Paul Youngin a keynote address that at times more clearly resembled a confessionstared down the lions, spilling pieces of his heart and more than a few teardrops on the stage.
In the 22 months since he published "The Shack," a novel of redemption he penned for his children, William P. Young has been sucked into a turbine of both success (more than six million copies sold, plus a pending movie) and pointed criticismmostly from pastors and other theologians who charge that the piece is a study in heresy.
Even so, Young, who goes by his middle name, willingly entered the den when he spoke Feb. 12 before hundreds of clergy attending the National Pastors Convention held in San Diego, California.
Modeling the same self-deprecating style as Mackenzie, the book's protagonist, Young warmed up the crowd by sharing the God-inspired story of the little book that could.
"A year ago nobody cared what I have to say," he said, chuckling.
Young now travels the globe as his book has been translated into at least 30 languages. He will also speak at an upcoming convention of secular book publishers in South America.
"I'll be talking to them about Jesus," he said, shaking as if to make sure he wasn't daydreaming. "It's unbelievable what the Holy Spirit is doing. I feel like I live and work with burning bushes all around me."
Not a bad showing for a book that was turned down by more than 20 Christian and secular publishers. Christian publishers, he said, thought it too edgy; secular houses thought it had too much Jesus. So Young and three friends published the book through their newly created Windblown Media.
"It's a for-real phenomenon," the author said. "I'm sort of a roadie for the Holy Spirit at this point."
The book tells the story of a grief-stricken father who finds healing through a weekend rendezvous with God through the three persons of the Trinity. Young, a missionary kid, said the story is based on his own 11-year journey to redemption. While the book has had its critics among theologians, it hit a nerve with people as the first 15 copies were passed along to family and friends. Immediately requests for the book came rolling in from across the globe.
"It was like fires were starting and sparks were shooting out from wherever the book landed," he said.
Although Young attended Bible college and seminary, he said the book was never designed as a treatise of the Holy Scriptures, but a passion-laced recount of how God desires a relationship with his children and that, apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.
Young said he chose the shack as a metaphor for his own life, which was scarred from early childhood sexual abuse that skewered his view of intimacyculminating with a three-month affair with one of his wife's friends.
"It's the house of the fallen human being that's been all broken up, not just by my choices, but by choices that were perpetrated on me," the author said. "It's the house on the inside, the house of shame. And it's the house that we don't want anybody to know exists. That's where we store all of our addictions, all of our secrets, in that house."
When confronted about the affair by his angry and devastated wife, Young said he finally realized he couldn't heal himself.
"Do you know what changed everything? When I reached for the door of (my own) shack," he told the audience, as years of pain, remorse and redemption clipped his voice.
It was inside the shack where Young said God came running to him from, "inside of all my crap. Not from some distant, angry, disappointed heaven. He was in my stuff and he wrapped me up in His arms and He spun me around and He said, 'I've been here the whole time.'"
It is Young's use of other allegories and imagery that has generated much of the hullabaloo against the book, including criticism that the author takes a potshot at believers when Jesus denies being a Christian during a talk with Mackenzie.
"Can you believe that got me into trouble?" Young asked the audience in a lighthearted acknowledgment that he had stepped on some toes, but then he quickly went on to explain that Jesus never used the term Christian and that it only emerged among his disciples after Jesus ascended to heaven.
"He's not a Christian and He didn't come to set up a new religion or to compete with an existing one," Young told the pastors. "He came to destroy religion by introducing relationships. And that is so different. We think we want territory. We want to belong to something."
Two paragraphs later, Young writes in the book that those who love Jesus come from all religions, political parties and body shapes, which prompted Mackenzie to ask Jesus if all roads lead to God. In the novel, Jesus laughs and responds that most roads don't lead anywhere, but then he adds he will go down any road to find Mackenzie.
"That is, to me, a beautiful statement of the incarnation," Young said, adding that the intent of the passage was not to preach a universalist gospel, but to reiterate the depths Jesus will go in pursuit of relationship.
To further that concept the author uses unorthodox imagery to portray Papa, his character for God the Father, imagery that has brought some of the most frenzied condemnation to "The Shack." To this, Young said his desire was to show God's transformative power and his willingness to make himself known in ways his children can see and hear.
"He pursues us to heal us," he said.
While Young appears to relish the dialogue over his work, he has been less than enamored by the sometimes vitriolic tone of the debate.
He challenged those in attendance to carefully examine the filter from which they view the world.
"It's just that when you want to find something, your paradigm allows you to see what you want to find," he said, adding that some of the most vocal criticism has come from people who have not even read the book.
"Please understand that I think the controversy and maybe the other stuff that has happened is that God is taking a stick and stirring up those nice clean ponds," he said.
He admits, though, that he's taken aback by the anger some have used in responding to "The Shack."
"Everybody brings to the table what they have," Young said. "When I have a problem with somebody and they are angry, I look at them and think, 'OK, you were once a child. What happened?' I want to be a part of a kingdom in which I don't have to enter into that spirit."