The Shack author: 'If men are so much more messed up than women, why are they in charge?'

Published 07 August 2014  |  

Wm Paul Young isn't one to shy away from controversial theological ideas.

Torge Niemann

The bestselling author of The Shack personified God the Father as an African-Caribbean woman called 'Papa' in his first book, and the Holy Spirit was an ethereal Asian woman called Sarayu.

Now he is working on a book that tells the story of Genesis from Eve's perspective.

"I think that's the right narrative of Genesis," he says in an interview with Christian Today. "We've adopted a very hierarchical approach which I don't think is accurate."

He says the book, which is still in the early stages, will be the product of 40 years of thinking about gender, hierarchy and faith, and believes it will come at an important time.

"I think this century is the century of the woman," he says, "because it's one of the last things that we're beginning to address in a real way, but it was one of the first things that went sideways in Genesis.

"We have related to gender issues in disastrous ways. So I think if we can tell the narrative of Genesis properly it will resolve a number of those issues."

The Shack, which has sold 18 million copies since it was published in 2007, and his second book Cross Roads both handle similar themes. The protagonists deal with their emotional pain and reconnect with God, looking inward on the self while the world is shut out.

This next book is different. It's inspired by Perelandra, the second book in CS Lewis' sci-fi trilogy, which also tells the story of Eden from Eve's perspective – albeit set on the planet Venus.

Young describes his approach to both his faith and his writing as driven by questions. The question that began his thinking on the issue was: "If men are so much more messed up than women – and I think fundamentally that they are – why are they in charge?

"That drove me to the Trinity," he says. "Every Christian tradition has declared that the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father is heresy. But, you know, it's needed for job security.

"Our entire narrative has been to focus blame on the woman, but that's not what scripture says. It says she was thoroughly deceived. As you begin to read and look at people who brought a theological perspective over the centuries, you begin to see that there's a whole lot more that didn't make it through the editing floor.

"My desire is not to try to balance a scale, my desire is to destroy the scale itself and that's what I'm going after in this novel. What you'll end up with if you're trying to balance the scale is some kind of egalitarianism, or equalitarianism, or worse, complementarianism, which I think is just neo-colonialism."

So if we remove the definitions we recognise, what are we left with?

Young's answer is elegant, if a little mind-boggling: "Something that is much more significant, and that's our humanity. You bring to the table a unique confluence of the character and nature of God that is both maternal and paternal."

But while he is passionate about the potential for literature to help people appreciate new perspectives, he says he doesn't write with a particular goal in mind.

"Fiction creates more space than it uses up. I don't write with an agenda, I write to explore.

"I don't have any presumption about a burden to impact. I get to be the child. In fact, one of my prayers is 'Please God, don't tell me what you're doing'.

"The Shack did everything that I wanted it to do within the first 15 copies, anything else is just God's sense of humour."

Young's interest in issues of gender and hierarchy is influenced by his own experience of the distorted relationships between people. The eldest son of missionaries working in New Guinea, Young grew up among a tribe, before being sent to boarding school at the age of six. He was abused within the tribe, and then again at school.

"All the horror stories you hear about boarding school – well they're true," he says.

"That kind of damage rips the interior of the soul to shreds and you become someone who lives from the outside in."

His failure to deal with the emotional damage of his youth, he says culminated in an affair 1994 with his wife's best friend. It took 11 years to re-establish the trust between him and his wife Kim. As a result, Young is acutely aware of the need for trust in relationships, between men and women, intergenerationally – and most importantly, in mankind's relationship with God.

"I see much more that God is a master craftsman than a divine planner," he says. "This is someone who knows how to dance – and sometimes leads and sometimes follows. This is a God who submits by nature. Which has to be true, because that's when relationships function and work."

In contrast with this view of a submissive, relational God, he sees the need for control damaging the relationship between men and women, especially within the Church. And, in his view, women still bear the brunt of this.

"I don't think in traditional Christian evangelicalism there's room for a single woman," he says. "I don't think that paradigm even allows it. It p***** me off. Because they're always saying you either need to be married, be under some kind of covering of a pastor, there's always some man in the background that gives you a validity, a frame of reference in order for you to have identity, worth, value, significance – things that only God can provide."

Fundamentally, Young believes that hierarchy in human relationships – including within the Church and the family – is a reminder of our fallen nature.

"Every hierarchical relationship is a control issue or based in some kind of fear," he says. "But submission you can either define in terms of hierarchy or in terms of relationship."

Which brings us back to the Trinity. "Where do we think human relationship originates?" he asks. "It originates in the relationship with the between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father submits to the Son, the Son submits to the Father, the Spirit submits to the Father and the Son."

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