JIM YOAKUM ON “THE CHRISTIANS.”
Your latest novel, THE CHRISTIANS, deals with two men who may, or may not, be actual brothers—but who are definitely sociopaths—who roam the American Midwest during the Great Depression preaching and selling Bibles and killing people. What drew you to this story?
What always has always struck me about the Bible was that God said THOU SHALL NOT KILL, pretty cut and dried, and yet God was often telling people to kill others and, in the case of Job, was a co-conspirator with Satan. If you recall, Aaron’s sons offered some sort of strange fire to God, and it pissed God off so much that he burned them to death. So there’s always been this odd thing about God saying not to kill, but then allowing killing when it pleased Him—and sometimes, doing it Himself. In the novel Wally Paul and Shep Christian believe that they are doing sanctified killings—reserved for God’s purposes. In their past, as hired gunmen and enforcers for criminals, they killed as well, but in their new guise as “God’s messengers” they feel they are doing God’s work: bringing the sinful to the light, and then killing them in their purest state, so that they may sin no more and go to Heaven. It’s a warped belief but one they hold as being “sanctified.”
So, is God a murderer?
Well, God did destroy the world with a flood. English, like Hebrew, the language in which most of the Old Testament was written, uses different words for intentional vs. unintentional killing. The verse translated “Thou shalt not kill” in the KJV translation, is translated “You shall not murder.” Justified or sanctified killing is, I suppose, not viewed as murder.
You skate around the subject but—are Wally Paul and Shep brothers?
They are brothers in Christ.
What is the symbolism of Moby Dick in the novel?
To John Stoddard Pyle, the Texas Ranger/BOI agent who pursues Wally Paul and Shep, Moby Dick represents the paragon of intellectualism. To have read Moby Dick is to be a supreme intellectual. He never got around to reading it, but he assumes that it is the talk among the “smart crowd.” In the context of the story Moby Dick is about everything, a bible written in scrimshaw, an adventure spun in allegory, a taxonomy tripping on acid. It seems to exist outside its own time, much like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
It is so broad and so deep as to accept any interpretation while also staring back and mocking this man-made desire toward interpretation. What does it mean? There are so many symbols as to render symbols meaningless. And yet, like Ahab, we insist on plucking the heart of its mystery. Ahab stalks Moby Dick, Pyle stalks Wally Paul and Shep—his Great White Whale—and once he captured them (so to speak) he is free to actually read the novel in his retirement.
There is a very grim recounting of a lynching in the novel by the, otherwise, God-fearing people of a small town on Christmas.
Yes. It was taken from a true story. No more to be said. Many a sin is hidden under tinsel and good cheer.
You have Wally Paul and Shep take up with a dog, which they called Caleb, which was Hebrew for “as faithful as a dog.”
Yes, it is a bit overt in that I have Shep tell Wally Paul that “dog” spelled backwards is “God” so that when Wally Paul kills Caleb he is actually killing God in Shep’s eyes. When Shep then takes in a cat and calls it Bael, after Satan’s head henchman, that things take a turn for the worst.
Not to give too much away but you have Shep escape, head to Canada and become Bodie.
Yes, he becomes Bodie—short for Bodhidharma, the father of Zen Buddhism, whose name means “Enlightened Mind.” I had it in my head that he became like a ho-daddy, one of those older guys you used to see in beach movies in the early 60s, who is imparting wisdom to people like Frankie Avalon. It’s a fun thought.
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