Walter Wangerin Jr.'s novels, including The Book of the Dun Cow (winner of the National Book Award) and Paul: A Novel, have received enthusiastic reviews. He is currently a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he teaches creative writing and is fighting lung cancer.
Wangerin's Father and Son: Finding Freedom (Zondervan, 2008) tells of his persevering relationship with Matthew, one of his four children. Matthew rebelled as a teenager and had some troubled years: Father and son are now reconciled.
Q: How's your health?
I am what you call stable. The tumors are there and they are metabolizing right now. I have maybe half capacity of lungs-there's a rumbling, but it's been stable now I think almost a year so that's really good.
Q: You tell one story about Matthew running away when he was 8. You had responded harshly; he ran away; then he forgives you. Can you talk a little bit about that? You say the child had no right to forgive you.
He had no logical right. I definitely meant that God was active in the kid and that even down to today, the real miracles I see are the miracles of forgiveness. We sin to capacity but I don't think we forgive equally except as God is there.
Q: Matthew is now in his late 30s; when did the problems begin?
Where it became evident was in his sophomore year in high school. He might have been 15. Already in what we now call middle school he would keep his head down on the [dinner] table the whole time, which was already, I think, a kind of a beginning of silence. It builds.
Q: One man I know who's been through this felt powerless-as when Matthew was 14 and you noticed his strength and that you could no longer control him. When he was sitting there in his slouched position and you were not able to penetrate or get him to even open his eyes or listen to you. That sense of incredible love and then the incredible hopelessness and powerlessness.
If there was no love, then powerlessness and hopelessness would not be a prison. If there was no love, as I've seen in some families, you just dismiss the kid, Well, it's his fault. This is the life he chose and he's got to live with it. It's the love that makes it a prison. You wouldn't call it powerlessness without love. You'd call it sin and detachment on the kid's part. It's love that makes this so painful.
Q: You were a pastor of a church plus a writer. When it happens in your own family . . .
You keep saying to yourself, I should know better and why isn't that working?
Q: As your congregation became aware of what was going on, was it supportive?
Our experience was very common in the inner city-but because it was a black church in the inner city, with no condemnation on their part at all they took up the job of being mothers, aunties, grandmothers, and grandfathers to our children. And so I believe that most of them were unsurprised even though the father was a pastor.
Q: In lots of evangelical churches you'd want to hide the failures of your family.
The inner city is very much like the way farmers used to live when they really had to depend upon one another. The whole lot got together to thresh, to harvest and so forth. I saw in the inner city the very same thing. We knew when Matthew had snuck out at night. We got calls from the women who saw him, who had no problem calling the father, as opposed to the preacher. In a suburban community, don't you think that many, many of the members of the church would keep quiet for fear of embarrassment or something?
Q: There's the theology that if you put in X, you're guaranteed Y, and if you don't get Y, then there's something wrong with your X.
In the suburbs, people don't take their problems directly to a pastor, and nowadays it's much easier to buy the time for a psychiatrist or a psychologist. The pastor is pretty much an employee, and one has to actually go searching to find out what a family is suffering.
Q: How much do you think adoption was an issue for Matthew?
Even when you're really little and nobody means anything by it, I come on the scene where Matt is, and they have to whisper, "That's your dad?"
Q: And did you see differences in temperament-not only been you and Matt, but between Matt and his siblings?
Joseph and Mary, the children born unto us, were a certain way-unconsciously and in almost invisible or imperceptible gestures-tones of voice, behaviors. Even if a child adopted doesn't recognize those things, there's the atmosphere that he or she feels.
Q: Was it hard then to choose to write this? I assume you are still a proponent of adoption?
Oh my heaven, yes. And no, it wasn't hard to write it.
Q: And do you think it might give ammunition to anti-adoption people?
If it does, they're fools. If it does, they only read half the book.
Q: Now that you have the benefit of God having persevered with you and your family, are you offering encouragement to other families?
Absolutely. One neighbor had a similar situation. After our reconciliation we pointed to our son and ourselves over and over again. I know how people feel hopeless. They cannot imagine in such a bad experience or circumstance that the relationship could be repaired or revived. It's like those events where someone was as dead and comes back to life. You know it was the hand of God. At one time our neighbor had no hope and we could say look at us, we'll be your hope for you because we've seen it through and we've seen the resurrection that comes. Number one, we could match them story for story-therefore, we knew what they were experiencing. Number two, we could also say that we never expected it. But number three: Look, just look.
Q: The reconciliation between father and son is something you've seen come to fruition. If the narrative hadn't come out this way, would you have written this?
I would never have written this book if the story had not come to such a conclusion. It's another thing I do even in telling stories. I will not tell stories that haven't found a conclusion, because if you tell stories that are unfinished what you ask of your reader or of your congregation is pity and sympathy and that's of no value unless you're a hog for sympathy.
Q: On the other hand, when people are walking through it, the pastor is exactly the person they should be talking to. They shouldn't think that until I have a good conclusion, I can't . . .
Those who are living it can talk about it, but it's wrong for those who make their pronouncement to others to do it while they're still on the mend. It's just a blathering confession.
Q: A lot of people think, we lead a Christian life and it's going to get better and better, blessing upon blessing. How do you talk to those people?
I speak Christianity, discipleship and the gospel as clearly as possible. I am very unhappy with those people who focus only on Easter Sunday morning, to the neglect of Good Friday. There are churches that I would call triumphal, the churches that seek in their faith only the blessings. You and I both know famous and rich preachers who speak only about what they are going to get from God, and so they gather thousands. I do not consider this, even though they name the name of Christ, to be the fullness of the gospel. The gospel always begins in the need of humanity for being hungry, thirsty, and sinful-always sinful.
What was the first sermon ever preached by Jesus, the disciples, and John the Baptist? Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Now that sense of repentance is most imaged in the life of Christ which is this: that He, throughout His life became more and more separated, not just assaulted, but separated from every organization and every individual in His lifetime. Separated from His whole church, Jewish ritual and teachings, separated from the government. Hardly do we think of that today when we think the most important thing is to be in sync. Separated from His own disciples, even from the most beloved. And then finally separated from His life.
He didn't do that just as a model, He did that partly because these are the lives we live. He took His place with us, but unless we have experienced Friday without any sense of Easter Sunday, unless we have experienced death like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus-He is dead. He is gone. I'm so sad-only then, and to the degree that we suffer Christ's death do we rejoice in the resurrection.
WORLD: This book exposes a lot about you. Why did you want to tell this story? What do you hope will come of it?
MATTHEW WANGERIN: I made quite a few mistakes as I was growing up towards manhood. What my Dad told me was that I actually had experience. In sharing my experience in this story, I believe it can be a way of reaching out to people, possibly showing them that they are not alone in their struggles. Already, a number of people have told me, "Wow, that is how I felt growing up." I guess it might be a way of helping people open up as individuals. Writing this story helped me examine myself and look at what I chose to do when at the crossroad. I hope it can help others examine their lives and relationships and maybe find something they can learn from.
WORLD: If with what you've learned you could go back and give your 18-year-old self some advice, what would it be?
MATTHEW WANGERIN: My mother summed it up best when she talked to me about decisions. She said I should ask myself, "Is this going to help me get where I want to be, or hurt me?" In a nutshell, I set goals for myself, and when they didn't work out, I became self-destructive. One reason I believe I fell short was because I didn't try my best at everything I did, at all times. I didn't know the difference between winning-losing and trying my best. Doing the best you can is what is important. I also felt like I was always missing out on something. What I know now is that I always got better, and moved forward in the right direction, when I was not trying to "fit in" and not "miss out." Lastly, trying to find the positive in matters. Our minds often focus on what we don't have and what we are not doing, which can lead to the negative.
WORLD: What do you think made reconciliation with your father possible?
MATTHEW WANGERIN: I, for a time, had a fear that my parents did not love me because my life had taken a turn down a dark path. I felt that since I had fallen out of school a number of times and made other mistakes, that they were finished with me. While living in Indianapolis, my father was there for a convention. I had not seen him for a long time. When he saw me, he smiled and gave me a huge hug, and that was when I realized that he did love me, despite my shortfalls. I began to open up after that. Before then, I would hide my mistakes because I thought that every poor decision would cause me to fall further from his favor. Unconditional love was what was important for me.