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WM Paul Young: "Religious systems are fundamentally opposed to women."

The Books Interview.

The protagonist of your new book Cross Roads has an allegorical tone. Did you set out to write a modern fable?

Yes, I wanted a despicable character who had isolated himself from relationships. The question I was exploring was: how does grace and transformation penetrate a despicable person?  Tony was a composite. Some of his fundamental character flaws I can look back in my own history and identify with: self protective, security seeking, closed off. Some of his actions came from others, especially some business people I know. But he is an intentionally universal, broad character.

You’ve described your own father as both angry and religious. Is that kind of tension at play in Cross Roads?

The issue with religion for Tony is multi-layered. He is very antagonistic about the concept of a God, but acknowledges Jesus as being altruistic and kind. So there is that tension within him, and I think that tension is within a lot of people. Religion and anger has gone together a lot, historically. My father, being very religious and angry, was trying to reconcile the ideas of love and forgiveness with damage in his own heart. We historically create God in the image of someone who will redeem us, or someone who has damaged us.  A lot of my imaginations of God was a projection of my own damage because of my father. God is good but he has a lot of expectations, of which I have failed - just like my dad. But I don’t think it’s truthful to create God as a projection of either our damage or our altruism.

Were you consciously trying to break down the image of a platonic God?

Absolutely. We’ve created a theology in the West of a God who is fundamentally self-centered. The imagery of God as distant, unapproachable, unreachable -  that’s not a God who is relational. It is a God that gets to declare or judge when he gets pissed off. But there is no basis for love and relationships if God is a fundamentally self-centered being.

There is all this imagery about God as ‘the father’. I’m a father, and there is a whole different way you look at the universe when you have your children. There are two totally different ways to approach anger, wrath and judgment: one as a father or a parent, and one as a judge. Well what if the judge is the father? The problem with theology is that a lot of times we end up with a God who’s not even a very good father.

Are there questions you aren’t supposed to ask about religion?

Oh yeah. There is sanctity and a limit of your ability to ask questions within the church. You aren’t supposed to ask about the system and the structure, because God created it, as opposed to all other systems and structures. You can’t ask ‘if men are so much more screwed up than women, then how come they’re in charge’? I’m of the belief that all religious systems are fundamentally opposed to women.

So your writing has a feminist agenda?

No, I’m pushing a pro-woman agenda. It’s not a political agenda. I think one of the greatest losses to humanity was the domination of women. I think every religious system has found ways to be kind to them in a kind of subordinate way.  Very patronizing, very colonial. But if you start looking at the fabric of society, even religious systems, they would fall apart if it wasn’t for the embedded ability of the women who are involved. Even our translation of scripture has been dominated by a male perspective, a need for hierarchy and power. But if you read that whole Genesis story, man is removed from access to the tree of life, and she is not. And the scripture is very clear, through one male sin enters the world, not through her.

What does your work have to offer secular readers?

I think my books give people a language to have a conversation about God that’s not religious. There isn’t enough new literature that brings the conversation of God into a modern context. I love the Bible, but in the West we’ve analyzed it until it fits into a structure of control. We need more new stories. We need different ways of looking at things, and I think it’s coming. Part of it is breaking down the walls that have kept religions divided from each other. And people who aren’t religious can participate in a conversation about God that is an authentic human conversation, not primarily a religious one. The questions are real, the great sadness is true for everyone, we all deal with death. But there isn’t often a place where we can talk about it without feeling like we’re an agenda item for some religious organization. If you can diversify the conversation, I see that as a good thing.

WM Paul Young's Cross Roads is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide