Interview with Wm. Paul YoungPosted by Goodreads on September 1, 2015
Young's new novel, Eve, is likely to prove similarly provocative with its interpretation of the creation narrative that suggests Adam, not Eve, triggered the Fall, which means that Eve—and therefore womankind—has for centuries been unfairly maligned. The gripping sci-fi-flavored story has as its central character a savagely wounded 15-year-old girl, a former child prostitute who witnesses creation from an in-between world of teleporting, angels, and evil mirrors. Eve is a "tall, fine-boned, ebony-black woman," God breast-feeds, and Adam is seen with a pregnant belly.
Those who were upset by The Shack will no doubt be outraged again. But Young, who says his fiction is grounded in decades of Bible study, welcomes such visceral responses. The 60-year-old, who was raised by missionaries in New Guinea, suffered abuse as a child and went on to attend seminary in Oregon, tells Goodreads why he is driven to challenge what he sees as polarizing and sexist in traditional interpretations of Scripture and how he hopes Eve will fuel a new discussion about gender roles and what it means to be human.
Eve was the hardest book you've written because you were consolidating 40 years of work on this issue. How did you get to the point where you were ready to write it?
Wm. Paul Young: I don't think I would have had the confidence to tackle this without having written The Shack and Cross Roads [Young's second novel, released in 2012, about a selfish businessman who reconnects with God after falling into a coma], because it is such a monumental task to address something so embedded, and especially to do it inside a story, in fiction. That was why it was so arduous and such a hard piece of work, because I wanted a teenager to be able to read it and not get lost inside it, yet I wanted it to be true and coherent with the scholarship and with the text itself.
GR: Why was it so important for you to challenge the creation narrative of Genesis? What did you most want to do with this book?
WPY: For many of us, and I grew up evangelical fundamental Christian, the narrative has been pretty engrained. And the more I worked on the passages themselves, primarily pushed in that direction because of some major losses of my own, sexual abuse [an issue in the book] and those kinds of losses which were perpetrated by men, the more I came to the opinion that the narrative we have adopted is wrong. I grew up in a hierarchical fundamentalist religious perspective that really subordinated women and even in the last couple of decades has found new language to subordinate women. So I wanted to challenge the existing narrative because the polarizing language we use with regards to gender or relationships, to masculine and feminine, has created a huge amount of division and confusion. I saw a narrative for the entire passage that would allow a conversation to emerge that might get away from this polarity language and begin to relate to the question in terms of being human, not in terms of gender or ethnicity or social position. And I thought if I can find a way to make that narrative accessible, maybe it could change the conversation. And I really believe it can. So I'm kind of thrilled about it.
GR: How would you describe the existing narrative?
WPY: Oh, you know, Adam is created and then Eve is created, and she is beguiled by the serpent, who is the bad guy, and she tempts and draws Adam into an existence of separation from God. But the narrative predominantly places the blame at the feet of women, and that hasn't answered the question why have men done so much damage in the world.
GR: Why do you think this interpretation has endured for so long?
WPY: Because it's dominated by men, and translation has been dominated by men, and men have been the ones in power who have told the story. It's true not just of gender issues; it's true with ethnicity issues, and those in power create the narrative for history, whether they do it on purpose or not. I know job security impacts interpretation of Scripture more than any single thing. Genesis says that when the turning takes place, at least the woman turns to a relationship, which is more like the character and nature of God, but the man turns to the ground and the works of his hands, and so it becomes about territory and property. So, surprise, surprise, the narrative emerges that allows some sense of justification for men to continue to dominate and suppress the voice of women, and this is so wrong. Look at all the destruction and damage that men have brought to the world and continue to do so. So we need a different conversation.
GR: By depicting Eve as a black woman or having the images of God breast-feeding or Adam pregnant, are you trying to get people to think and perceive differently?
WPY: Yes, and the text allows for all of that. The word "mercy" is from the same root in Hebrew as the word "womb," and so every time you read "mercy" you are dealing with the maternal nature of God. And you've got language in Isaiah of God nursing or El Shaddai, which means the breasted one. We need to have a conversation that deepens our understanding of, and appreciation for, what being human is all about and that everybody, in my view, every single human being is a unique expression of the spectrum of both the masculine and feminine, because God is neither male nor female.
GR: How did you come up with the story itself—Lilly Fields, a teenage victim of child trafficking, horribly injured and abused, becomes a witness to creation and the fall and thinks she can somehow change history.
WPY: With the kind of history that I have, with growing up in a culture where sexual abuse was a part of my world before I was five years old, and it took me decades to work through the damage with any sense of coherency or integration, I have for many years been inside the conversation with regard to the healing of the human soul. So when I was looking at the story line, I was thinking, Eve is the character who frames the story, but who is the central character? The first time I began working with the idea, I was literally thinking, I want a 15-year-old girl to be able to read this story and not get lost. And I was thinking about the fact that sadly we live in a world where girls are constantly being trafficked, and they are objectified. And I was looking at my daughters and my granddaughters and thinking, How do I speak to this in a way that might change things for them? And not just for my girls but for the daughters of us all. Lilly allowed me huge freedoms because she allowed me to explore the process of healing itself.
The Shack, is pretty traumatic. Is that part of what you want to do—to shake people?
WPY: I do, and there's no question about that. But even in Eve it's not graphic, and you don't need to be. You've got to pull people across the threshold enough so they understand what it is you're talking about. But I want my kids to be able to read this, and I want teenagers to be able to read this. People who read horror had an easier time with that than they did with The Shack because it is so human and so tangible and so wrenching, but not because it is graphic. And the same is true for Eve. I want a pretty strong boundary yet at the same time I don't want to be some Pollyanna person who thinks everything in the world is wonderful, because it's not. We have huge devastating problems that it is way past time to address.
GR: The voice of your teenage heroine is modern: She's unimpressed and skeptical about religion.
WPY: Yes, and it's because this younger generation is exactly there. They've got really good crap detectors, they're not excited about agenda, things are moving and changing so fast, they want something that matters that actually makes a difference. And her voice was not difficult to access. I'm surrounded by young women who give me lots of feedback, who love me, but aren't impressed.
GR: You wrote Eve in about seven months. How do you work when you start a new project?
WPY: I'm not a wake-up-in-the-morning, do-your-2,000-words kind of guy. I'm just like, all right, it's time, jump in the river, see what happens. Sometimes it could be 14 hours in a day. It's one of those zones where you lose track of time, you don't remember going to the bathroom or the last time you ate, you just get swept away in it, and it's a constant companion until it's done. To me it's as close as a man will ever get to delivering a baby, very much like a pregnancy—you have your morning sickness, and you waddle around, and you want to pull the baby out now, but it's not quite time, and the labor process is excruciating—and long for me.
GR: I wanted to ask about the book's graphic and colorful depictions of conception and labor. At one point God "plunges His hands into the holy mess... The labor was nearly finished. Then, with a piercing wrenching scream, Adonai raised above His head a newborn baby."
WPY: I have a high view of humanity, which is contrary to the evangelical heritage I grew up with, which had a very low view of humanity, so I am constantly trying to find ways to celebrate our humanity. And the whole conception and the birthing process is to me one of the most amazing miracles that exist in creation, and to find ways to celebrate it, I loved some of the depictions that emerged in the story line around the birthing process and the exultation of that, and that by itself grants a dignity and honor to women that is incredibly well deserved, and I'm thrilled about that, too.
GR: There was a very strong reaction to The Shack, with people accusing you of heresy and theological inaccuracy. What's it like to have such a visceral response?
WPY: I love a visceral response way more than I appreciate ambivalence. Someone who doesn't care, there's no real conversation there. At least with an angry person you can have a conversation, because when people are upset, something in them is being challenged enough to raise their ire, and that's an engaged process and opens up the possibility of really great conversation. I love the questions, I love the conversation, and I think it's our way forward.
GR: And with your background, you feel you can support your fiction with your knowledge?
WPY: I went to seminary, I went to bible school, and I've read voraciously. I love the deep philosophers and theologians and the people who people quote who they don't actually read, I actually read them. But I find that part of what I am to the community of faith as well as to the community of humanity is that I'm an interpreter. I grasp some of the big-picture stuff, and I find a way to say it in a way that my kids can understand it. And that's a very narrow thing, but it's important, and I'm thrilled to be in that space. My books are recognized as human books. They're not sectarian with an agenda to divide, but they're addressing fundamental human questions, and as a result I think they speak a language that crosses all these barriers, and that gives me hope.
GR: Goodreads member Ellen asks, "What sort of criticism or backlash do you expect from conservative Christians with the release of Eve?"
WPY: The same people who didn't read The Shack and didn't like it are not going to read Eve and not like it. And the beauty is they are my people. They really are. They are the people I grew up with, I know really well, and I know where they are coming from. I know what they are afraid of. So yeah, I anticipate I will get the same sort of serious 12-page dissertations against all the evils of the book that I've had before. But even with The Shack, I'd say that might be 1 or 2 percent, maybe 3 percent, of all the responses that I get. And even when people have come to where I've been speaking and intended to take a stand against me, they are overwhelmed by the stories of how this conversation has penetrated people and changed their world.
GR: The back of the book says it's an "unprecedented exploration of the creation narrative." You've never seen anything in all your reading like this?
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis, which remains one of my favorite stories. It's the second in the Space Trilogy that he did, and he posits Venus as the new Eden in which the Eve character makes the right choice. And Lewis is brilliant in that book. But he doesn't tackle the existing narrative; he just posits an alternative universe. But no, like I said, 40 years of work on all the issues and the problem passages, and it constantly drove me back to Genesis, really pushed me to explore the Hebrew and the historical theological positions about it and get a great grasp of the story line, and then draw together what people have written over the centuries and say, All right, let's see if we can't find a narrative that is coherent with the text and with the scholarship and that allows for a different conversation.
GR: Could you talk us through how The Shack became a book. You originally wrote it for your kids while you were working three jobs?
WPY: Yes, and our youngest was 13 at the time, so they weren't little kids. It started with Kim, my wife of nearly 36 years, who said to me, "Some day, as a gift for our kids, would you just put in one place how you think because you think outside the box." It wasn't until I was 50 that I felt my head and heart were integrated enough to write something that puts in one place how I think. So I wrote this story on the train going between my three jobs and ended up making 15 copies at Office Depot. I gave six to the kids and Kim and the rest to my friends and family. And those 15 copies did everything I ever wanted that book to do. I was thrilled with that. It never crossed my mind to publish it. I didn't know anything about publishing, and so to be involved in something that became such a global phenomenon was absolutely wonderful, humbling. You have the sense that, you know what, this is God's sense of humor. It's one of those stories where you just shake your head and laugh a lot.
GR: What does it feel like now that the movie is being made?
WPY: I was invited up to the set, and it is a surreal thing to walk around where they have built an entire shack, and they're filming and there's 50 crew and cast and you think, I made 15 copies of a little thing that I wrote for Christmas for my kids, and all of these people are employed because of this and bringing to this their abilities and their skill sets and their stories, and it's all being woven together into something that gets to be presented in a different way to the world again. It is so surreal, and I am so grateful.
WPY: I grew up in the highlands of New Guinea, where we didn't have any technology, so I grew up with books and I read all the classics plus Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, I love the science fiction genre. And then of course the Inklings with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton. And Malcolm Muggeridge, even in Punch magazine I loved his ability to turn a phrase and bite someone in the butt. And Mark Twain.
Then I started getting into some philosophy, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Jacques Ellul, who's not easy to read, but he's conceptually brilliant as a sociologist and a theologian. And then the mystic strain on the other side, people like Richard Rohr and Jean Vanier. Then back to Athanasius's On the Incarnation of the Word of God and people who were writing in the first few centuries. And also I'm a bit of a physics person. I love quantum theory and astronomy. I love it, just enough to be dangerous. That's why you have quantum fire in Cross Roads and fractals in The Shack and movement between worlds or parallel universes. And it's why you have this mixture of fantasy and science fiction and deep human psychology and theology all kind of merged together inside a story line.
GR: Goodreads member Katie asks, "Do you find it hard to write as a faith-filled man in a society that is becoming so secular and looking to follow popular opinion rather than stand for truth and right?"
WPY: So my first response to that is that I am convinced that secularism is halfway to Jesus from religion. I find huge amounts of resonance within secularism that religion has created inhibitions to address. So I don't find antagonism in the secular dimension of the world nearly as much as I find it within religious fundamentalism of any sort whether it's atheistic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism. With someone who is about being right, and not about loving, or about codified propositions and laws, then you've got a lot more pushback, and I find some comfort in the fact that Jesus found it the same way in the first century. It was the religious people who had the most problems with who he was and what he was saying. So I really don't. In fact, the more human that I am in terms of the conversation, the easier it is to have that conversation within the secular world.
GR: Goodreads member Kristin asks, "How do you feel when you hear your books have changed people's relationships with God?"
WPY: Oh my gosh, I hear that a lot. That's one of the greatest blessings that's ever happened, because I've been allowed to participate in whatever this is. And it really is the holy ground. People's stories are the holy ground, that's where you get to watch the activity of God inside a person's world in a way that burns away everything that's not real. So the greatest gift that's come out of this is the invitation to be inside other people's stories, and those stories are miraculous, they are just mind-boggling, and I've got thousands of them.
Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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