I was thrilled to have this conversation about a book that's easily one of my favorites this year. The brilliant author, professor, and public theologian, Esau McCaulley is here to share his personal experience with the many faces of trauma and how he stayed connected to the goodness of God through all of it.
Esau’s new book, How Far to the Promised Land, is a gripping, powerful story of one man’s journey of survival and hope. This conversation is packed with so much incredible insight all the way through to the end. Here’s what we cover:
1. Esau's early experiences with trauma (6:59)
2. How being a dad has been part of Esau’s healing (11:48)
3. Racial trauma (18:08)
4. How to integrate different parts of yourself (28:53)
5. Why we have to tell our stories (31:18)
6. Esau’s thoughts on forgiveness (40:35)
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Music by Andy Luiten
Sound editing by Kelly Kramarik
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
Books by Esau McCaulley:
Genesis 33: Esau forgives Jacob
Surprised By Joy by C. S. Lewis
More about Dan Allender’s theory
Related Podcast Episodes
Episode 78: Grace, 3 Types of Forgiveness, & Why Forgiveness and Boundaries Go Hand in Hand
Episode 75: Your Secret Weapon Against Stress & Anxiety—How to Transform Your Mind Through the Power of Prayer
Episode 76: When Self-Help Isn’t Enough—Finding the Faith & Strength to Move Forward after Loss & Heartache With Granger Smith
Episode 77: The Dark Night of the Soul—Why It Happens & What It Means
Episode 67: The Link Between Faith & Emotional Healing—Gen Z, College Life, & A Hidden Search for Meaning with Cindy Gao
TBOY Episode 79
Alison: Hey everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. I'm so glad you're here for this final episode in this series on Faith Talks.
Today's guest, Esau McCaulley, is the author of a brand new memoir, How Far to the Promised Land. I've been listening to this memoir, and I love the genre because I feel like memoirs give us insight into people's lived experience. It's the story of their lives. Esau is a New Testament theologian and scholar, but listening to the story of his life really helps connect the dots to some of the Bible teaching that he's also known for.
It's such a powerful book. It's a beautiful story. It's well written. It just draws you in. But as I was listening to the book, I thought, this is really a story of forgiveness. Esau acknowledges in our interview today that it really is, although he doesn't necessarily say that up front.
If you missed last week's episode, go back to the beginning of that episode where I talk about different types of forgiveness and when I'm talking about forgiving others. I talk about how sometimes we have to forgive others who hurt us and they apologize and change. Sometimes we have to forgive others who maybe acknowledge the hurt, but they don't ever really change.
Sometimes we have to work through a process of forgiveness when people never acknowledge the harm that they've done. then sometimes we have to work through a process of forgiveness when a group of people or a culture or a community harms us without ever acknowledging the wrong. There are all these different ways that we have to wrestle with forgiveness in our own lives.
Remember, forgiving doesn't mean continuing to put yourself in harm's way. It means working to release resentment and anger in our own hearts for our own good, spiritually and emotionally. As I was listening to this memoir, I thought, I need to have Esau on the podcast to talk about his experiences because there's just such a beautiful tone throughout this book.
He does not shy away from naming what's hard, and the traumatic abuses that he encountered in his own home, at the hands of his own family, his father, and some really hard things that happened to him at the hands of the culture at large growing up.
He talks about those things, even as he talks about the goodness of God. You can just tell that he is someone who has wrestled deeply with this idea of forgiveness. He is not shying away from what's hard, even as he's wrestling with his own healing and doing his own work.
Esau McCaulley is a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religious News Source, and the Washington Post, and his book publications include Sharing in the Son's Inheritance, Reading While Black, and his brand new memoir, How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family's Story of Hope and Survival in the American South.
I hope you will check it out. You will not be disappointed. It's such a great read. I am delighted to bring you my conversation with Esau McCaulley.
Alison: Esau, you're a New Testament theologian and scholar. Then you write this memoir that's your lived experience, and they're both powerful. They both matter. You talk about that in the first part of the book, the introduction, you're like, when people ask you these questions about racism or whatever, you're like, you need to know the whole context. I love that.
Esau: I think that sometimes when we arrive at adulthood, and maybe people see us, we go and speak places, we have nice outfits on, and at least for me I'm shaved and all of the things–I’m put together. They think, oh, you're a Christian because Christianity worked for you. That things went a certain way in your life and that Jesus makes everything go.
They may sometimes extrapolate from the present picture that they see and suggest that we're only Christians because God is helping us in a way that's visible and material and I want to say no, you met me at this point in my life, but God met me a lot earlier.
In order to understand what I say now about God, you need to understand how God was there from the beginning of my story and through the generations of people in my family.
So you're right, it's a much different kind of writing process, but I think it's more along the lines of saying, these accounts that I give about God and the Bible and Scripture and these things aren't simply intellectual. They're also deeply personal.
Alison: That's right. They're lived, they're experienced. The book is not explicitly about forgiveness, but I saw that thread all the way through it. I also wanted to tell you Esau, my husband and I were just talking last week about how we'd never heard a sermon about Esau, the character in the Bible.
I'm getting to the end of your memoir and I'm like, oh my gosh, you connected those dots to the Esau who forgave. To take us back, take my listeners back–Esau, you tell many stories in such a beautiful way. It's a beautiful book. It's insightful. Like you said, it's not heavy handed. You tell your story as it is. But there are these moments that you described.
The first one that stood out to me was a moment when you were a little boy. I thought about trauma. I think about how we talk about trauma on the podcast as unwitnessed pain, as something that happens, especially as children, that goes deep inside where there's not an adult there to help us make sense of it.
You talk about these moments of being hurt that you internalized without necessarily having an adult there or a father there to help you process those. So tell me a little bit about that younger you.
Esau: It might be helpful for the reader, I'm assuming, and the listener, if they haven't read it, I'm going to put the book into a bit of context, and I'll try not to ramble too long. In 2017, my father passed away in a single car accident. He was a truck driver heading back from California back to our family.
We don't actually know what caused the accident, he just dies. It quickly becomes clear that my family wants me to do the eulogy for my father. That was tricky because my father was, he struggled with addiction throughout our entire, most of his life. So he was in and out of our family, in and out of jail, in and out of our lives.
That kind of absence created its own sense of trauma and brokenness. So now I'm tasked with this idea of telling his story because the eulogy is an attempt to tell someone's story and tie that story to the wider purposes of God. So I was really struck with this idea, but how can I tell the story of someone who I don't know?
It generally leads to me sitting down with friends and family who knew him, relatives who were alive when he was a child to get an idea of who he was. That process though, of returning to his past, caused me to return to my past. Because his story and my story aren't easily separated.
When I began to write, the book has two versions of my father. The perception of my father that I had as a child, and then the perception of my father that I developed later, after I learned his story. One of the stories that I tell early on in the book is in a chapter called, The Making of a Villain.
When my father came home and he struggled when he was high on drugs, he would also become violent and abusive. I talk about what it's like to be in that room, afraid and praying to God that God might be there to rescue us. In one of the stories, the police are called and he comes in and he's sent off to jail. But the next morning I have to go to school and I misbehave in the school and I get in trouble.
So the teacher is asking, why is this person misbehaving? Why is this child doing these things he or she shouldn't do when they know that they should be listening to what I say? It's because I was so hyped up on adrenaline. I couldn't focus. But I also didn't have the tools to explain to the teacher, my family life is chaotic, so I don't care about anything you're trying to teach me in this class.
That idea of the person who you want to love you the most is the person who causes you the most pain. When you're a kid and something bad happens, who do you run to? You run to your parents. What happens when one of your parents is the person who's doing the bad thing?
Or what happens when your mom is also dealing with the trauma from having an abusive husband? I can't go to my mom and talk to her, so a lot of this stays inside for a long period of time.
Alison: You're saying that so well, and I so appreciate what you're describing. Those moments where you don't know how to give language to, and so you internalize, I would think, some shame. You're getting in trouble.
Throughout the story, there's this sense you're a pretty good kid. You're trying to do the right thing, but you don't know how to make sense of these things.
Esau: Yeah, I think you're really afraid because you don't want anybody to know. Like you go to school and you walk around and you think, can people see it on my face? So it's not just the difficulties of what's happening to you. That's it’s own trauma. But the trauma that there's no one you can share it with is a double pain.
I talk about this in the book, that as far back as I can remember, it's actually been a tricky part of me becoming an adult. As far back as I can remember, I didn't have any career goals. I never had career goals. Like, I didn't want to be a doctor. I didn't really care. I just want it to be a husband and a father because as a kid, I had this, I had an awareness that what was happening to me wasn't good and that it was damaging me in a certain way.
I wondered what would happen to a kid if from the moment they were a child all the way through their adult life, if they had a parent who loved them. I wonder what would happen to a woman if she had a husband who thought she hung the moon.
Before I thought girls were gross in middle school/elementary school, I had this idea almost like a lab experiment. What would it be like, to be in a house that was different than the one that I was in? So in some sense, the trauma turned me inward because like I said, I couldn't share with anybody, but it also shrunk down my goals. My entire life, I only wanted to be a husband and a father.
It was funny–yesterday I was playing basketball with my son. We had just bought him some new shoes. They're like 40 or 50 bucks, but they were the Giannis Antetokounmpo shoes and they came in the mail and he's got the Giannis’. It doesn't matter. There was the last season. He doesn't know. He's eight years old, nine years old, doesn't get mad at what I give him his right age.
He went outside and you could tell–we have a little goal in the backyard–you could tell that he was trying to do moves that he couldn't normally do but he thought, I got new shoes on. And so he just wanted to play. He wanted to play with his dad.
That moment, it was such a joyous, untroubled moment. He's just a kid thinking he can play basketball like the guy he saw on TV. In a lot of ways, those moments that I have with my son are very poignant. He doesn't understand why dad is so emotional when he's just playing basketball.
But for me, I really thought to myself, this is all I ever wanted. I just want to see a kid be happy. So I think that in the first part of the book, the writing is even trying to reflect that reality. I'm trying to describe what it is like to see the world through the lens of a kid who's undergoing particular traumas.
So even the writing and the way that the language, like it's, the book is written, I tried to simplify the prose.
Esau: As I try to think about how it felt as a kid, obviously complex memories have developed, but there's a certain sense in which I know what it feels like to be that young kid in that place.
Alison: You feel that when you're reading it. It's so well written. Like you said, you put us in those shoes. I want to touch on what you just said. You're describing so beautifully almost what we talk about in the therapeutic world–reparenting, where there's a sense of you're reparenting your own younger self as you're allowing yourself the taking in that moment with your own son.
Esau: One of the things that I tried to do was like, it's funny, I'm trying to do my best to avoid reparenting because when one of the other things that I've noticed is that with my daughters is a totally different experience because with my daughters, I don't know what it's like to be a young girl who's looking for a dad.
It just feels like the memories don't stack in the same way. So I feel freer in my parenting with my daughters. With my sons, I've tried very hard to allow them to be them and not to undo my past. In other words, like I'm a big sports person. I was playing sports growing up. My oldest son runs track, but athletics isn’t his entire life.
He actually is in the scholastic bowl. That's what he does. He's really good, like varsity, and he's amazing. So I go to his scholar bowl like things and I can't cheer it on because you got to be quiet. But I try to embrace him as him instead of saying he needs to be what I want him to be because when I was a kid, I wanted my dad to go to my football games.
My son's school doesn't even have a football team. So I've tried to do my best to unburden my children from the responsibility of undoing the things that I did, to embrace them as unique George, which isn't always easy. Because the feelings always come. They always come and you can't completely avoid it, but being intentional about saying he's not me and I'm not my dad.
Alison: That's right. Two things can be true simultaneously in that you can be fully present to your boy in his experience, which is so different from yours, and present to your own emotional experience and awareness of,oOh my gosh, I'm doing it. I love that.
Esau: Yeah. It's healing. It's healing to see untroubled joy. It just is.
I cannot articulate how much I enjoyed watching my son try to do a crossover in new shoes that he couldn't do because his dad bought him some shoes and he said, thank you dad. Even when we go on car rides, my oldest is 15 and turning 16–pray for us ‘cause he's driving now, but driving around just in the car with him and being able to have conversations.
In some sense, I don't know how to do this because my father was long gone by the time I was 15. I don't know what you ask a 15 year old. No one asked me anything. So those complex feelings are both new experiences, but like you said, the past is always with you as you live. I can't escape it, but I try not to pressure them with the responsibilities of undoing all my childhood trauma.
Alison: It's really beautiful. I want to ask you, Esau, there's so many things I want to ask you. In the interest of not using up your whole afternoon, I started to make a list as I was listening to your book, and it's really cool to listen to it in your voice.
The different injustices you've talked about–a few that were in your household with your dad, but then you also describe being handcuffed and detailed numerous instances of crazy injustices and as I'm listening, I'm like, I would be filled with resentment.
You're clearly a deep feeler. You're a big thinker. You're engaged. You're in tune. You don't minimize some of these things that happened, but you also don't strike me as someone who is filled with resentments.
Esau: Yeah. I think it was really hard because I'm trying to strike a particular balance that I think is important for people to learn how to function with–people as believers. I didn't want to say that things that happened to me weren't bad.
Because if you move towards forgiveness or grace too soon, then you can have the impact of minimizing these things. There's this point in the Bible where Jesus goes, if I didn't do anything wrong, why did you strike me? He's being questioned. He's no, like I need you to know that, and I know that what you did for me in this moment was an injustice.
So part of what I wanted to do was to write about those things. That those injustices were real and they happened. One of the tricky things when you start talking about things like this, I think about the different parts of the book. So when people talk about family trauma, it's a little bit less controversial. We can understand that. We at least empathize.
When people talk about racial trauma, they get defensive because they feel like they're convicted somehow. Then the idea of talking about racial trauma and family trauma in the book about finding God feels like that's a distraction.
But I want people to understand that it’s a part of my testimony. It's making sense of the goodness of God in the context of family trauma and anti-black racism. If I eliminate that portion of the story, then I'm cutting out a significant point of healing that God did in my life. What happens to a lot of listeners or readers is that they struggle to accept that as a true experience.
So what I wanted to do in the story is to say, these are the things that happened to me, so that you understand when I'm wrestling with the idea of God and how God can be good and kind and forgiving and just, I'm wrestling through these particular issues. One of my favorite books, by C.S. Lewis, I love C. S. Lewis, I've talked about him a lot, is Surprised by Joy.
He's converted in Oxford and he's dealing with these existential questions and like literally the greatest literary minds in human history are evangelizing him. So he's like arguing while talking about God.
That's not my testimony. I didn't come to God in the context of walking around Oxford, having these kinds of questions intellectually. I'm trying to figure out God in the midst of trauma. Anti-black trauma. So what I want to say to people is how do you make sense of that?
This may seem to be overly superficial–only God was there to help.
When I talk about that, how sometimes you can go to college, get an education, you learn and read all of these books, you learn about all of these critiques of Christianity and all of the ways in which God can be good, you start relitigating your past. But I can say the people who were encouraging me to set aside my spiritual values weren't actually there when I was suffering.
They were there to convince me that God wasn’t there in my suffering later on. So what I want to say is that in the midst of those things, who was the person who was my comfort?
Who was there? Who was helping me? I didn't have my dad, but I had a bunch of people who were men in my life from my church who cared about me, who prayed for me, who listened to me complain. So part of it was simply the presence of God is the reason that I survived. Another reason is to say that it was the people around me who loved and cared about me.
As to why I might not be as bitter, I'll put it this way. I don't think that we're always immediately ready to tell our stories. Sometimes we go through things and we just survive them. The only testimony we have is that God helped us survive them. So there's stuff in the book that I didn't talk about publicly ever, because for a long time in my life, all I could say is I survived it.
Esau: I think sometimes you get to a place where the stories no longer control you, but you control them. Once you have control of those stories, you can then redeploy them for the sake of healing and for God's glory. I talk about this and I thought about this a lot. I don't know if she ever listened to these podcasts, but I mentioned her a couple of times.
One of my heroes is Rachel Denhollander. Rachel went through a trauma that she now talks about for the sake of helping other people. It doesn't mean that every trauma survivor can do that or they're required to do it. For some people, that's too difficult. For every person there’s a cost.
Every interview costs a trauma survivor something to tell their story. But for those of us who feel comfortable, that they are in a place spiritually where they can tell that story, we can begin to use those stories for God's glory. So I'm at the point now in my life that I can tell those stories without bitterness and I can see the ways which I can use this story to help people live healthy and fuller lives.
But that wasn't where I always was. I like to give people time to say maybe in the grace of God, you might get to a point one day where your story is not something simply that you survive, but there's something that you can actually use for the glory of God. Not that God caused it or anything like that, but you can use it.
There's things that aren't in the book. There's stories that are not in the book because I'm not ready to tell those stories. People think, why'd you do a memoir? I said hold on. It's 60,000 words. These are like, like 10 or 15 stories. These are the ones that I felt comfortable sharing with people.
There's other stories that I'm still trying to make sense of as a believer. Maybe in the future I'll be able to tell those stories, but I'm not there yet.
Alison: Yeah. I love that. I love what you're saying. It's complex. There's different moments that I work through resentments in my life. We were talking with Curt Thompson a couple weeks ago, and he was talking about some resentments he was working through, and I was like, oh, isn't that interesting that I wouldn't talk about them at this point because they're very real. I could certainly tell you something about 20 years ago. So I love what you're saying.
Esau: There are two or three things that I'm just like, I can't talk about them. This happened like in the last three to five years. I think that the pandemic was hard on everybody. But the last five to 10 years of my life, a lot of things have happened that I haven't processed yet.
When I speak about them, I still feel the emotion, so I don't talk about them. There's a reason why basically the events of the book all end in 2017, effectively.
Alison: That's where you were ready to go.
Esau: That's where I'm ready. So that was one portion. We'll see if I'm ever able to write about what happened after that.
Alison: Tell me those moments when you were a kid, when you were a teenager, maybe as a young man, those moments of breakthrough. I love how you said “God was there with me”. There were a few people that broke through, I think you used the word uncomplicated joy to describe your son.
So for you, it was complicated. There was a lot of complicated, but there were moments as glimmers we talk about in psychology, where something broke through, whether it was through the Holy Spirit, whether through a human, where you were like, oh, I want more of that.
Esau: Yeah, I think a part of it was my mom who played a tremendous role in my childhood and she was one of them. I think it can be really difficult to talk about my mom because once again, there are other people who had great moms who ended up under different circumstances.
I talk about that in the book, but for this sake, I can say this: she could imagine a future for her children. It was not rooted in our circumstances. That was a deep conviction that she had from God, that God had better plans for us. Even when we didn't believe it, we believed that she believed it.
So that was one of those things that carried us up. The language of the book is like, how far to the promised land? One of the things that I realized is that in some sense, my mom's home was the promised land. It's this place of safety. Even before we arrived, it was like this kind of promise within the context of poverty and suffering and anti-black racism.
My mom said, you're not gonna let these people tell you who you are. I tell you, this one time where she said we can't, she came home, she worked for the school board, so she'll go across town and then she'd come back from across town because we lived in the black part of town and the school board is always in the white part of town.
She had friends over there and so she would say, man, they said that you all couldn't learn, that you couldn't think, that you guys are nothing but a bunch of animals. Is that true? Is that true? Is what they're saying about you true? Because if that's true, then I've failed as a parent. For me, that was it.
One of the other things, I don't know if I talked about this in the book, but it was our church. It was our church. Week in and week out the pastor would preach with such an urgency because I think he knew that life and death was actually the decision that we had to make each week.
I had this running joke where I was like, okay. We were in church every Sunday. The door was open. We was there. So I would say I'm coming to church and if the pastor preaches a good sermon, I'll be a Christian for another week and I won't sin. If he preaches a bad sermon, I'm in the streets.
So it was like a week to week thing and it's actually influenced how I think about preaching because I know what it's like to walk in a church on a Sunday with every desire not to have hope, and to have someone who will help me to hope for a little bit longer. I wanted to say that they did that more often than not.
Even when I thought it wasn't doing its work, I'm pushing these things off, they were somewhere inside of me doing their work and in the fullness of time, it bore fruit.
Alison: I love that. Esau, one of the things that I'm really interested in–the topic of my first book is this idea that we have an internal family of parts. It's a model of therapy that acknowledges we're complex. We have different parts of us and it helped me a lot being someone who has lived in a lot of different parts of the country, like I said, grew up in rural Wyoming, ended up at an Ivy League school in New England where I felt like a complete misfit.
I think about you, reading your memoir, you even talk about the different parts of you. You find your way to St. Andrews where you're studying with N. T. Wright, yet you carry with you all of these former selves.
I'm very interested in that. I think, especially as trauma survivors, those things don't go away, these parts of us, and we don't want them to. What's that like for you? Talk to me a little bit about how you bring all of these parts of you so that you feel like your whole self, wherever you are.
Esau: That's a good question because for a long time, I don't think that I did that very well. I think that there was this idea that in order to get to college, I have to be someone else.
Esau: Then they teach you who they want you to be at university. So then you become that person. Then I leave the South and I go to graduate school in New England. Then we eventually go to Japan because my wife is in the military. Then we go from Japan eventually over to Scotland.
I'm running. When you're in the rat race, when you're running towards something, it's almost like your bags were checked before the departure and you're flying without the bags, but eventually you land wherever you're going and all the bags come back.
Alison: That's good.
Esau: So at a certain point I arrived and this is what 2017 is, I arrived in the place where I was supposed to be and then all the bags showed up. I realized that I wasn't happy being the version of the person who they wanted me to be. That it actually felt stifling. That I was going to lose my mind unless I let everybody come back.
So part of my writing is my journey to reintegrate myself. I have to be someone who grew up in the black church. That's just a part of who I am. I'm someone who fell in love with the liturgy and I love the sacraments. That's just a part of who I am. I'm someone who loves the Bible. I'm a Bible professor. That's a part of who I am. I'm also a writer.
I'm like, I'm a mess of stuff. Like I have five books in five different genres that I've yet to read because I'm just interested in different things. So I am always trying to say now only in the last three to five years, how can I be who God made me to be instead of the person people wanted me to be? You want to say, how did you do it? I said, I think I had to do it to keep my sanity.
Reading While Black was for me. My first book that you all know about was my Declaration of Independence.
It was saying, I have to be a Christian this way or I can't do it at all. I'm going to be a Christian this way or not at all. So I can't be anything other than who God called me to be. How Far to the Promised Land is the story in a sense, of journeying towards becoming that person.
So I guess I want to say, I think there's a lot of people who get to a place in life where they have the things they want, but the cost is too high.
Esau: I felt like the cost of not being myself was so high, I had to integrate them back so that I wouldn't lose myself. So I try now to be utterly myself for the sake of my own spiritual, emotional, and mental health, which means that the people who liked the version I knew how to perform for them may not like me as much anymore. That's okay.
Alison: Preach it. I love it. That's so much of what we talk about here on the podcast is this internal integration, this integrity. It's not just emotional, it's a spiritual process. I'm curious, because you talk a little bit in the book about what you're saying, how I knew the person I needed to be to fit into whatever setting.
So was writing the book helpful to you, writing the story? I would imagine, helpful to you in pulling in the different threads.
Esau: I think that everybody should write a memoir. I don't know if everybody should publish one, but everybody should write one. Because what I realized is there are stories that happen to you. They just exist in your head that you return to over and over again, but aren't actually integrated in your life.
They’re just regrets. They visit you like the ghost of Christmas past. They're just unresolved. Because when they occurred, you didn't say what you wanted to say. There were things that were happening and what I figured out in writing this book was, and this was glorious, I wasn't expecting it, is that I can't undo the past.
I can’t undo what happened, but I can actually end the past. I could write a conclusion, not to redo it. I can say, okay, I didn't say this. I didn't do this. I regret it and I wish that I had, and had I had the wisdom, I would have done this. So what I've discovered in writing this book is it actually helped me in the process of integrating different parts of myself.
It helped me, the final chapters when I dealt with the story of my father and our final interactions with one another. That was, I think, some of the best writing that I've ever written in my life. Because it was honest. I realized that the things that I said at the time that I believed, that I actually believed...oh, that's actually true.
It's one thing to say you forgive someone and to feel it at the moment. But there is something in the sense of, in the context of writing the book, processing all of the forgiveness that I had articulated. So for me it was tremendously healing.
One of the other interesting things about it is like, there's been no other sermon in my life that I wrote and then I revisited six years later. The book is framed around the eulogy and the last chapter contains actual words that I wrote. Seven years ago. To return to that text again and to say, yeah, I actually believe this stuff.
Esau: A real account of what happened. It's true. One of the weird things is I've had people who reached out to me since I wrote the book to say, oh, I knew your dad. One person reached out to me cause the book concludes, I'm going to give it too much away, he ends up at Oak Cliff Bible Church with Tony Evans as the pastor.
It was a big church, influential with me as well. I ran into someone online who said that my dad was in the Bible study that he talked about in the book. He said, oh, I led that Bible study with your dad. He used to talk about you after church all the time. I was like, I didn't even know that. So maybe you put a book out into the world and you find out stuff that you didn't know.
Alison: Yeah, Dan Allender talks about narrative being so important to healing from trauma, and it's what you're saying. It's telling the story over and over. It's why we need stories. We're telling the story of our lives, trying to piece together the threads, and as we grow, as we mature, we pull in new threads and we start to see it a little bit differently.
We see a few more contours. I think you're onto something when you say, and even just the research on journaling, for those of you listening, telling your story, retelling your story and if it's painful, as I'm sure there are painful spots where whoa, I'm not sure I'm ready to tell that story.
Just notice. That's okay. You don't have to, again, you don't have to publicize it. You don't have to, there might be a time when you're ready to do that, such as you said, but I think you're really saying something profound about telling our stories, revisiting the stories, adding chapters to the stories.
Esau: I'm glad you talked about this. Sometimes you don't know that you're still angry about stuff until you start trying to talk about it. You realize, oh man, this really still bothers me.
Alison: Did you find some of that when you were writing?
Esau: Yeah. So there's a chapter called fleeing the South where I talk about the police encounters that I had, and it's the final police encounter that I had when I'm driving from my hometown back to my university and the police officer pulls us over. We're in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, and he says, I'm pulling you over for a sudden change in speed.
We had gone from a speed of 55 to 35 because of the speed trap. That's how we changed speed suddenly. It was like the sheer ridiculousness of it. See I'm, you can feel it now. It's coming outta my voice, like the sheer ridiculousness of this thing.
But we're in the middle of nowhere, so I can't say to him, oh, you shouldn't pull me over 'cause what am I gonna do? Then he asked, there's two of us in the car, he asked for my license and the license of the person next to me because we told 'em we're going to college. We're going back to campus.
He asked for our student IDs, and there's no law in America that says you have to prove that you go to college. But once again, we are at the mercy of law enforcement in the middle of nowhere. So we have to do whatever he says.
Alison: You talk about how your mom had taught you.
Esau: You told me to do it. But I think, and I talk about this, like the idea of the fear, the confluence of bad days.
One of the ways that God was gracious to me is that every time the police officer was having a bad day and he was taking it out upon me, I was not having a bad day. I was emotionally in control. So when he's calling us, even though we're 22 years old, he's calling us boy, or 21 years old.
He's calling us boys. You boys go back to campus. The person in me who wants respect wants to say who are you calling a boy? That's what I wanted to say. But if I say that it escalates the situation. I had this fear, this real genuine fear of what happens when my bad day and their bad day occur on the same day.
And so that was one of those things that took me out of the South. One of the things that's been really interesting about the last five years for me, I've written so much about the South. This book is set entirely in the South. Reading While Black deals with a lot of the South.
I felt a little bit of sadness that I had to leave a place that I loved because it had broken my heart. So in the context of me writing that section of the book, I was like, man, I love this out. I'm so mad that they made me leave, and I felt that there was still a little bit of me that's a little bit still processing that particular trauma.
Alison: Yeah, I love that. Again, the power of going back, it's like pressing on an old bruise a little bit and maybe it's no longer a gaping wound, but there's still some emotion there. Thank you for the work that you put into that. It's amazing.
Esau: Thank you. I really felt and this is what I was trying to get at earlier. Really quickly the world is in some sense moved in a way from my discipline to your discipline. This might seem like a strange way of putting it, and I'm not saying we don't care about the Bible, I know you do Bible and theology and psychology, I know you do them both.
What I'm saying is, I was abroad, and when I came back to the states in 2016, 2017, there was the question–what does the Bible say about these topics? I feel like now the question is, given my trauma, can I trust God?
Esau: What I was trying to do was to say, I'm not giving you a prescription of what to do, but maybe seeing the life of someone who went through difficult things and who came out on the other side as someone who still has a robust trust in the goodness of God gives you as the reader, a chance to have that same confidence.
I feel like both of those things are necessary. In other words, I think that we need practical tools to help us process the complexities of life.
Forgive me for rambling on about this, but I remember thinking Christianity ought to be easy by now. When I was a kid, I thought, oh, you get married, you have kids, you got to rent to repeat until you die. It's hard and you live long enough and people who you really put your trust in break your heart. So how do you follow God after that?
Esau: I feel like the work that you and others are doing helps us process these things, and to think about how we might function as Christians. This is beyond my competence to be prescriptive. How Far to the Promised Land is descriptive and I hope that people can find that useful.
Alison: Gosh, that's beautiful. I really think about what you and I do, and this is why I was starting to be a psychologist, but I was like–it's Augustine–I can't study the soul without studying God. You can't study God without studying the soul. So what you and I do is, two sides of the same coin.
I lead with psychology, and a lot of what I lead with is, okay, so Jesus says, forgive. How do I forgive somebody who has never asked for forgiveness, who has never even owned it, which you have plenty of in your life? How do I forgive somebody who has asked for forgiveness, but has really hurt me?
How do I build trust again? You touch on that. You go down every single one of those in your story. I want to hear your theology about that, too, but I want to hear more about it after I've heard your story, because I'm like, oh, dang. It's just part of human nature.
Esau: I'm glad that you learned the secret because there's a bunch of ways into the book. But the way into the book that you capture the most of what's going on is a long meditation on forgiveness
Alison: That's how I took it.
Esau: It's like the secret sauce of understanding what's going on. The first thing that you actually read is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Oh man, we love this story, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee thinks he's perfect and he says, God, I'm glad I'm not like this other guy. Then the Tax Collector goes, God have mercy upon me, a sinner. We love that story. Oh, we love it. Because we can say no matter what you did, God can forgive you and blah, blah, blah.
Then I said hold on for a second. Did the Tax Collector come to your house? He had taken the last bit of money that you had to pay for your kids' food. Now the tax collector has robbed you and your kids are starving. What has the tax collector done over 20 years? Basically, he was a terror to his community, destroying lives wherever he went.
That's what the tax collector was. I want to promise you that the Jewish people who were around that tax collector were not rooting for his forgiveness. When the tax collector converted, came back home, I'm pretty sure people are like, I'm not sure I want to kick with this guy, which is why people didn't want to mess with Paul in the Bible. It took Barnabas.
So the question I wanted to ask is what happens then if I'm trying to process in effect what a tax collector like character did for me? Because my father does have a turning at the end. But the turning of the end doesn't undo the 25 to 30 years of trauma that he caused.
That process of saying, I am glad the tax collector converted or repented. It's not as simple as we hear it in the story when we're actually a part of it. One way to read How Far to the Promised Land is to say, what happens to the child of the tax collector whose life is forever changed by the decision of his father?
I don't go too deep in the Bible, but I'll say a little bit more. One of the things about tax collectors is they were shunned by their community and oftentimes that shunning extended to their family. So you can imagine if the tax collector was the one who was robbing all of the families, do you think people want to play with the kid or the tax collector?
No. So the kid finds himself isolated. So you know what that means? He's often stuck in that same life of his father. It creates generational trauma. It's passed down. Tthe tax collector's son, his entire life, even the opulence that he has, is probably rooted in what he knows is the suffering of the people around him.
Now it's not a direct analogy because my father doesn't enrich our family by his actions. He makes us poor. But in the same way that everything that happens to me in the book is set in motion by my father's failure is similar to what the tax collector did in the communities around him. So you get to the end and you say, yes, I'm glad that he repented.
That's a journey the book chronicles, it chronicles both that journey and the chaos that was caused in my life by his departure.
Alison: Yeah, I think it's Bonhoeffer who talks about cheap grace. This is costly grace. Costly forgiveness. There's a cost to it. Also there's redemption in it. As you're made whole through your own journey as well.
Esau: Because I think you have to actually, and this is where things get really tricky. Because I don't want to, this is descriptive, not prescriptive because I have to own my own actual need for grace. If you're going to know how to forgive, you actually have to believe that you need the doctrines of grace.
What I mean by that is the difference between saying I like grace. Grace is a good comfort that helps me even though I think I'm 90 percent Christian and only need God to do 10 percent of the work. ‘Cause I'm pretty good.
But we say no. I actually need the grace of God to function as a Christian and that I'm not just someone who has victimized, who's a victim, which I am, but that in other ways I've also hurt and wounded other people.
The forgiveness that I want to be available to me in theory, I have to extend to other people. So it's only when you own in a deep way, God's grace, his ability to forgive you, that you can actually hope that God forgives someone else, even if you don't benefit from it.
So in other words, I got to the point where I couldn't have the father that I wanted as a child because I was an adult now. So I wasn't wishing for that. What I could say is I genuinely hope for a better ending for his story than someone who abandoned his family and then died alone.
Forgiveness wasn't reconciliation. It was actually hope–hope that even if I never get anything out of it, I hope that this person finds him or herself before the end.
Alison: Yeah, that's so powerful. It's so nuanced.
Esau: Yeah, people say what's this book about? It's just about life and life is complicated. Don't ask me to say it in a sentence.
Alison: It's a beautiful memoir. It is complex. That thread of forgiveness, you just move through it and not easily, but you walk us through it. It's so worth the read. One of the questions we ask, and you touched on this, is what's bringing out the best of you right now? How would you answer that?
Esau: I think that right now, two things. One of them is my family. I realized yesterday, I was on a walk with my dog. I said to my wife, people don't actually pay me to come and speak. I would do that part for free. People pay me to leave my family.
That's what you actually like. If you invite me to come somewhere, you're actually paying me to not be with these people whom I love and whom I care about. Because I just enjoy being with my wife. It sounds lame. I enjoy being with my wife and kids and they bring me real joy. I'm like, I think that you're amazing. And I like my wife and kids better.
So it's always so what's bringing the best out of me is seeing that it is a privilege to watch a life unfold before you. That's what you have in the family. It's an intense community watching a life unfold. So I would say right now my children and my wife are bringing me real and great and lasting joy.
I also say that I'm really enjoying the writing process. Writing is an act of creation. I don't know how other people write. But half the time I don't know what I'm going to say when I have a vague idea, and the thrill of putting together sentences and paragraphs and those kinds of things.
It's the joy of an anticipated door for someone else. Sometimes I write stuff and I say, I think this is really going to help someone. They're going to like this line. They're going to like the way these words function and it gives me joy.
Don't tell anybody, this between me and you, like for fun at night, I've been working on a fiction book and that's been like the thing that I've been doing for the last few months, about a month or so is thinking about what kind of fiction book might I write?
Alison: Cool. Do you mean literally I shouldn't record that?
Esau: I was just joking. You can put it in. Yes. I'm working. I'm doing more biblical scholarship. Don't yell at me, people who say when you're going to do the Bible, but I'm working on my next book, biblical theology, and I'm also working on a fiction book. It's actually a trilogy. We'll put that to the side. If I say it in a podcast, then it has to be real.
Alison: It's public accountability. Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for all you poured into this beautiful book. Your books are amazing. I'd say read both and whichever. If you're someone who wants the biblical theological version, read Reading While Black first, if you need the lived story to go, I need to know this person's going to relate to my suffering and what I've been through before I trust his theology, read the memoir first.
Esau: I'm not saying I'm like C. S. Lewis. Remember when they talked about the order of the chronicles of Narnia? If I were the reader, I would read How Far to the Promised Land first, and then Reading While Black, even though they were published differently. But How Far to the Promised Land is the introduction to everything.
Alison: Yeah, it is. It's the prequel. It's amazing. Thank you so much, Esau,
Esau: Welcome. Thank you. Thank you for having me.