Sunday February 10, 2013
Familiar, yet still inspiring
Review by KENNETH CHAW
Author: William Paul Young
Publisher: Faith Words, 290 pages
A SELF-CENTERED, cold-hearted multi-millionaire is in a coma following a brain injury. While doctors rush to revive his fast deteriorating body, his soul is whisked away to the “in-between”, a place somewhere between heaven and earth. There, he meets a bunch of mysterious characters who take him on a journey of self-reflection and shed light on the wretched life he led on Earth.
Fortunately, he is given a second chance to set things right through an opportunity to change the lives of a single mother and her Down syndrome son and leukaemia-stricken daughter – but not without having to make a sacrifice.
This all too familiar tale of life and death is told in William Paul Young’s sophomore release, Cross Roads. For the uninitiated, Young was the first-time author who took the literary world by storm in 2007 with his sleeper hit The Shack.
The book – about a father who embarks on a spiritual journey in an effort to come to terms with his daughter’s disappearance – eventually sold over 18 million copies worldwide and topped the New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks. Prior to his writing success, Young worked as an office manager and hotel night clerk.
But for readers who are familiar with the inspirational fiction genre, the premise for his follow-up novel could not have been more predictable and hardly lives up to the hype he created with The Shack. Cross Roads, said to be written in just 11 days, gave me the impression that the author – perhaps consumed by the pressure of having to repeat his previous success – borrowed the storyline from Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven.
But to be fair, though the novel depends on a worn-out premise, Young’s writing is decidedly more geared towards the Christian faith and could therefore still appeal to readers in the Christian community.
The protagonist, Anthony “Tony” Spencer, is cast as a cynical, unbelieving businessman who grew weary of the rites and rituals of organised religion as a boy. As the book and his “heavenly” excursion progresses, Tony is shown a different side to God and finds himself slowly letting his guard down and drawing closer to Him – making for one of the book’s finest moments.
But just when it starts to become an emotionally-stirring read, the book unfortunately dives into a lengthy – and, to me, often incomprehensible – teachings about the Christian faith. For example, I found Young’s attempt at explaining big theological questions like the concept of the Trinity – a doctrine that suggests the Christian God is made up of three divine personas: Father, Son and Holy Spirit – hard to digest. Having to deliver all this theory makes the characters often come off as a little preachy at times.
But I could forgive these faults in light of Young’s imaginative depiction of the afterlife and how Tony’s soul makes its way there: Like a rocket blasted into outer space, Tony’s soul is launched heavenward at top speed until he arrives at a place filled with picturesque hilltops, flowing rivers and lush meadows. Of course, instead of frolicking in the green fields, the sceptical Tony brushes these sightings off as a figment of his imagination.
Young’s very best imaginings, though, are reserved for his portrayal of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Instead of describing the Saviour as the typical bearded man with long hair dressed in a bright, immaculate robe, Jesus is given a down-to-earth, guy-next-door persona. And a middle-aged Native American woman is Young’s interpretation of the Holy Spirit, instead of one of those wispy, transparent spirits that floats about the air. Though some may find these depictions lacking in creativity or spirituality, it’s refreshing to see God portrayed in a human way. This effort to humanise God shouldn’t be taken as a sign of disrespect but more as an attempt to quash the general perception that God is a faraway, iron-fisted, holier-than-thou entity.
Cross Roads, despite its unoriginal premise, ultimately manages to fulfil its goal: to inspire. But Young could certainly have found a fresher premise to base that inspiration on.