May 12, 2011 | Andrew Steiner

Calvin senior Matthew Koh novelizes The Fall.

The novel begins with a man sheltering in the shade of a tree. The desert sun punishes the land, sucking the sweat from his forehead. The man waits. Satan approaches. “You took your time,” the man replies.

Calvin College senior Matthew Koh’s novel Fallen begins in a world where paradise has already been lost. The main action of the story takes place during Jesus’ temptation (Koh uses the Hebraic spelling “Yeshua”), with Satan retelling the story of the War in Heaven and the Fall of Man.

As an honors thesis project for his English major, Koh’s novel was an ambitious challenge. As he is well aware, Fallen is not the first work of English literature to attempt this. “I did not read Milton at all before I started writing the book,” Koh admitted.

When he began reading John Milton’s seventeenth century epic “Paradise Lost” in Professor David Urban’s class this spring, though, Koh began to think of his novel as a response to that work. “The idea of the story actually started when I was wondering why Christ died for humans and not for angels,” Koh said. “It seemed to me, sort of, that Satan and the demons are irredeemable, and ‘demonized.’ I think especially at Calvin I dealt with God as a God of love and grace and relationship. . . . What would the Fall look like with that kind of God instead of the Miltonic ‘This is the way things are?’”

Part of reconsidering the inherited picture of the Fall for Koh was incorporating the scientific and cultural material of the 21st century. “I’ve decided to use more cosmology other than ours,” Koh said. “Like evolution. Adam and Eve are one of many humans.”

When it came to naming his characters, Koh drew inspiration from outside the Bible, from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhist sources. In these choices, Koh may seem unorthodox, but he echoes Milton himself, who incorporated Galileo’s recent discoveries and the Greek gods into his own Biblical epic.

For Koh, who is double-majoring in religion with minors in writing and gender studies, creating fleshed-out characters from the Scriptural figures was an enjoyable challenge. “That’s where a little bit of my irreverence helps,” he said with a grin. “It’s fun to inhabit these characters which are so huge and mythological and be really different with them. My Yeshua is really sort of sassy and snarky. Gabriel, too, is a very fun-loving character. It’s not as difficult for me because . . .  I don’t have a sense as much as Milton that this is something you can’t touch, you have to approach with awe. That’s not the way I express my faith as much.”

The multitude of characters, the nonlinear narrative, and the sheer size of the novel, which is over 90,000 words long, meant that Professor Gary Schmidt, who directed Koh’s thesis, had to assume the mindset of a first-time reader. “It is incredibly complex,” Schmidt said, “and I tried to be the one asking ‘Does this make sense to the reader?’”

Despite the length and complexity of the project, Koh was nonchalant about his efforts. Last summer, when he finished his first draft, Koh wrote an average of 3,000 words a day, often working from midnight to three or four in the morning. “I wasn’t really planning to finish a novel in the summer,” Koh said. “I was planning on finishing a couple more chapters and doing some research for a project, but it turned out that I just kind of got sucked into it.”

Schmidt usually expects students to write their theses during the semester, but when Koh presented his idea, he had already finished a first draft. In Koh’s case, Schmidt said, “What I try to do is stay out of the way.”

Taking his professor’s advice about submitting work only to the best publishers, Koh sent his manuscript to Viking Press in New York. While he waits for a reply, Koh is finishing his last week as an undergraduate. He will attend Calvin Seminary next year.

Matthew Koh's novel retells the story of Christ's temptation.

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