlife, with critics claiming it presented a universalist approach to salvation – that every single person would end up enjoying eternal life with God and Jesus.

I ask Young what he thinks will happen to someone who doesn’t do what the son does in Jesus’s Prodigal parable. As in, what are the consequences in this life, and the next, if any of us do not return to God?

“You’re putting a ‘don’t return [to God]’ as if death is the final arbiter,” replies Young.

He’s right. I was suggesting that, in line with mainstream Christianity’s view of death being the decisive cut-off point for making a choice to trust and believe in salvation through Jesus Christ. But Young has a different view and offers a non-traditional interpretation of a key passage in the Book of Romans to support it.

“Romans itself says that death can’t separate you from the love of God [see Romans 8:31-39, in particular],” says Young, applying those verses to all people, not only Christians.

“And every time the New Testament talks about the issue of judgment, it talks about krisis – the Greek work for judgment – and it’s a crisis. You’re going to enter a crisis – and I don’t think the story is over; I don’t think death is our damnation.

“I think that Jesus is both our salvation and rightful judge but that judgment is intended for our good, not our harm.”

“So, what does it mean? Well, you get to experience the losses of your choices – and that’s no fun. I mean it’s devastating.”

Does Young mean for eternity, or just in this life? “Potentially for eternity, if you keep holding on to it. But I don’t think the story is over just because you die.

“I think there is an ongoing relational confrontation between the One who knows you best and loves you best. Potentially forever and, potentially, you could say ‘no’ forever. How someone could do that I don’t know, but definitely that tension is held in Scripture for sure.”

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