I don’t read a lot of fiction anymore—nor any books other than the Bible, really. I used to be a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, but nowadays I find my time taken up more with studying the Good Book than with seeking out the next trilogy, cycle, or whatever it is that authors want to call their flogging-a-dead-horse opuses. No doubt, being born-again seven years ago has had a great influence on what I choose to read, but now and then I do venture out and enjoy reading something other than the Bible—like a good British mystery or a one-off sci-fi novel. A few years ago, along with millions of other people, I read Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack. Despite my misgivings about the theology Mr. Young tried to teach through that novel, I really did enjoy it. About the time I read The Shack, I was going through some grieving of my own, and so even though my circumstances were different than the book’s, I still found some good material to help me through my grief.
Fast-forward to last week, when I was asked to take a look at Young’s newest book, Cross Roads (FaithWords, 2012), and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say I was very interested in reading it. Admittedly, I was expecting another Shack—something heavy on teaching and light on story—and so I sat down to read it with caution and a critical eye.
To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the first chapter, and I nearly stopped right there. That first chapter simply explains how powerful, egotistical, and paranoid the main character is. I am more a fan of the “show me” school of character introduction—i.e. instead of telling me a character is cold-hearted, show me something he does so I can draw that conclusion myself. We get more “show me” in subsequent chapters, but nothing of the kind in that first chapter. In fact, one paragraph on page 13 felt more like a summary of the preceding pages. It was almost as if an editor had sat down with the author and an early draft, and pointed to that paragraph and said, “Explain this to me,” and the result was all of Chapter 1. And so we learn that Anthony (Tony) Spencer is a self-made millionaire who has risen to power on the backs of others, and so he lives a lonely life after having pushed away everyone who once mattered to him. We learn a lot about what Tony is like now, even if we don’t get enough of the back-story to understand why he is like that. But after I made it past the exposition-heavy first chapter, I was hooked. The back-story is told throughout the book, and in my view it is told well and it is entirely plausible. By the end of the book, we see how Tony became who he was, and we have seen his journey away from that man and into the new man. But that first chapter was heavy-handed. Just forge through it and get on to the rest of the book. You won’t be disappointed.
Do we get more of Young’s anthropomorphizing of the Trinity? Sort of. Yes, Jesus makes His presence known, but not as the stereotyped carpenter of The Shack. And the Holy Spirit shows up, but not like the wispy (and in my view, somewhat silly) nymph Sarayu of that earlier novel. And God the Father? His presence is more felt than seen, and so rather than the theologizing of The Shack, we get more banter and honest conversation between Tony and the Son and the Spirit. I appreciate that Mr. Young decided to skip the sermons and just get to the story.
And what a story it is! I can’t say much without giving away the central conceit of the story, but I can say this much: Tony collapses because of a tumor in his frontal lobe, and that starts his journey of encounters with himself, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and with another family that intersect his own. As the dust jacket says, Jesus gives Tony the opportunity on his journey to heal just one person, and while we already know about half-way through the book who that is likely to be, it is the journey that matters.
As I read Cross Roads, this passage from the Gospel of Mark kept coming back to me:
9 “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’?
10 “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic,
11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”
While Cross Roads mentions a different passage from Mark, it is this one that I kept thinking about. Why? Because, as Jesus says in the novel, “Even faith healers eventually die.” The real healing that Jesus provides is healing from our sins. Physical healing is nice, but ultimately the miracle of bodily healing is no more than a sign of Jesus’ power to forgive our sins, a hint of the eternal spiritual healing that comes from faith and repentance. In Cross Roads, Anthony Spencer had to face a death-bed situation to figure that out. My prayer is that more people don’t wait that long.
Along Tony’s journey are moments when he must face the worst parts of himself, when he truly must repent and change, and there are times when his presence inspires change in others. And throughout it all is a message of hope for healing on so many different levels. There are moments when you will surprise someone next to you as you laugh, and times when you will cry because you recognize a little of yourself in Tony and others. In a couple places, Young pokes a little fun at some church stereotypes, but ultimately he is respectful of the denominations he briefly mentions. And while the end isn’t surprising, it is satisfying.
I enjoyed reading Cross Roads. (Perhaps too much, as reading it cost me a day off when I should have been doing some handyman work around the house. Sorry, honey!) It is a novel that tells a simple story. No, it is not anything earth-shattering, not a new Pilgrim’s Progress or anything like that. It is one man’s story about how he had to face death before he encountered God, and about how that encounter touched the lives of people he had never known before. Cross Roads is a well-told tale of healing and faith that will make you laugh out loud and weep with joy. I recommend it to all.