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