Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle {Book Review}

In the new book A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Sarah Arthur depicts a legacy that is not without complications, as was L’Engle herself. The foreword and introduction lay out the structure and organizing premise of the book, that L’Engle saw many seeming polarities as “both/and” where most would see “either/or.” Thus, we have chapter headings such as “Sacred and Secular” or “Religion and Art.” This structure suits Arthur’s subject well.

Madeleine L’Engle, the writer known best for her fantasy classic A Wrinkle in Time, was a mainline Episcopalian whose fiction and non-fiction reflected that bent. Her writing polarized evangelicals. The literary and visual arts community has drawn inspiration from her, especially from her non-fiction book Walking on Water. She spoke at conservative evangelical Wheaton, Calvin, and Westmont colleges, and her papers and journals are archived at Wheaton. Other evangelicals have vilified her ideas as New Age in Christian dress or even as demonic (178-181). This book acknowledges the critics in the latter camp but emphasizes the former, quoting extensively from the artists and writers L’Engle befriended, mentored, and influenced through her words.

Sarah Arthur has thoroughly and closely attended to those words, not only in L’Engle’s published works but also in a number of talks (at Wheaton and Calvin Colleges, for example) available online. This book also reflects her investigation of the books and articles, both positive and negative, written about L’Engle. One of the greatest strengths of her work is the breadth and depth of interviews she conducted with L’Engle’s family, with writers like Philip Yancey  who joined L’Engle in  the writing group the Chrysostom Society, and with artists and writers such as Makoto Fujimura and Leif Enger (Peace Like a River). Such a collection would not be complete without quotes from her dear friends the evangelical poet Luci Shaw and Barbara Braver, the flatmate of her final years in New York.

Those interviews highlight the strengths of Arthur’s subject. First, L’Engle was unique in the way she pioneered a specifically Christian union of faith, art, and science. She freed and paved the way for Christian fantasy writers like Stephen Lawhead, and string theorists have validated some of the self-taught physics behind the series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle didn’t come to a personal faith in God through theologians but through reading theoretical physicists like Albert Einstein.
“Einstein wrote that anyone who is not lost in rapturous awe and amazement at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe is as good as a burned-out candle,” Madeleine wrote years later. “I had found my theologian!” (100-101).
For some evangelical readers, including myself, L’Engle gave too much credence to some scientific ideas and interpreted Scripture in light of them instead of vice versa, but that does not negate the significance of her accomplishment in this area.

The second and most beautiful legacy portrayed here is L’Engle’s friendships and mentoring. It was her friendships, her loyal community, that saw her through the times of attack on her faith and writing. Her friendship with Luci Shaw lasted decades and survived great losses, distance, and theological differences. Shaw came to L’Engle’s bedside in the hospital after a near-fatal car accident and in her final days in a nursing home. L’Engle’s flatmate and Shaw both cherish the memories of reading Compline when they were together of an evening in L’Engle’s home. Interviews with numerous younger writers describe L’Engle’s generosity in giving her time, prayers, and advice when they sought her out after a talk on a college campus. Such talks and Walking on Water (perhaps my favorite of L’Engle’s books) have mentored 2 generations of Christian artists to date and are likely to continue bearing fruit and growing her legacy, should the Lord tarry longer.

The more difficult parts of the book are those which address L’Engle’s weaknesses. This is most evident in the chapter “Fact and Fiction.” L’Engle shared perhaps too much truth about her children in the fictional but semi-autobiographical Meet the Austins series, but her family (and at times L’Engle herself) recognize that she fictionalized some of the stories in her memoirs. She had a tendency to regard the perspective in her journals as the absolute truth of an event, which could leave others feeling she rejected the validity of their differing experience of the same event. The most heartbreaking part of this whole section is the discussion of her youngest son’s death due to liver failure caused by alcohol abuse. He could never escape or live up to the pedestal his mother placed him in the fictional Rob Austin version of himself, and addiction was his response. Arthur includes an insightful and thought-provoking  response from author and blogger Sarah Bessey to this tragedy:
“My children need to know that they’re not copy to me. They need to know that their spiritual questions or moments or lives are not here for anyone else’s consumption.” But she also recognizes that this is hard for a lot of writers, “especially when parenting is a huge aspect of your life—a huge aspect of your own spirituality and awakening and how you understand God, how you’re moving through the world.” As with many women writers, “Faith is deeply connected to mothering for me. And how do I write about the ways mothering has been transformative, how it’s become this crucible, without turning my children themselves into content?” (164-165).
These are good questions for any blogger or memoirist to ponder, and I found this whole chapter challenging.

Overall, A Light So Lovely is a clear, thoughtful reflection on the impact in the kingdom of God made (and being made) through L’Engle’s life and words. Sarah Arthur has done a masterful job of gathering and organizing primary sources according to the predominant themes at play in L’Engle’s legacy. This is not a biography intended to introduce L’Engle to a reader unfamiliar with her works. Before diving into this book, I would recommend having read at least A Wrinkle in Time, Walking on Water, and The Irrational Season or Two-Part Invention from the Crosswicks Journals memoir collection. Devoted readers and L’Engle fans will find kindred spirits in this book, even though the author does not turn a blind eye to her subject’s faults.

N.B. Zondervan sent me a complimentary prerelease copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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