John Wilson’s Books and Culture newsletter brought back from the archives a 1998 essay focusing on Madeleine L’Engle to mark her passing last week.
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?