The back cover of William Paul Young’s latest novel, Eve, makes the claim, “The Shack shattered our limited perceptions about God. Eve will destroy harmful misconceptions about ourselves.”
I was dubious. I read The Shack (which CT spoke with Young about in 2013), and it did expand how I viewed God, but “shattered” seemed a bit too far.
Could Eve really “destroy” my own “harmful misconceptions” about myself or humanity? Was this a case of a marketing team overpromising and underdelivering?
I slowly made my way through the setup of the first few chapters before I breezed through the rest of Young's Christian fantasy novel, in the spirit of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. A highly creative retelling of the biblical Creation story from the feminine perspective, Young's story centers on Lily Fields, the broken daughter of Eve.
In her genetic makeup, Lily (whose name could be an allusion to lilies as symbols of the Resurrection, rebellious Lilith from Jewish folklore, or both) contains the DNA of the entire human race.
John the Collector finds Lily washed ashore in a shipping container, nearly dead. The others in the container, women appearing to be sex trafficking victims, have not survived. On an island called The Refuge, which “resides in a wrinkle between worlds, between dimensions,” John the Collector oversees Lily’s recovery. As her body heals, so does her spirit.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Lily was appointed by God to witness the creation of the heavens and the earth. She apparently travels back and forth in time. She witnesses the origins of all we know. She experiences God’s delight in creation and, in particular, God’s delight in humankind, including her. Lily also witnesses the fall of humankind. As a result, Lily is positioned to correct the other characters’ (and perhaps some readers’) misconceived theology as it relates to creation and fall.
Through the narrative, Young describes sin as our turning away from a face-to-face, personal relationship with God. Like Adam and Eve, Lily is tempted and decides to turn away from God. We all face that temptation every day, to wander from the abundant life Jesus offers us, from our Life Giver, to find life on our own terms.
In his story, Young describes sin’s effects on us as “shadow-sickness.” Anita, one of Lily’s guides in the way of righteousness, explains:
You might call it ‘heartsick’ or ‘soul-sick’…. It happens when humans turn from face-to-face trust and let the darkness of death enter them. Thanks to Adam, we all have inherited shadow-sickness in our mortality. Resisting it is the war in which we are all engaged.
We look for life and fulfillment, according to our own shadowy understanding. That, of course, is the way of death. Like Lily, we are deceived into cozying up to venomous snakes that we mistake for saviors in an attempt to bring about good on our own terms. Then we are snake-bitten—poisoned. Young masterfully brings the reality of shadow-sickness (that is, sin-sickness) to the fore.
After Lily turns away from the face of God, she teeters on the brink of physical and spiritual death. Curled up in a ball alone, she feels worthless, damned. Yet, Adonai ("the Lord" in Hebrew) searches for her in the garden, the way the Father searched for Adam and Eve after they sinned. Adonai embraces Lily and sings over her. Then and there she decides to trust in Adonai’s love for her instead of rejecting it like she had in the past. The witness is transformed by what she has witnessed.
While Eve's overall narrative reflects points from our traditional understanding of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, Young, as in The Shack, takes creative license in his retelling with Lily, including adding imagery that might concern some readers.
Lily witnesses Adam’s joyous birth. In the book, Adam was created as a baby, not as an adult. As a baby, Adam nurses at God’s breasts. Like all of us, Adam needed to grow into physical and spiritual maturity. In his case, as in ours, physical and spiritual maturity weren’t instantaneous. Also, Adam gives birth to Eve in something akin to birth by C-section. She too has to grow in physical and spiritual maturity.
For me, the most mind-bending and theologically freewheeling part of the story is how Young portrays the already deceived and partially corrupted Adam joining the snake in pressuring Eve to sin. Here, Young seems to portray Adam as standing by the snake’s side, not Eve’s. (I won’t give away any more.)
By addressing the nature of Creation, Young challenges our perceptions about what it means to be made in the image of God. He tackles human freedom and also our views of masculinity and femininity. Since we, male and female, are made in the image of God, Young symbolically portrays God with both masculine and feminine traits—referring to the Holy Spirit as “her,” but also describing God as Father and Jesus as Eternal Man. In Young's account, God has breasts—a controversial contrast to how many Christians picture God.
Young didn’t write his story in a theological vacuum. When he portrays Adam and Eve as born as infants and growing into maturity, it appears he is taking his cue from Jesus’s life and also appropriating St. Irenaeus’s and other Church Fathers’ theology about Adam and Eve. After all, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus, fully God and fully human, had to grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52).
So is Young’s book “dangerous” as some contend?
My description of the book will probably raise eyebrows in some evangelical circles. We don’t like to mess with the Creation story, the origin of our faith. (As CT has reported, even orthodox biblical scholars who by all appearances remain faithful to the biblical text have lost their jobs over slight disagreements about the opening chapters of Genesis.) By daring to ask questions of the text and using some of the church fathers’ interpretations, Young is publicly treading where a good many evangelical scholars and pastors only tread in private.
Like C. S. Lewis and other fiction writers, Young uses this novel to “smuggle theology behind enemy lines.” Sometimes it is much easier to get one’s message across through a fictional rendition than through a nonfiction essay or scholarly paper. I don’t think this book is any more “dangerous” than Lewis’s The Last Battle, in which he seems to entertain Christian inclusivism (Emeth is saved, though he is a worshiper of Tash). I can read, learn from, and admire an author's story without embracing her or his entire theology, or any of it.
Young has an imagination many of us need. He expertly portrays the goodness, beauty, and love of God. His concern that his readers experience God’s loving embrace just as he has is evident. Did he “shatter” my misconceptions? No, but he did challenge them. And for that, I am grateful.