Book Review

"Eve: A Novel" by William Paul Young

Brooke Ventura
William Paul Young
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

"The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." ‘C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

In the Parks and Recreation episode "The Camel," Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari), bon vivant and assistant to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), hires a local art student to paint a mural for the city office's mural competition. The student hands him the final piece, an abstract painting that Tom says "looks like a lizard puking up Skittles." He takes it to the meeting where his coworkers are presenting their contributions and is somehow suddenly moved by it. By the end of the episode, he demands that the student make more paintings for him and spends five hours looking at and weeping over the original. It's a humorous reminder that art of any medium requires both patience and thought, something not highly prized in this 140-characters-or-less world. I'm not quite ready to call William Paul Young's Eve "art," but, like Tom Haverford, I'm willing to spend a few hours looking at something I'm initially averse to for the sake of understanding it better.

The story opens when Lilly, a young girl, washes up on the shore of an island somewhere between Earth and another world, unconscious and physically battered. She's found by John, a Collector, and over the course of a year she is medically healed. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, she has several visions or experiences in which she watches the creation of Earth unfold, beginning with the initial six days and ending with Adam's expulsion from the Garden. She discusses these visions with John and three Scholars, one of whom gives her a mirror that will theoretically show her the truth about herself and give her the ability to stop Eve from "turning" (i.e., sinning), thereby changing the course of redemptive history. Faint tragic memories from her life on Earth continue to haunt her; and by continually reflecting on the horrible image she sees reflected in the mirror, she becomes convinced that she's unworthy of John and the Scholars' love, and resolves to return to the Garden to save Eve. When she fails to do that, she's met by Adonai (i.e., God), and through choosing to trust him’and discovering who he says she is’she is finally truly healed.

One reviewer has said that Eve is a troubling, faulty, and even dangerous story. I can certainly see why he thinks so: Young freely speculates into the mystery of the Fall, postulates attributes about God for which there is no scriptural foundation, and introduces new scenes into the creation narrative that are as awkward and contrived as they are erroneous. We're left with the impression that salvation isn't as much humanity being saved from the consequences of our inherited and committed sin as much as it is learning to truly trust God and know ourselves in light of who he says we are.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure that dangerous is the best word to use here. In a promotional video for the book, Young said that he's not trying to convince the reader to interpret the creation narrative as he does, but to open up a creative space where people can discuss it in order to come to a greater understanding of who they are as human beings. He's not holding up his gloss on the creation account as authoritative; he wants to start a conversation about the story and the assumptions we make about what it means. Therein lies my big quibble with the book’while theology can (and does) inform art, there's a significant loss to both when art is exploited to discuss theological concepts, particularly when those concepts are derived from a canonical text. This isn't to say that art can never be used to explore theological themes; simply that it shouldn't be abused or violated for the sake of making a theological point. C. S. Lewis, Georges Rouault, and Terrence Malick are excellent examples of artists who regularly explore theological topics in their respective mediums to great effect. I think this is the trouble with Eve: stilted, inelegant prose, and overly emotional characters who detract from the story's provocative and engaging ideas.

In the author's letter at the end of the book, Young writes that he wants to "explore the feelings and assumptions we make when approaching the biggest questions." The summary says that the book "opens a refreshing conversation about the equality of men and women within the context of our beginnings, helping us see each other as our Creator does’complete, unique, and not constrained by cultural rules or limitations." It's an interesting topic and worthy goal, but the story was told in such a way that I was left wondering what exactly it was the author was trying to say. Space was devoted to describing places and objects (e.g., the Vault, Machiara) that had minimal impact on the story, while scenes like God breastfeeding Adam and Adam becoming pregnant with Eve were almost totally undeveloped. By the end of the book, I was more preoccupied by my own questions than I was captivated by the "bold, unprecedented exploration" of the creation narrative. What are these assumptions he believes we make? How does expanding on the canonical story help us see one another as our Creator does, particularly when the Creator has given us his own "story" that details precisely how he sees his people?

In terms of providing talking points for interdenominational conversation, the story did its job; but when it came to enabling Christians to better understand who they are as beings created in the image of God, it adds to the confusion more than it elucidates popular assumptions.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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