Madeleine L’Engle’s Christian faith informed her imagination. It was the lens through which she saw the world and wondered, and it was this sense of wonder that led her to contemplate Einstein’s theories. In her Newberry Medal acceptance speech she stated:
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…The extraordinary, the marvelous thing about Genesis is not how unscientific it is, but how amazingly accurate it is. How could the ancient Israelites have known the exact order of an evolution that wasn’t to be formulated for thousands of years? Here is a truth that cuts across barriers of time and space.”
Scientists can indeed prove now that the celestial stars that make up our expanding universe existed before the formation of the providentially hospitable rock we call our home planet. The earth is full of terrors as well as wonders, and so in A Wrinkle in Time the problem of evil takes on the appearance of a shadow that threatens to darken the globe. Mrs Whatsit assures the child protagonists that great fighters came right from our little planet, all lights by which to see by. Who are these lights?
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
“Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others.”
The others listed by the children are: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt and St. Francis.
L’Engle’s faith was not considered pure enough by some. A Wrinkle in Time was banned in some schools because Jesus is named next to other philosophers, scientists, and artists as if he is equal to them, a blasphemy. I do not think this is the case at all; by naming Jesus first perhaps L’Engle is signaling that if the man made God is the Truth, then every person who contributes in any way to human knowledge is a participation in this first Truth. It’s also possible that she’s being a good liberal: her instinct as a Christian to name Jesus as a luminary is probably because most people could agree that he was a good man who preached the Golden Rule.
For today’s modern reader, the mention of Jesus at all is a bit too overt. There appears to be an unspoken consensus that religion doesn’t belong in material meant for children. (I’m not sure where this puts other Newberry winners of the past that are about the life of Buddha, or deal with Hinduism.) Ava DuVernay’s cinematic adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time omits the Christianity in the book completely, for instance.
Existential retellings of stories with strong religious elements usually fall flat for me. This is because they refuse to contend with or represent a major piece of the puzzle that is the story we all love in the first place. The film Troy (2004) fell into this trap: no pagan gods show up. The result was certainly an entertaining movie, but not one that accurately represented the Iliad of Homer at all. “What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?” the poet asks in the opening lines of the epic. The gods meddle and manipulate the humans and start the war in the first place.
I suppose we modernists are uncomfortable with unseen truths. For instance, were I to state that as a Christian I believe in the human soul, I might be scoffed at. What if I were to state that all humans had rights? I’d get no blowback for that, because our current culture has reached a consensus on that subject. This is a truth we all acknowledge even though human rights do not have mass or occupy space. How do we know we’re not just making it all up?
Our belief in rights might be looked upon as skeptically by future historians as we do the tales of Apollo and Athena and Zeus. Not being able to understand the faith that informs the imagination of a writer or poet isn’t an excuse to omit it. The human experience is vast and wide and diverse, and that diversity includes that of religious experience.
It’s dishonest to pretend that it does not exist; to treat it as if it is disposable.
I’ll close this with more from L’Engle’s acceptance speech, where she speaks glowingly of this diversity in the human family and the importance of including all of it in children’s literature.
“What a child does not realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture. Many Newberry books are from this realm, beginning with Dr. Dolittle; books on Hindu myth, Chinese folklore, the life of Buddah, tales of American Indians, books that lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the one language of all mankind.”
Let’s not censor any part of the universal language of humanity. How could we be so arrogant?