The Faith and Fiction of Madeleine L’Engle in a Politically Correct World

For most of my life, Madeleine L’Engle was simply a great children’s book author. Her legacy began and ended with A Wrinkle in Time, read when I was a child and then later taken down again for my first-born child to read in elementary school.

Every time I think I have a good handle on L’Engle as an author, I read another one of her nonfiction writings and realize that the well of wisdom which she drew from—as a woman, mother, wife, and author—was far deeper than anything I previously imagined. And the glorious depth of that well (often largely unknown to those who read only her fiction) makes me want to place her books before my children again and again.

A new edition of L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art was released recently, offering a look at a woman who walked and wrestled in the light of faith. The book’s title, which draws on scenes from the New Testament, emerged from L’Engle’s belief that art and faith can never be separated:

To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory. It is what makes me respond to the death of an apple, the birth of a puppy, northern lights shaking the sky, by writing stories.

Today, mainstream thinking tends to hold that a secular mindset is necessary to tap the freshest frontiers of creativity, to produce the edgiest music video, grittiest movie, or most titillating novel. But L’Engle found the opposite to be true—for her, the “dirty devices” of the modern world are responsible for dulling our imaginations and cutting away our creativity. When we unlearn these things, we recapture the powers of our childhood, something L’Engle achieved with A Wrinkle in Time:

In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten: we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered among the stars. We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story, or the painting, or the composing or singing or playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children.

L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, doesn’t think A Wrinkle in Time would be published today (it almost wasn’t published over fifty years ago, when L’Engle received twenty-six notes rejecting it before finding a publisher), yet she also thinks L’Engle’s Christian chronicles are especially needed today, despite a movement away from churches and places of faith among younger generations.

The appeal of L’Engle’s writings is a balm precisely because it is the opposite of the harsh, fast-paced tone of today’s public and online forums. “People are hungry” for a refreshing inquiry that lacks the polemics of modern day debates, Jones Voiklis said. “We all are increasingly in our own echo chamber.”

For anyone willing to test the waters, they will find that, more than forty years ago, L’Engle foresaw and critiqued many of today’s cultural battles, including addressing the challenge women face balancing family and career and defending a liberal education that featured mostly men.

When women wrote to L’Engle upset that Meg, the main character in A Wrinkle in Time, eventually decides to marry and have children rather than pursue a career with her fine mathematical skills, L’Engle doesn’t apologize. She points out that if women are really to have a “choice” between focusing primarily on family life and children or on using their skills to make great advances in the professional world, then we must also be accepting if they choose the thing we don’t want. L’Engle herself tried to balance the two in an age when few women did.

Today, in the world of children’s book publishing, the tendency is to offer every child a portrait of themselves in books. Children today must see a girl that looks just like them and confronts the social issues they confront on the playground or in the classroom to awaken humanly and intellectually, this reasoning holds. L’Engle, however, offers an alternate view. She wasn’t turned off by the works of men. And her answer to reading these classical texts—a lengthy list that included Plato, Aristotle, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Pater, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, John Milton, Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostles Peter and John, Francis of Assisi, Martin Buber, Anton Chekov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—was to focus instead on a central tenet that to her made the authors’ words and works vital: their humanity.

What do they all have in common, all these people I read in college and thereafter? All men, and all dead. Their distance from us in chronology seems to give them overwhelming authority. But they were not dead when they wrote, and they were as human as the rest of us.

L’Engle did not ignore the absence of women in the canon, but she makes a far bolder argument than many PC warriors on college campuses do—namely, that she considered herself as much a part of mankind as any man. As she observed:

[E.M.] Forster refers to ‘his surface and his work’; Auden says, ‘He is not only a poet or a novelist; he is also a character in our biography. That his and he refer as much to Jane Austen and George Sand as to Flaubert and Hemingway. . . We of the female sex are half of mankind, and it is pusillanimous to resort to he/she, him/her, or even worse, android words.

News has been buzzing with the efforts underway in Hollywood to finally turn A Wrinkle in Time into a big, bankable movie, complete with a role for Oprah Winfrey. Much of the buzz, however, has been about the race of the lead actress selected to play Meg. I can only imagine L’Engle shaking her head and wondering how everyone missed the point. In Walking on Water she wrote, “The fact that Wrinkle is deeply embedded in both theology and physics had little to do with me, and this puts me in my proper place as a servant struggling (never completely succeeding) to be faithful to the work, the work which slowly and gently tries to teach me some of what it knows.” It will be interesting to see whether Hollywood puts out the flames or allows her faith to heat up our imagination.

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  • InklingBooks

    Quote: “Today, in the world of children’s book publishing, the tendency is to offer every child a portrait of themselves in books. Children today must see a girl that looks just like them and confronts the social issues they confront on the playground or in the classroom to awaken humanly and intellectually, this reasoning holds.”

    You certainly see that POV in the post-election skit from SNL about “The Bubble.”

    Of course, that runs directly contrary to G. K. Chesterton, who wanted every child to read patriotic books—particularly those about the love other people have for their country. He wanted French kids seeing how German kids love their land. He even said that one of the primary causes of war was an inability to understand that.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace

    • AnneG

      Isn’t it a both-and rather than either-or?

      • David Wyman

        Certainly. But my experience is it is very easy to slip back into the popular, expected form. It is artificial to seek to draw characters unlike the reader – a rather silly Opposite Game – but if one is writing characters that look just like the reader, it must be treated with suspicion. A difference in time period is probably more valuable than a current-events novel, to take one example.

  • alanstorm

    Turn A Wrinkle in Time into a big, bankable movie?

    I cringe. They’d “improve” it to death.

  • Eastside School

    just looking at the casting on imdb.com, I can see that (((Hollywood))) is going to ruin it

  • cambridgeknitter

    I got sucked into reading “A Wrinkle in Time” once when I was a kid and again when I was in my 40s and should have known better. It starts out so well and then, after you’re hooked on an interesting story with interesting characters, descends into such heavy-handed Christian proselytizing that I ended up despising it both times. Madeleine L’Engle did write a good picture book from a dog’s point of view about the arrival of a baby, but “A Wrinkle in Time” is on my list of books to avoid.

  • aardunza

    I remember Rich Lowry telling us that she was his neighbor when he was growing up. Her apartment was down the hall or something from his.