Recommended books & reviews

The Fifty Shades of Christian Fiction: ‘Cross Roads’ by Wm Paul Young [review]

What has Wm Paul Young, author of The Shack, got in common with EL James, author of record breaking series Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, for a start they have both sold millions of books.

But also, both writers have catapulted a relatively marginal genre of literature, namely erotica and Christian fiction, into the global mainstream. Furthermore, despite their popularity, not even their biggest fans would claim that their books are literary masterpieces. It is not beautiful prose or intricately crafted characters that have driven the sales.

The plot

Cross Roads focuses on the fate of a selfish and neurotic multi-millionaire, Tony Spencer, who is trapped in a coma. He awakes to find himself in a strange ‘in-between’ world where the actual landscape reflects the skewed priorities of the life he has lived on earth. It’s a kind of purgatory. In this world he meets a stranger who turns out to be Jesus and a grandmother character who is the Holy Spirit. Their discussions lead to Tony being sent back to earth to redeem himself. But there is a twist: he has to experience life through someone else’ eyes.

The negatives

What it’s like? Let’s get the negatives out of the way. Similarly to The Shack, I found Young’s style of writing pretty clunky and the characterisation quite two-dimensional. Also, I didn’t much like the chatty, matey discussions that Tony has with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Somehow they come over as quite sentimental and mushy.

But having said those things, there was plenty I did enjoy. The story drew me in and spoke to me and moved me. These are three main reasons I liked Cross Roads:

1) Its bold, imaginative and provocative

Young is bold and provocative in the way he presents God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is a-regular-guy-you-would-meet-in-the-pub-kind-of-character; the total opposite of a stained glass, other-worldly depiction.

His idea of someone inhabiting a landscape which is a physical representation of the state of their soul is a stroke of imaginative genius. Tony’s shabby and broken-down wasteland exposes the true poverty of his life. His wealth and riches can no longer mask the impact of his selfishness and greed.

In one memorable scene, Tony meets two despicable and pathetic characters called Bluster and Swagger – actual beings who guard the walls around his ‘soul landscape’. When he challenges them, they begin to shrink and take him to meet their master, a repugnant character called Ego. He uses all kind of manipulative tactics, including clever theology, to maintain his hold on Tony’s life. Scenes like this displays Young’s awesome creative imagination, which stand alongside the imaginative genius of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol or Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

2) Its full of generous and inspiring theology

CS Lewis’ influence is clear in Cross Roads and Young weaves in phrases such as ‘the problem of pain’ and ‘surprised by joy’ in unsubtle tribute. Like Lewis’ treatment of judgement in The Great Divorce or in The Last Battle, many conservative Christians may find Young’s theology altogether too generous. For his theology is no less controversial than Rob Bell’s in Love Wins, because at the heart of Cross Roads is the availability of God’s grace beyond death. Tony is a character who has rejected God and Jesus during his life – yet on his death-bed he encounters them and has an opportunity to put his trust in them.

In addition, Young’s portrayal of ‘heaven’ is a renewed creation. He echoes Tom Wright when one character explains that heaven is not the ‘after-life’ but rather the ‘life-after’. In contrast to escapist theological trash of the Left Behind series, this novel has a generous orthodoxy which shows the eternal importance of how we live now.

3) Its willing to explore the deepest areas of human pain and difficulty

Finally, I admire the way that Young is unafraid to take this theology into the darkest of places. His characters experience loneliness, addiction, acute suffering, tragedy, disability and early death. Faith in God is subjected to the sharpest questions about what divine love really means in the face of such random suffering.

Young has a confidence to put faith in God to work in the deepest areas of human pain and hardship. And the words he ascribes to Jesus echo gospel truth – of hope through pain, of a God who has come to earth to participate and share in suffering – and yet who has conquered them. In the eye of the storm, it is a Trinitarian God who has relationship at his very core who can save us.

Reaching the parts non-fiction never can

So all in all I would recommend reading Cross Roads. Young has captured something deep and true about God’s love for everyone and the truth of his judgement. And, like CS Lewis, he has crafted it all within a fictional narrative of bold imagination. As I wrote in a previous post, fiction has ‘the Heineken effect’: it reaches parts that non-fiction never can. Perhaps this is why Jesus told so many stories. Let’s hope that through Cross Roads, many more people can grasp the transformative power of God’s love and grace.

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