A Wrinkle in Faith
Madeleine L'Engle's journey has taken her to a rather peculiar array of roadside stops. How many Christian writers speak both from the pages of Ms. magazine and Today's Christian Woman, are invited to speak both by the Library of Congress and the Gaithers' Praise Gathering, and serve as writer-in-residence for Victoria magazine and for Regent University?
For L'Engle, the price of writing candidly as a Christian to such diverse audiences has been steep. She has been perceived as too worldly by some conservative Christian audiences and too dogmatically Christian by some secular audiences. But it is L'Engle's Christian critics who have been by far the most vocal.
Ministers preach sermons against her; books and articles denounce her and any Christians who evaluate her work favorably or even evenly; librarians in Christian schools and churches handle her books as though they carried dangerous heresies, sometimes relegating them to back shelves where patrons must ask specifically for them, and sometimes banning them altogether.
One source of the confusion lies in L'Engle's refusal to be pigeonholed, her resistance to using evangelically correct language. Then there is her frequent declaration that her religion is subject to change without notice. And the legalistic amid her audience are given pause by her assertion that she is not a Christian writer but rather "a writer who is struggling to be a Christian."
But if L'Engle's books seem always to be making someone angry, how are we to understand her popularity? Who are those people lining up at book-signings?
The answer, I think, is that the very unpredictability that some readers find unsettling also accounts for L'Engle's appeal. The Crosswicks Journals, for example, first published in the 1970s and recently reissued, capture the imagination of readers who are wrestling with the same midlife questions that preoccupied L'Engle when she wrote the journals. It is not hard to understand how the tenacious and fiercely independent voice of those volumes led the editors of Ms. to include L'Engle as a representative of what the publication then termed new female "Spiritual Explorers."
Nor does one have to squint too hard to picture the readers of Glimpses of Grace, a daybook of excerpts from L'Engle's writing, standing in line at our hypothetical book-signing. While some may be Ms. subscribers, it seems likely that more than a few of them would raise a skeptical eyebrow at the mention of feminism before returning to a perusal of Today's Christian Woman or, perhaps, Victoria. For Glimpses of Grace, Carole F. Chase, author of an appreciative consideration of L'Engle's life and work, has put together 366 brief selections of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
Chase structures the selections topically so that each day's entry connects thematically with the previous one. However, lest April or any other month become the cruelest one, she cycles again and again through L'Engle's typical themes: human freedom, identity, pain, temptation, grace, doubt, death, faith, love, and mystery, establishing a pattern of affirmation so that the effect of moving through the meditations is ultimately uplifting. That, of course, is a pattern that we might expect. Devotional books are supposed to be uplifting.
But despite its uplifting tone, there is something about the book that is troubling. Perhaps it is the academic critic in me that wants to worry about selections ripped out of their contexts and offered as touchstones of meaning. Such a technique is particularly problematic when the quotations are taken from fiction. Suddenly the values and authority structures established by the author as she created the narrative have vanished. In this brave new world of narrative democracy, all characters speak with equal authority and seem to represent the author. Sandy and Dennys Murray appear as credible as Charles Wallace or Meg Murray. Polly O'Keefe and Zachary Gray are suddenly on equal moral footing. In fact, any bit player can claim equal billing with one of L'Engle's narrative stars or with L'Engle herself from her nonfictional propositions.
For example, Anaral, a prehistoric Native American character in An Acceptable Time, seemingly speaks for L'Engle when in Chase's entry for April 23 we hear her sing what Chase calls a "Good Morning Song to Our Mother." As Chase presents it, the song seems to represent L'Engle's expression of devotion to a feminine deity; in the novel, however, the scene works to establish the differences between the world of L'Engle's protagonist and that of the prehistoric Native Americans while initiating a bond of friendship between the two female characters. My quibble is not with the gender of the deity—L'Engle talks intelligently elsewhere about her understanding of God's androgyny. Rather, my complaint is with the alteration of meaning that can occur when scenes like this are removed from the framework of the novels. When fiction is not read as fiction but as philosophy or aphorism, the reader, however well-intentioned, does the writer a significant injustice.
I would be remiss as reviewer if I did not immediately point out that L'Engle approved Chase's selection of entries for Glimpses of Grace. "I was amazed," L'Engle writes, "at how well she had articulated my theology, fitting my many questions and rare answers neatly together." But it is, I think, that very neatness that offends. L'Engle is many things in her writing, but she is not tidy.
In her nonfiction, she probes and circles, contradicts and reasserts. In her fiction, she creates heroes and heroines who are similarly messy. Thus, when readers hear L'Engle muse about belief subject to change, they know what she means. It is that very struggle that she works out in the pages of her nonfiction and that her characters—Camilla Dickinson and Mac Xanthakos, Adam Eddington, Zachary Gray, and Polly O'Keefe—muddle through in her novels. For this reader, at least, such messiness is part of L'Engle's appeal, and to canonize her ideas in a meditational book comes close to idolizing what should really be iconic.
The distinction between idol and icon is one that appears in L'Engle's Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols, her sixth volume of nonfiction in the Wheaton Literary Series from Harold Shaw Press—another subgenre, if you will, of L'Engle's work. Each of these volumes asks some version of the same question: "What does it mean to be human and to be a child of God?" The answer in each case is both personal and public, for L'Engle moves quite freely from autobiographical reflection to social commentary to theological and aesthetic speculation.
A Circle of Quiet:
The Crosswicks Journals, Book 1
by Madeleine L'Engle
256 pp.; $13, paper
And here is perhaps another reason for the crowd in the line for the book-signing.
L'Engle's apparent transparency as she reflects on the vocation of the artist in Walking on Water or on the relationship of story and truth in A Rock That Is Higher puts readers on a first-name basis with the author.
The informal structure and unpretentious voice of these books invite the audience to join L'Engle in the sitting room of her mind, to eavesdrop as the author thinks aloud. To these readers, she is Madeleine. In her struggles with temptation, in her existential affirmations of faith in the face of her husband's cancer and her own illness, in her attempts to understand her own life in the light of the biblical story, they recognize themselves.
But this informal theological reflection that many readers find so winsome also makes her vulnerable to her critics, who sometimes have come to these volumes expecting to find more systematic expressions of theology. Looking for creedal declarations, they are understandably confused by the voice that says that she only believes a few minutes per month and yet calls herself a Christian. They are legitimately upset by her avowal in A Stone for a Pillow that God's love is sufficient for everyone, including Satan. They will no doubt be horrified when in Penguins and Golden Calves they hear L'Engle assert that she has just "realized that if we take the Bible literally we don't have to take it seriously."
What she means, of course, is that a too-rigid focus on literal details of a biblical passage may keep readers from paying serious attention to the spiritual significance of the text. Literalism, she says, in words that will ring provocatively in the ears of many Christians, gives us an unbalanced perception of the Incarnation. Rational attempts to explain how Jesus could be wholly God and wholly human inevitably reduce our understanding to something that fits human paradigms but misses the divine mark. The passion of her prose when talking about the Incarnation stands as a good measure of the seriousness she turns toward it:
What I believe is so magnificent, so glorious, that it is beyond finite comprehension. To believe that the universe was created by a purposeful being is one thing. To believe that this Creator took on human vesture, accepted death and mortality, was tempted, betrayed, broken, and all for love of us, defies reason. It is so wild that it terrifies some Christians who try to dogmatize their fear by lashing out at other Christians, because a tidy Christianity with all answers given is easier than one which reaches out to the wild wonder of God's love, a love we don't even have to earn.
According to L'Engle, when we tenaciously devote ourselves to purely rational paradigms, we become like Aaron in the desert below Sinai, shaping a golden calf, constructing idols we can comprehend with our senses instead of waiting for the revelation of God in his own terms.
For most Protestant Christians those terms are the terms of Scripture and creation. To hear L'Engle talk about icons, then, as a means of apprehending God is to hear a rather foreign tongue. Icons belong to that mysterious realm of the Eastern Orthodox church. For many Protestants, in fact, icon is synonymous with idol. They do not include in their catechisms the Doctrine of the Veneration of Icons formulated in 787 by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which states that "the honor rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an icon venerates the person represented on it." In fact, many Protestants, along with John Calvin, shudder at the thought of venerating any thing, insisting, at least intellectually, that God does not reveal himself through images.
Glimpses of Grace:
Daily Thoughts and Reflections
by Madeleine L'Engle and
Carole F. Chase
384 pp.; $9, paper
So why this talk of icons? L'Engle would be the first to acknowledge that "not everybody needs icons," that "for some Christians the way of negation works more truly than the way of affirmation." Yet, she says, for those who "choose the way of affirmation … an icon can be an open door, or window to God." More than a simile, an icon, according to L'Engle, is a metaphor, containing in itself something of the indescribable thing that it represents.
In a wonderfully homely, yet apt analogy, L'Engle compares icons to the favorite blanket or stuffed animal of childhood. "The blanket," she says, "is not a blanket, nor is the animal a mere animal; they are icons of all-rightness in a world that early shows itself to be not all right." Icons help those, who like Martin Luther, think in images, who can benefit from the old Western tradition of passing along the gospel in images without worshiping those images. An icon becomes an idol only when it becomes more important than what it embodies.
Even national champions in biblical trivia must be scratching their heads trying to remember just where (other than Noah's ark, of course) penguins enter the greatest story ever told. Just how, we have to wonder, do these denizens of the South Pole make it to the title of a book on icons? The simplest answer is that penguins became icons for L'Engle when she encountered them on a family trip to Antarctica, an adventure that serves as one of the temporal frames for L'Engle's reflections in this journal. Her world is an emblematic one, and coffee mug and marine bird alike are fair game for metaphor.
Yet before you imagine L'Engle meditating upon a penguin savior, I would do well to explain just how penguins function as icons for this oft-misunderstood author. Penguins stand, not as an icon of any person of the Trinity, but as an icon of vulnerability.
As she speeds in bright red parka and black inflatable rubber boat across the icy waters of an Antarctic bay, L'Engle is startled by what she discovers about these exotic birds that most of us know only through zoos. Told by her guide about the social behavior of the birds, L'Engle is struck by their curious communal behavior. The babies huddle together in crches; the adults dive together into the sea and waddle together on land. Predators lurk everywhere in their environment, and the penguins find a measure of safety in numbers. But what strikes L'Engle most forcibly is the apparent lack of intimacy among the birds. Somewhat anthropomorphically, she speculates that in such an environment of danger, the penguins cannot take the emotional risk of opening themselves to a mate or chick that might shortly be eaten.
The penguins' situation, L'Engle suggests, is analogous to that of humans; true intimacy requires time, a safe environment, and the willingness of the participants to hazard risks. Contemporary society, with its penchant for the use of first names and personal questions, is like that of the penguins—communal, but not intimate. Furthermore, as she compares the grace of the birds in water with their awkwardness on land, she is led to speculate on the "natural element" for humans. Did we leave it, she wonders, when we left Eden? Do we step away from it when we avoid intimacy? When we, like the penguins, avoid intimacy to avoid pain?
Words can't describe, says L'Engle, what "the funny little Rock Hoppers" taught her about vulnerability. Yet what exactly did they "teach"? Some literary critics would be quick to suggest that L'Engle herself attached meaning to the penguins, that the lesson gained from them is like the lesson claimed by William Wordsworth from his daffodils or that by William Cullen Bryant from his waterfowl: it is a lesson projected on the natural object by the writer.
A Madeleine L'Engle
Don't miss The Swiftly Tilting Worlds of Madeleine L'Engle, coming in May
from Harold Shaw Publishers (256 pp.; $14.99, paper), a stellar collection of 15 essays, edited by poet Luci Shaw.
This is not the time or place to debate Romanticism or the notion of the pathetic fallacy, but it is the occasion to note how much passages like this reveal about the patterns of L'Engle's thought. Her chain of ideas here is typical of this book and of her other volumes in the Wheaton Literary Series, offering readers not only stimulating assertions for reflection but also a glimpse into the way she thinks, a revealing look at the things in her life that serve as icons, that point her toward a deeper understanding of God or her place in his world.
Such a style naturally carries risks. It offers a kind of familiarity with readers that virtually invites us to address the author by her first name, thus perhaps ironically contributing to the kind of false intimacy that it decries. But it also, and more importantly, models how a woman of intelligence integrates her faith and her life, how she reconciles joy and sorrow, how she responds to criticism and sorts through ideas. In doing so, this and the other books in the Wheaton series offer crucial contexts to the aphoristic and sometimes outrageous statements that are quoted both by attackers and aficionados of L'Engle's prose.
Readers need to encounter statements like "Jesus is the true princess" or "The white china Buddha is an icon, a Christ figure for me" in the context of L'Engle's persona as it appears in these books, a persona who feels called to daily prayer and devotion, a persona who believes in the reality of spiritual warfare and feels called to engage in it, a persona who, despite all her questions and surprising assertions, ends this book as she does all in this series with an affirmation of her faith in and her dependence on the triune God.
There will be those, no doubt, who will want to argue with L'Engle's logic or theology in this book, who will want to press her on her tendency toward universalism; but readers who pull up a chair to this conversation would do well to bear in mind that in Penguins and Golden Calves they will not meet a theologian but a storyteller.
Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols
by Madeleine L'Engle
187 pp.; $17.99
It is certainly Madeleine L'Engle, storyteller, who would bring the greatest portion of the crowd to any particular book-signing, and while the faithful might well be standing in line with her latest novel in hand, they are also likely to have brought a worn copy of A Wrinkle in Time, which earned L'Engle the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1962 and for which she is still best known.
The enlightened in the crowd might also be bearing the handsomely republished novel, The Other Side of the Sun, a very fine tale of spiritual warfare and moral action set against a surreal backdrop of voodoo and the lingering antebellum values of the South.
It is probable, however, that few of L'Engle's readers will be familiar with the novel that introduces the characters who reappear in her most recent fiction, A Live Coal in the Sea. Like many writers, L'Engle talks about her characters having lives of their own. In her case, this seems particularly plausible since most of the novels are inhabited by recurring characters. The Murrays inhabit the Time Trilogy; the O'Keefes another set of novels; the Austins yet a third; Katherine Forrester a fourth. But many fewer readers are acquainted with Camilla Dickinson, who appeared in L'Engle's 1951 novel of the same name.
Camilla, as the novel was retitled when reissued in the 1960s, is a coming-of-age story, essentially a romance. In it, the teenaged Camilla is initiated into adulthood as she is forced to come to terms with her parents' marital infidelities and moral weakness. Her development occurs as she engages in her first romantic relationship. She falls in love with Frank Rowan, the brother of her best friend, Luisa, and the plot develops rather conventionally. Frank is a silent and moody hero who could seemingly be stolen away from Camilla by any of a number of eligible women, and so Camilla constantly wonders if she is pleasing him. A positive answer, she knows, as would the readers of this formula, would come in the form of a kiss. But while the plot climaxes as it should with Frank and Camilla in an embrace that allows them to feel each other's beating hearts through layers of sweaters and parkas, L'Engle breaks the romance formula by having Frank abruptly leave Camilla at novel's end.
Some 40 years later, in A Live Coal, L'Engle returned to these characters. The new novel follows a pattern that is typical of much of L'Engle's fiction, a pattern that focuses on difficult philosophical questions. The discourse itself is not philosophical, but the events of the novel are so shaped as to force the reader's engagement with a philosophical or theological issue. Just as death upon death upon death in A Ring of Endless Light demands that readers engage the problem of evil, so here incident upon incident of abuse and hurt demands our consideration of whether God's mercy can ever erase intergenerational sin.
The Camilla Dickinson we meet here is a woman in her sixties. Upon our entrance to the story, she is being feted for her receipt of an international medal in astronomy. As her family gathers for the festivities, however, it quickly becomes obvious that there are some rather significant skeletons haunting their closets. Her son, Taxi, is the star of a popular soap opera. (Yes, L'Engle's husband, Hugh Franklin, was also a soap-opera star. But readers intrigued by that coincidence and by the similarities between Dickinson's astronomy medal and L'Engle's literature medal will discover little substantial ground for speculation about an autobiographical basis for the novel.) At the party, Taxi taunts his own daughter, Raffi, into wondering whether Camilla is indeed her biological grandmother. The girl, a student at the university where Camilla teaches, presses her grandmother to explain her father's bizarre behavior.
A Live Coal in the Sea
by Madeleine L'Engle
352 pp.; $13, paper
The narrative that follows is a series of flashbacks, shifting back and forth from that conversation between grandmother and granddaughter to the earlier events of Camilla's life. In the process, the reader sees a family struggling to deal with sexual addiction, homosexuality, child abuse, incest, custody battles, and emotional depression. Is it possible for a new generation to escape the tragic, twisted legacy of the past?
L'Engle's answer lies in the title phrase—a part of this longer quotation from William Langland's Piers Plowman: "But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea." The answer is not a glib one. The questions raised by the novel's events relentlessly press the issue. As the characters encounter one apparently insurmountable instance of hurt after another, it seems impossible that God's grace would be sufficient. But in the end, it is, and the improbability of its sufficiency makes its power all the more amazing.
Donald Hettinga is professor of English at Calvin College. He has published widely on Madeleine L'Engle.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.