William Paul Young,
Hodder & Stoughton,
Midway through the journey of life I found myself lost in one of the worst written books I have ever read. An anodyne cross between A Christmas Carol and the Divine Comedy it tells the story of a man in a coma given a chance by God to understand that despite the overweening brutishness of his life he is loved and can also love. The story is told with some inventiveness but through awfully clunky, tacky and garish prose as if the author wishes to be the E.L. James of apologetics. Young’s style is appalling – all tell and little show – yet he has the temerity, through a pipe-smoking, tweed suit wearing character called ‘Jack’, of dissing the sublimity of Dante and the intellectual rigour of Aquinas in glib one liners. Young, via Jack Lewis, laughs at the visceral vividness of Dante’s descriptions of Hell in the Divine Comedy. Yet there is no acknowledgement that the whole Comedy is one of the richest, most beautiful and theologically literate allegories of Love ever written. Young’s impoverished prose never comes close to the utter transcendent glory of Dante’s.
But, this is not the worst book I have ever read – it contains within it much that is thoughtful, theologically challenging and affecting. It is sentimental, hangs on a plot that is only three-quarters formed and at times tends to preach. However, in continuing to develop the characteristics of the Trinity first met in The Shack, in allowing the coma-struck main protagonist, Tony, to exist inside the heads of a variety of disparate folk, including a convincingly-drawn young man with Down’s syndrome, and through the central conceit of Tony finding himself walking through the garden of his own soul, there was enough to keep me reading and to force me to think again and again what it means to be loved wholly and unconditionally by God. Of course, Young is attempting to describe the indescribable, the Divine, God, the Trinity, and words are never going to be enough – that’s why liturgy relies on all the senses and invests as heavily on symbolism as on texts to open windows between heaven and earth. Even Dante struggled in describing the beauty, wonder and all-encompassing love of heaven and Paradiso is the weakest of the three parts of the Comedy. However, the two authors do find themselves in step as they both picture a Trinity which dances through the heavens, through the world and through our lives – the persons of the Godhead point out a pavane together, pirouetting through perichoresis with the passion of the prime mover.
I’ve long thought that Purgatorio is the greatest of the three books that make-up the Comedy, perhaps because it offers the most hope and clearly shows the most love. Young has, in effect, created Tony’s personal purgatory, with which he shows the relational nature of the Trinity and that same intimacy which God desires to have with each of us – God as friend rather than judge. Dante is better at balancing that intimacy, which is mediated through Virgil and Beatrice, with the grandeur of God but Young has, rightly, unsettled me with his focus on the God who walks hand-in-hand with us, through all the violence, ennui and fractiousness of life. Cross Roads was an infuriating read because the prose was unable to do justice to the subject, but it was also worthwhile as a reminder that love, not judgement is at the heart of the Gospel