On the positive side, I think [William] Paul Young has become a markedly better writer since The Shack. On the negative side, he continues to use his writing to undermine and redefine Christian theology. By my reckoning, that’s a net loss. Where The Shack was meant to revolutionize our understanding of God, his new novel Eve is meant to revolutionize and rescue our understanding of the relationship between men and women. And it is no less troubling.
Now, obviously Eve is fiction, which means it can be tricky to determine exactly what the author actually means to teach through his story. There is a lot in the novel that is complex and symbolic and that awaits the author’s authoritative interpretation. But what is clear is that Young’s novel is a retelling of the creation narrative through which he means to right a great wrong.
The story begins when a shipping container washes ashore on an island that exists somewhere between our world and the next. John the Collector finds a young woman named Lilly trapped inside. She is beaten, bruised, broken, and only barely alive. With the help of others—Scholars and Healers—he helps her to recover, to remember who she is, and to understand her importance in history. Lilly, it turns out, is a Witness, one who has the privilege of watching past events unfold so they can be properly understood and interpreted in the present time. Her privilege is to witness creation and the fall into sin, and in that way to provide an account that corrects all our false understandings.
What she witnesses varies significantly from the account we are accustomed to hearing. A sampling of the differences includes:
- She sees that the world began with a big bang and that this involved the passing of billions of years (“I can’t believe all I saw happened in six days.” … “What you witnessed, especially the Days of Creation, likely took billions of years.”). (Note: In the book’s acknowledgements section Young thanks Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe for helping him “craft the days of creation in a way respectful to both the text and to science,” suggesting he may hold to the day-age view and, perhaps, the existence of an historical Adam.)
- She sees Jesus create Adam as an infant from the dust of the ground, and sees God personally nurse Adam from his breasts (“Here in my arms and nursing at my breast is the highest expression of my creation.” “Mythology is responsible for many odd ideas. … Did your Storytellers think that Adam was created as a young man with no capacity, a brute ready to be programmed?”).
- She sees that Adam falls into sin before Eve was even created, and that the naming of the animals is an infuriating kind of penance for Adam (“Spinning away, the young man raised his fists and screamed fury into the sky, one word. It reverberated and echoed back as time and place and beast stood still. ‘Alone!’”).
- She sees that Eve is not taken out of Adam as much as she grows within Adam and is birthed from him (“Adam’s belly grew, expanding with a pregnancy. … In nine months God fashioned the feminine side of Adam’s humanity, the female who slept within…”).
- She sees that Adam and Satan (in the guise of a snake) conspire together to take advantage of Eve’s naïveté, so that Eve is an innocent party in her own downfall (“She had been betrayed and now was being blamed by Adam for what he had conceived in his own heart.”).
- She sees that God is triune and genderless and, therefore, best referred to with gender-neutral, third-person pronouns (“God turned Their face to the woman and gently spoke with words of sorrow…”).
In short, she sees a whole new and “corrected” view of humanity’s origins and depravity. Through this character, Young means to show that the story of humanity’s fall into sin has been co-opted and perverted by men in order to gain power over women. Eve’s role in offering Adam the forbidden fruit is a fable men use to dominate and control women.
“But it’s all just a story,” you say. True, but in this case, Young insists that his story, and the truth it contains, is the result of decades of thought and research. He insists that the truth embedded in this story has the power to free us from faulty interpretations of the Bible that have long corrupted human relationships. In an interview with Publishers Weekly he says, “Ultimately, the inspiration for Eve is the Scriptures themselves. The more I studied and pondered and conversed, the more I was driven back to Genesis and the iconic saga of Beginnings, and it was there I began to find answers to the big, system-shaking questions I was asking. Eve is my attempt to express some of what I discovered.” In that way he plays a character within his own work—the character(s) he calls the Scholar.
Now, it’s not like the book is all bad. In fact, there are points where it is downright moving. Young’s descriptions of God’s joy over his creation, and especially his joy in the creation of man, is powerful and stirring. Man’s response to God’s love is equally sweet. Young’s compassion in describing the agonizing abuse endured by Lilly can only come out of the heart of an author who has himself suffered. And the story, while perhaps too complicated at times, is well-written and well-told.
And yet it is, in the final assessment, a troubling, faulty, and even dangerous story. There is much I could say here, but for the sake of brevity, let me target the book’s big point.
Whatever else Young means to accomplish in his work, it is clear that he means to undermine the traditional accounts of creation and human depravity. As he reinterprets those two doctrines, he then reinterprets the relationship between the sexes, teaching that any pattern of authority or submission is necessarily a product of sin. Even Adam naming Eve is, in Young’s retelling, a display of his longing for power and dominance over woman. Young goes so far in his desire to show the sinful dominance of man that he eventually elevates woman over man, femininity over masculinity, as if one is the antidote to the other. “[Women] is Adonai’s invitation to embrace frailty and softness, to be whole and unashamed, to return fully from his turning.” In this way man’s solution for sin is not only the promised offspring of the woman, but woman herself.
Ironically, Young’s insistence on complete egalitarianism is inconsistent with his own story. His Witnesses, Scholars, and Collectors are all equals, yet each with his (or her) own role. Young’s world and his story only work when each of his characters freely and joyfully plays his or her role. In the same way God, in his creative work, assigned separate roles to men and women. In God’s world no role is better or greater or higher than another, but each is critical to the story he is telling.
God tells us that God created men to take positions of leadership within the church and family, and for women to joyfully submit themselves to this leadership. In this way God provides a much fuller display of who he is and what he is like. His image is shown not in uniformity but in complementarity. After all, the relationships within the Trinity display this very same pattern of leadership and submission. What is ultimately at stake here is not the relationship of man to woman, but our understanding of God as he displays himself in our relationships.
Behind Young’s retelling of this portion of the Bible is the question of the Bible’s authority. The only way he can teach what he teaches is by radically altering the biblical narrative. So has the Bible been wrong all along? Is the Bible only a figurative count and Eve a faithful interpretation? Were the authors such a product of their time, place, and culture that they biased their work with chauvinist ideas? As the dust settles, what exactly is true anyway? Read Eve and you won’t have much certainty.
In that same interview with Publishers Weekly Young says, “There are also some who will read it and won’t ‘see’ her, sometimes because the timing isn’t right and their life’s journey has not granted the gifts inherent in suffering, or because their assumptions are too overwhelming and powerful to allow them to hear.” More condescending words have rarely been uttered. He seems unwilling to consider that perhaps it’s not that our assumptions are too overwhelming, but that God’s Word is too clear.