Tesser well, Madeleine L’Engle

Wrinkle In Time CoverAs some GetReligion readers may know, my wife is a professional librarian at a public library in Anne Arundel County, Md. Thus, it is no surprise — with a librarian married to a journalist — that whenever we move into a house the first thing we do is build about 18 to 20 feet worth of bookshelves, to add to the free-standing units that we already have.

So we are book (and audio book and DVD) people. It should also come as no surprise that there are shelves — more than one in a few cases — for works by or about the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Lawhead, Frederick Buechner and others. And one of those others is Madeleine L’Engle, who is my wife’s favorite author.

We had the joy of meeting L’Engle several times during the years we lived in Denver, when she game for speaking engagements in the area.

In fact, she visited Christ Church, our parish at that time, during an All Saints service. I saw her on a kneeler in the third row and, at first, I did not recognize who this was. The face looked so familiar, yet I kept trying to think of someone who might, you know, show up in your local parish on a Wednesday night. My wife was sitting behind L’Engle during the service and did not see her, at this point in the evening. And the priests did not single her out in any way.

Then it hit me, where I knew this face.

When the service was over and people headed to the potluck, my wife made sure that Madeleine knew she was invited — while I tore home to grab a stack of favorite L’Engle hardback books. We all sat around talking for an hour or two. I also had two chances to interview her, at length, and heard several of her lectures.

L’Engle was a very, very complex person and there are few thoughful people, I imagine, who would agree with her on a variety of doctrinal issues. Yet her faith shines in her writings and she was a wonderful person with whom to “talk shop” on issues of vocation and calling.

Which leads me to my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which several people have suggested that I post here. There are many other tributes to L’Engle around at the moment in some interesting places — like National Review Online and Salon.

Please share your favorite L’Engle links with us, if you will.

L  EngleSo here is the column:

Madeleine L’Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in “A Wrinkle In Time” — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It’s true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young — a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a “figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair.” She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L’Engle’s fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, “A Wrinkle In Time” — which won the 1963 Newbery Medal — became one of America’s most frequently banned children’s books.

“If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels — the book says so. You don’t have to clarify what is already clear,” L’Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

“Don’t they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H.”

This interview came during a time when L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L’Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life — faith, family and creativity — until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L’Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called “Christian writers” were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it’s symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College — the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater — where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L’Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It’s hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with “A Wrinkle In Time.”

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.”

It’s even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in “constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes.” This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, “I am practically plural.”

The goal, said L’Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

“I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared — not kept for those who already have it,” she said. “Well, ‘Christian novels’ reach Christians. They don’t reach out. … I am not a ‘Christian writer.’ I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work.”

So, does everyone understand the headline on this post? And what do think are the implications of that final L’Engle quote for people of faith in all kinds of writing? Valid for screenwriters? Songwriters? Dare I ask, for journalists?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I had to look it up, because it has been a long time since I read Wrinkle, but I understand the headline. I agree with L’Engle’s quote as it pertains to most “Christian” novels, CCM music, and movies (such as Facing the Giants). Yes, the quote applies to writers of all types. And because communication in written form is becoming dominant, it applies to just about all of us who consider ourselves evangelical Christians (small “e”).

    When I was a kid and read Wrinkle and its two sequels, I guess I knew that they were “unmistakably Christian”, but I enjoyed them because they were unbelievably good stories. The same goes for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Narnia stories. An agnostic friend of mine saw the movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and didn’t realize that the death and resurrection of Aslan were allegorical until I told him.

    I’ll really miss L’Engle. I’ll make sure that my kids read her books.

  • http://www.quoththemaven.blogspot.com janet batchler

    “Valid for screenwriters?” Absolutely. More than valid. When I teach Christian would-be screenwriters, I insist they read L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.” A quote I love from it:

    We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it….

    If our lives are truly “hid with Christ in God,” the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write. What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.

    Rest in peace, Madeleine…

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (from Edinburgh)

    Thanks for that quote Janet – I’m going to seek out l’Engle’s stuff now!

  • Mary A.

    Tesseract . . . it was many years later that I realized there really is such a thing as a tesseract. :-)

    Ms. L’Engle’s books were a source of joy in my childhood. In my mid-30s I left my Baptist Christianity for a Sacramental/Liturgical (specifically Anglican) Christianity, and now Orthodox Christianity. Her books were probably the first nudge in that direction, though I didn’t recognize it then.

    Rest in peace, Madeleine. May her memory be eternal.

  • http://freewebs.com/narniamagic Kathleen

    Farewell, Madeleine. You had a beautiful philosophy. I feel as awkward as Meg and I have so many bad habits, it’s hard to keep up the standards you embraced. But I try not to get too mad when I can remember, so I don’t add to the darkness…

  • Lucy

    I get the headline, too. In fact, my childhood dog was named Tesser.

    I loved Madeleine’s books and her characters. My mother read them out loud to us kids and I plan to read them to my children when they get older.

    Memory eternal!

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com Nancy Reyes

    The difference between a Christian writer and a writer who is a Christian:
    C.S. Lewis is a Christian writer.
    JRR Tolkien is a writer who is a Christian.

    There is a place for both.
    and yes, I know about tessering.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Nancy, you are incorrect about Lewis. He was not a “Christian writer” as defined by L’Engle — one who writes for Christians. While many of Lewis’s works appeal to Christians and are read by Christians, he did not write strictly for Christians. The very thought of doing so would have struck him as ridiculous.