The concrete quest of A Wrinkle in Time

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Madeleine L'Engle's classic children’s fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time, Think Christian readers and I have been re-reading her 1962 masterpiece over the past few weeks. To revisit A Wrinkle in Time (hereafter AWiT) is to wade deep into nostalgia. Like countless others, I was absorbed by the adventures of the Murrys and their friends. Of all the fantasy novels that lined my childhood bookshelf, I always considered AWiT the "weirdest" - quite a distinction, considering its peers.

Fifty years after its initial publication, the book's literary qualities and lasting appeal are clear. The writing is often beautiful; the characters are compelling; the imagination on display inspiring. (This is a book that includes space Pegasus angels, a giant disembodied brain and a kind, loveable Lovecraftian monstrosity named "Aunt Beast.") AWiT never talks down to its young audience. And its parallels to contemporary culture are still challenging, even if we now apply them to different societal dangers than the reading audience of the 1960s did.

While AWiT showcases plot elements common to fantasy literature, its many points of divergence from formula are noteworthy. Unlike their peers in many other fantasy novels, Meg and her friends aren't transported into a magical world walled off from the "real world;" their adventures take place in the same universe that contains their school woes, family tension and pre-adolescent growing pains. The Murry parents aren't the distant, tyrannical or clueless adults found in many children’s fantasy novels; they're partners with their children in the battle against evil. Science is celebrated. And when the final confrontation with evil arrives at the finale of AWiT, Meg disarms evil by refusing to directly battle it at all.

These twists on standard fantasy genre plot elements explain part of AWiT’s lasting appeal. But much of its continuing relevance lies in the fact that it is theologically provocative. It is provocative in the sense that some Christians, offended by its (brief, not-elaborated-upon) reference to Jesus Christ as one of many historical human heroes, have been provoked into condemning AWiT. But there’s much more at work than shallow relativism.

For one, L'Engle is refreshingly honest in depicting a loving but occasionally frustrating relationship with God. Meg is repeatedly placed into dangerous situations by beings she loves and trusts, painfully aware of her own frailty and mystified that these powerful friends seemingly choose not to help. (At the evil-infested planet of Camazotz, Meg and her friends are given a pair of glasses and some iffy-sounding advice, then sent to take on an all-powerful evil giant brain.) Would it have killed Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who to give Meg something more directly helpful (perhaps a magic sword or a phaser)? And would it really ruin things if God just gave us a bit more help - a higher salary, a more supporting church, better social skills, a stronger faith? Patience is a virtue that eludes Meg for much of the novel, as it often does us.

L'Engle makes no stark division between "sacred" and "secular" worlds. Christian-ish fiction and popular imagination tend to depict spiritual warfare - the clash of divine and demonic powers - as taking place in some parallel reality, invisible and intangible to our physical world. But in AWiT, angels and demons are separated from humanity by mere gulfs of traversable (once you learn how to “tesser,” that is) physical space. They’re not metaphorical or supernatural in the way we usually think of the terms. They abide by the scientific principles built into Creation, the same ones Meg learns from her scientist parents. Angels don't magically teleport through the galaxy; they use advanced physics to bend space-time, “Star Trek”-style.

Meg and her friends never leave the "real" world to fight evil. Theirs is a very concrete quest that will restore a small part of the real world (their family life) that has been thrown into disrepair. L'Engle invites us to join Meg’s struggle against spiritual evil, but mischievously refuses to let us slip away from the problems of the real world while doing so.

For much of the book, Meg struggles with impatience and feelings of impotence, volunteering for a final rescue mission more out of grim determination than hope. What keeps Meg on her quest when she feels utterly outmatched, and even let down by the grown-ups she trusts? Ultimately, it is the love she holds for (and receives from) her friends and family. We can ask ourselves the same questions: Why do good or seek justice? Why stay on the straight and narrow path day after day when it’s so difficult and seemingly unrewarding? Who do we love enough to keep us going?

What Do You Think?

  • How does A Wrinkle in Time compare to other acclaimed fantasy/sci-fi novels, and Christian ones in particular?
  • Looking back, what do you make of the efforts by Christians to ban the book during the 1990s?
  • If you haven't read the book since your youth, how was the experience different this time around?

 

Comments (10)

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First Comment. Woo! Here's my opinion.

1. I think the books hold up, for they do an excellent job of crossing the lines and allowing for Christian elements, as well as the elements that feel more "universal" to everyone's own experience.

2. As for the attempts of the past to ban the book, it came more from a historical lack of literary understanding. IF one doesn't understand what makes excellent literature, and why certain elements are valuable, they are likely to react and ban it. Thus, ignorance causes harm.
Agreed about point #1, definitely. Would you mind unpacking your second point a bit further?

What are some of the literary elements that you think are most likely to trigger the "Ban it!" response? Clearly, theology that is perceived to be questionable is one, and occult-ish dressings are another; but are you referring to something more basic? I think in the last ten years, American Christians have grown more willing to allow for the above specific elements, yet I suspect that evangelicals' general relationship with imaginative fiction is still a bit uncomfortable.
Though there are few direct comparisons between L'Engle and Tolkien, one might say that both illustrate how Christians should/have to live without explicitly citing Christianity as a reason. If so, I wonder why Tolkien seems to have a much wider readership among general audiences as well as acceptance by Christians as a Christian author?
I hate it when groups try to ban items from public libraries. If you don't want to read something, don't check it out. If you don't want your children to read something, give them other options. I wish people would be reasonable.

I read this book both as a child and as an adult. I would not have known the author was Christian unless somebody told me.
That's an interesting question. I don't have any definitive answer as to why Tolkien reached greater popularity both inside and outside the church, but a few ideas:

* The Lord of the Rings is written at an adult level and features adult protagonists. AWiT (at least the first book in the series) is written from the perspective of children. Since Harry Potter, the line between "children's lit" and "grown-up books" has blurred, but perhaps in the past AWiT was relegated more to the kids' section of the library than Tolkien was, limited its reach.

* L'Engle is a bit more blatant about the Christian aspects of the story, although it's still pretty mild. Some of the creatures in the books are pretty obviously angels, and they do quote and sing from the Bible, although L'Engle never writes those scenes as "evangelical" in purpose.

* Tolkien taps into more traditional fantasy/fairy-tale folklore (elves, dwarves, monsters). L'Engle's world is stranger and, in its departure from the usual European mythology, it's actually closer to sci-fi.

* L'Engle's depiction of spiritual beings and the war they fight against darkness is sufficiently different from the "toga-wearing angels with flaming swords" routine that it probably seems somewhere between "weird" and "theologically off" for some Christian readers. I personally like the bizarreness of her cosmos--it reminds me of Ezekiel's crazy vision of God and His attendants--but it's also less comfortable and familiar than the traditional depiction of God and his servants.

Just a few thoughts!
About censorship: The 90's was a somewhat legalistic era for mainstream Christianity. Organizations supplied parents with lists of objections with page numbers so parents could conveniently complete the challenge forms without actually having to read the books. The simple fact that the Mrs. "W's" were witches was enough for some folks.

Like Lewis, and to some extent Tolkien, one of L'Engle's influences was George MacDonald. And like MacDonald L'Engle's Christianity carried a more universalist bent. It bothered a lot of people that Jesus is listed in "Wrinkle" as "a warrior of light" along with Buddha, Euclid, Shakespeare, et al. Her strong female characters were a departure from the traditional Christian portrayals of women and their roles. In sequels to "Wrinkle" and her crossover "Austins" series L'Engle included sympathetic homosexual characters, sex outside marriage, and a less than orthodox theology, sometimes even expressed by religious characters.These were the sort of ideas that Christians fighting the 90's "culture war" felt would corrupt the minds of the young.

About reading "Wrinkle" as an adult: When I read Wrinkle in the 70's one of the most powerful images was when the stars sacrifice themselves to attack the darkness and Meg finds out the Mrs. W's were once stars who did that. Even before I understood who Christ is the idea of good overcoming evil and a light shining in the darkness impacted me. I was inspired to want to make choices that poke holes in the darkness of evil. Even as an adult that image comes to mind when I have to make hard choices that cost me something. As a believer it is a picture of the cost of discipleship.
I expected AWiT to feel somewhat dated and cheesy because it is fantasy/sci-fi and older books in the genre tend to feel off to me. But so much of AWiT is relational, it's a great story about compelling characters, not written merely to help readers imagine alternative realities or dreams of what is out there. It doesn't focus on technology, so the few moments that are very dated, don't stand out. AWiT holds up remarkably well.

A careful reading of AWiT shows a profound love of Christian doctrine, and those elements that could be new age (e.g. the witches) are clearly not intended to draw readers away from the faith, rather, to push them towards God. Efforts to ban the book show a lack of appreciation for literature and moral imagination in general. I'm glad things are trending away from those legalistically driven movements now.
Sadly, for some parts of the church, there's satisfaction with a book only when it's loaded with pre-approved dogma. I recall the attacks leveled at the book when it was published. Remember thinking: how insecure many a Christian is.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis is a more fair analogue than Tolkein, especially comparing the Time books to the Narnia books, both considered children's classics.
I also wonder if L'engle gets less praise than her work deserves because of good ol' sexism.
I have loved A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of the Time Quartet (though I never actually made it through Many Waters) since about fifth grade. I'm in my twenties now, and I've probably reread them three or four times. I have no complaints, and have never experienced a negative reaction towards something I read in L'Engle's works, but I don't know that I would even classify them as "Christian-ish." With authors like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, the very purpose of their work is to point others towards Jesus and to beautifully imitate the story of God's pursuit of us throughout history, eventually fulfilled by Christ's redeeming work on the cross. For L'Engle (whom I love, and am not criticizing), ideas and manifestions of Jesus, angels, demonic forces, et al seem to be just pieces to her puzzle - like names and forces invoked to make her universe more appealing, more fantastical, more important. Her goal is not to teach others about Jesus, but to wonderfully remind us of the glories and terrors of humanity and human nature, and (cheesy as it sounds) to champion the power of love. Therefore, I'd class her with greats like Lewis and Tolkien in her ability to tell a compelling, beautiful story within the fantasy genre, but I would not consider her on board with their aims to make Christianity likable and interesting.

As far as banning the book, I echo what others have already said. The very idea of censoring what people (particularly people who are Christians) are allowed to read is ludicrous. Jesus did not call us to change people's behavior before He has changed their hearts - it has to be the other way around. As far as stopping Christians from reading the books, mature believers should be able to read whatever they choose whether it's considered to be offensive or not. In fact, I'd encourage believers to purposefully seek out things that they don't agree with to better learn why they believe what they believe. My class read A Wrinkle in Time when I was ten years old, and I knew enough to not consider what I was reading anything near "the Gospel truth". If parents are concerned about what their children might think, they should read the book with them (providing a chance to dialogue and discuss) rather than run from it or ignore the supposed problem altogether. Children need to be encouraged to be in the world, and to know its goings on, even though we are not to be "of" the world.

With all of that said, I love A Wrinkle in Time (though I think I prefer A Wind in the Door). I love the Murrys, the O'Keefes, and the rest, and I support what L'Engle is trying to teach, though I may not totally accept her theology. I can't wait to read these books with my own children.

 

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