I suppose it is fashionable, after an author has written an 18-million copy bestseller (as is boldly announced on the dust jacket of Cross Roads), to summarily pan whatever book the writer comes up with next. After all, lightning rarely strikes the same place twice, and unless you’re writing about boy wizards or teen vampires, chances are you will not be responsible for multiple multi-million copy bestsellers, right? So a book like Cross Roads — the newly-released offering from Wm. Paul Young, author of The Shack — would be an easy book to dismiss. On the other hand, for the true believers of all things Shack-esque, it would be an easy book to praise. Perhaps what would be most difficult is to simply try to weigh the book’s merits and flaws while ignoring the 18-million pound gorilla in the room. Well, that’s what I’m going to attempt here.
Cross Roads tells the story of Anthony Spencer, a middle-aged guy who is basically a 21st century Scrooge. Fabulously successful in business, he built his corporate empire on the backs of family and co-workers, and so by the time we meet him he is financially secure but utterly lonely and quite paranoid. He is also about to have a stroke. The book’s sluggish beginning introduces the reader to just how much of a jerk Tony is; unfortunately, since he so quickly seems to turn into a nice guy as soon as he realizes that death is not the end, it’s sort of a squandered backstory. Imagine reading A Christmas Carol with all of Scrooge’s nastiness intact at the beginning of the story, but by chapter three you discover that he’s really a nice guy who just got emotionally constipated after his five-year-old son died. That’s basically how Cross Roads plays out.
But Charles Dickens is not the only influence on Cross Roads. By turns this book reminded me of Pilgrim’s Progress, The Great Divorce (even down to C. S. Lewis making a brief after-life appearance, the way George MacDonald does in Divorce), and perhaps oddest of all, Being John Malkovich (you’ll have to read it to find out why). Broadly speaking, it does rather come across as The Shack: The Next Generation. Tony has his stroke, and while his body ends up in ICU, his soul goes off on an adventure, to a Lewisian world-between-the-worlds where he discovers the three persons of the Holy Trinity (and comes face to face with his own sin). Thanks to a sort of “channeling” literary device that Young invents for this tale, we spend the rest of the book watching the spirit of Tony interact with a series of still-living folks (including a boy with Down’s syndrome and elderly lady lost in dementia — ironically, Tony can relate to the elderly lady as if she had no illness, but the little boy gets no such special treatment) who, in turn, help him mend some fences with his family before getting to perform one faith healing — but only one (among the many troubling questions the book leaves unanswered: why only one healing?).
Alas, the story seems contrived and Tony’s character is so two-dimensionally drawn that the narrative lacks any real inner conflict. On the other hand, Young’s prose is straightforward enough — and at times laugh-out-loud funny — to make this a pleasant, if not particularly moving, book to read. In the end, however, I just wasn’t convinced by Tony’s change of heart. The Shack belongs to the kind of Rob Bell universalism that trusts the love of God as capable of, in the end, winning over the most hardened of sinners. And I suppose that’s who Tony represents. But I had a hard time buying it. Young never offers us a truly terrifying glimpse into the hell that is Tony’s own creation, so I never had a sense of just what was at stake. Cross Road‘s message seems to be, “Love God and you will get the chances you need, either here or in the afterlife, to clean up your own mess. Or reject God’s love and live an isolated, empty, desolate existence of your own making.” Forgive me for being cynical, but I know plenty of folks who, if they were told that hell really doesn’t have a thermostat problem, would probably opt for the loneliness.
So if Cross Roads is meant to be a conversion story, it seems to founder on its own liberal optimism. I say this not to take a potshot at progressive theology — I’m pretty much an Empty Hell Catholic myself, but I think the reason why hell ends up empty is because it literally is scary as hell. That’s what I find missing in this book. Young seems to prefer to place the weight of his narrative on God’s love rather than humankind’s resistance to that love; I just think you need both sides of that tension in order to tell the whole story.
Finally, Cross Roads disappointed me because the story seems to lack both the whimsy and the daring of The Shack. Okay, I’m breaking my own rule and am back to paying attention to the big gorilla again. But what I think made The Shack appeal to so many people was its truly creative way of making the mystery of the Trinity come alive. Consequently, it became the type of book that you either love or hate, but by demanding such a response, it also became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. But trinitarian theology/spirituality is pretty much missing from Cross Roads, even though we are duly introduced to Jesus, the Holy Spirit (in a Lakota-grandmother guise) and “Papa” whose brief appearance seems to be inspired by Alanis Morrissette’s cameo in Dogma. We never get to see all three together, which is what made The Shack, despite its flaws, so charming. Nor is there anything else in it that’s controversial or truly innovative. Instead, we get a garden-variety conversion story that succumbs to its own niceness.