Daniel Taylor’s novel Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees comes out today from Slant, the excellent literary imprint of Wipf & Stock presided over by Greg Wolfe. It is the third novel in a series, but you don’t have to have read the first two in order to enjoy and profit from this one. The protagonist of all three books is Jon Mote, a lapsed Baptist and fugitive from the academy (he stopped just short of getting a PhD in English). He is also, as I’ve described him elsewhere, “a low-key 21st-century version of the accidental amateur sleuth.” Also featured are Jon’s sister, Judy, a “developmentally disabled adult” with a luminous and at the same time down-to-earth Christian faith (in the second book, Jon works at a group home for “Specials” where Judy is a resident), and Jon’s wife, Zillah, from whom he’s estranged in the first two books; they’re reunited at the start of the third. The first two books are set in the Twin Cities; the third culminates at “an isolated lodge in northern Minnesota on the cusp of winter.”
In Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, Jon Mote has a new job, working as “an editor for Luxor House, a wholly owned subsidiary of giant Continental Media, itself only one part of World Wide Holdings International” (which turns out, unsurprisingly, to be “just a small slice of something beyond even the top of the food chain”). When his employers decide that they want a piece of the lucrative if already crowded market for Bible translations, Jon is drafted to serve as a non-voting member of the committee that will oversee the new translation. “The word is, Mr. Mote, that you grew up among the fundamentalists. Those are your people. We need someone on our side who understands them.” Of course, Jon didn’t grow up among “fundamentalists,” but his bosses aren’t interested in such fine distinctions.
Taylor knows a bit about the business of Bible translation, having served for many years as a consultant on the New Living Translation, working hand-in-hand with biblical scholars. (In his day job, after earning his PhD at Emory University, he taught English for decades at Bethel College, which became Bethel University, in St. Paul, Minnesota.) While the committee in Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees differs in many respects from the NLT group, the issues that arise in trying to translate the Bible accurately but distinctively (else why yet another version?) are basic to any such project. Taylor’s novel gives us a sharply satirical and often hilarious account of the jousting between experts with conflicting agendas (not to mention the prime directive of the publisher: what will sell?). But it also asks readers (like me) who believe that the Bible really is “the Word of God” to think carefully about what that entails. I hope that some of my friends who teach at evangelical colleges and universities will assign this book in their classes. And the murders that occur in the course of the novel? The motive for them is timely just now, having to do with the terrible hypocrisy of many who brandish their Bibles and quote Scripture effortlessly. (We’re not like that . . . are we?)
I offer here part of an interview (conducted via email) that I did with Dan late in the summer of 2017. It was posted on September 20 of that year at Education & Culture, a short-lived digital successor of sorts to Books & Culture. Alas, just a few days later, I learned that the plug was going to be pulled on this venture. For some time, material on the site remained live, but no more. Fortunately, I retained a copy. The interview is too long to give here in full, but I want to include a couple of excerpts.
Here, first, is part of the introduction to our conversation:
I first met Dan in September 1968 in a classroom at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Dan was starting his junior year at Westmont; I, newly married and living off-campus, had just transferred there. The class in question was the first quarter of a three-quarter Survey of English Literature, taught by a very young and exceedingly enjoyable professor named Edward E. Ericson, Jr. Also enrolled in that class was Bruce Wiebe, Dan’s friend and dorm suitemate. A yearbook photo (1970, I think) shows the three of us sitting outside the college library; I’m reading Hugh Kenner on Samuel Beckett. Dan, Bruce, and I have been friends ever since, and Ed Ericson became a lifelong influence.
And here are the first two questions and answers:
In the fall of 1970, you started a PhD lit program at Emory on a four-year fellowship. You specialized in the canonical modernists and wrote your dissertation on the outlier Wyndham Lewis. What did you take away from those years in grad school?
Many things, of course, including a love of the modernists. Reading Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era while flying from Atlanta to visit you and Wendy and Anna in Tulsa was a seminal event. I can remember sitting in the plane in a kind of reverential awe for what I was reading. It cemented my love for the modernist experiments and initiated my admiration for Kenner.
Related to that was coming away with a love of literature for its own sake. Going to grad school in 1970 no longer kept one out of Vietnam. And I made no assumption that I would ever end up teaching. I went in part to honor my mentor, Ed Ericson, God rest his recently passed soul. But I went mostly because the prospect of four years of reading and thinking and writing was irresistible. That it led to forty more years of doing the same was simply an unexpected blessing.
Also unexpectedly, the experience gave me, after a few decades of simmering, some characters and themes for Death Comes for the Deconstructionist.
You took a job at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, where you ended up teaching for your whole career. But also, in the early years, you & Jayne were houseparents at a home for developmentally disabled adults. How did that come about?
It came about because I was making $10,000 a year teaching, and, with our first child newly arrived, life was threatening to cost a bit more than that. We heard about this job as houseparents and interviewed for it, with almost no idea of what we were getting into. My wife, Jayne, was the point person, and for three years we lived with eight adults, on duty 24/7 except for Wednesday evenings and every other weekend.
Those three years taught me more than graduate school did. And (many years later) much of what they taught went into both the first novel and its sequel, Do We Not Bleed? Many of the scenes in that second novel are near-direct depictions of life with these residents. (How they should be named is one of the recurring questions for Jon Mote, the first-person narrator.)
I suppose the main thing I learned was to value them, eventually to love them, and to see them as complex, life-affirming creatures with as much right and reason to live as the rest of us. I hope that comes through in the novels.
It does. I hope you’ll read Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees. If you like it as much as I did, you’ll go back to the first two books. And blessedly, a fourth and final novel is in progress!
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.