Review of The Sparrow: Does God give a damn?

Warning: Don’t read this review if you want to read this book (which I cannot recommend more highly if beautifully crafted, humane stories about cosmic theology and intergalactic travel interest you), because spoiler alerts.

“The Sparrow” is a novel by Mary Doria Russell and was described as “a startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction” by the New York Times Book Review. My friend Stephanie who knows me well and has the best taste gifted me this book, so I knew it was going to be good.

I am an official Religion major, unofficial philosophy minor, seminary drop-out, a woman who is always feels a couple of weird events away from actually joining a novitiate. That is to say, this ain’t the first time I found myself exploring questions about the existence and nature of God, but the novel plunged me deep into the heart of the question as if for the first time.

Here’s what happens. (I’m serious, stop reading if you want to read the book!)

We are introduced to a certain Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, academic linguist, dark and handsome, Puerto Rican in origin. There are two storylines unfolding at the same time. We are introduced to his life, the sensitivity, devotion and human conflictedness with which he meets his various missions across the Americas and Africa, learning over a dozen languages along the way. We are introduced to the charming, fiercely intelligent, multi-talented, service-minded (and agnostic!) friends he picks up along the way, whom he brings to settles down for another mission in La Perla, the slums of San Juan. An astronomer in the crew makes a groundbreaking discovery of music (!!!) from another, distant planet. Long story short, Fr. Sandoz and his crew embark on a journey to find these music-making, sentient aliens, feeling encouraged by the very providence of God himself.

And then things go horribly wrong. Then some more things go horribly, horribly wrong. Then even more things go horribly, horribly wrong until you’re on the last page with your jaw dropped, stunned, devastated. At the end, we are left with a physically and spiritually ravished priest, who may have convinced himself that God — if He exists — lured him into this mission with sparks of divine possibility, inspiration and cosmic love, only to make him the punchline of an immeasurably cruel joke.

Mean, mean Mary Doria Russell!!

I’ll be honest; I had so wished that there was a happy ending. Well, okay, if not a happy ending, at least some kind of resolution, some tying-of-existential-loose-ends-together. How could I not? I felt so vulnerable at the end. Most days, I feel the awareness of God all around me and inside me. I am not young enough that I believe in a God who actively interferes in human affairs, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, but I thought I had deeply contended with a degree of suffering and absurdity inherent our lives. I had room enough in my soul to contain paradoxes. God’s vastness made it increasingly easy for me to accept His mysteriousness; the inevitable ebb and flow of life softened me to the reality of grace. I had lain it all down at the feet of Christ, the central agent of redemptive suffering, the reverser of Original Sin, divine love made bruising and vulnerable flesh.

After digesting the initial shock of finishing the book (and making a cup of tea, and staring at the wall blankly for an hour), it occurred to me that this is by no means the first time a story like that had been told. What is so different about Sandoz’s journey from those of early Christian martyrs, or even the Jesuits who sailed across the Atlantic for the first time to entirely foreign and possibly hostile lands to win souls for God? Many of whom, as the novel mentions, met violent and homicidal guests, were tortured, maimed and killed? (One such priest,we are told, made it out alive and made his way back to Europe, only to return out of his own volition.) What’s different about it from the countless stories of ordinary people and saints who went intrepidly in pursuit of discovery, a great knowledge of God’s creation, singing of the Creator’s glory, and met nothing but senseless tragedy? How many such stories have we told?

As Sandoz languished alone in his cell with a devastated faith, surrounded by jeering, skeptical colleagues, Jesus Christ hung on the Cross, asking, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not that my fate has ever challenged me with rape by aliens or a public execution, but countless times, I have thought the same thing in the privacy of my own sorrow. “I thought I was being good, I thought I was loving you. You created me soft, yielding, weak. Why punish me for the way I was made?”

In a little interview with the author who was included at the end of the book, it was revealed that Russell had, after a Catholic childhood and more years of searching, converted to Judaism. Ah, of course. Though she painted such a loving and meticulous portrait of Christian faith and the Jesuit tradition, the central question of the book to me seemed appropriately, rigorously Jewish: is there a God who, frankly, gives a damn about you? After the Holocaust, theologians and philosophers had to contend with the question of a loving God entirely in a new way.  It always seemed to me that the Jewish tradition is less preoccupied with answers than questions, a quality I’ve always admired.

There is no way to interpret the tragedies of our lives as a personal insult from God if we don’t also interpret the blessings as a sign of favor. As Anne Edwards, a physician in the book says, “you can’t thank God when all goes well, and blame the doctor when it doesn’t.”

When I used to work in a nonprofit surrounded by lots of Christians, it drove me up the wall when something good happened and people would profusely thank God. “NO,” I would think. “God is not responsible. The volunteers stayed up until an ungodly hour, forsaking their own priorities and families, and busted their asses making this happen. Don’t turn it to God — turn it to these selfless, loving individuals. Don’t pray for God’s providence, acknowledge and take care of the people around you.”

I always felt strange giving thanks to God for my health, material prosperity and intelligence without also thinking of those who were not granted them. Surely I am not more deserving of such good fortune than the literally billions on earth who have less than I? If it is not based on merit, then the fact of my good fortune is arbitrary. I can feel grateful  — and I do! — without feeling it was ordained.

So, perhaps Sandoz’s error was to have had the arrogance to believe his equal to God’s will. He felt miserably abandoned when he met an unexpectedly horrible fate, but perhaps, the fact is that God was never holding his hand in the first place. He interpreted the moments of mystical joy along the path as signs of approval and blessing.

This thought does not leave me comforted, however. Who would not? What man would not follow the trail of his noblest courage and curiosity and not be tempted to believe the path blessed by God?

When I was cradling my cup of tea and staring at the wall after having finished the book, my mom came over and asked me what’s up. I gave her a 15-second summary of the book, and told her that I am struck with the question of God as though for the first time.

She told me of a story that she read in the final days leading to her baptism at age 36. Was it from St. Thomas Aquinas? She couldn’t remember. But it was some saint who was struggling with trying to understand God. During a walk on the beach, he saw a child who had dug a little hole in the sand and was busy spooning the seawater into it, using the half shell of a clam. When asked what he was doing, the child replied, “I’m trying to get all the water in the sea in this hole.”

My mom said, “after that story, I let go of the compulsion to try to make sense of God in my mind. How could I, with my little brain, one among billions, an infinitesimally small part of creation, dare to try to contain the intelligence of God? To make sense of it, to understand it, to pick it apart? It’s impossible. That story gave me peace to live each day without such arrogance, give thanks for the small things and remain in the awareness of the mystery.”

My mom always says that maybe she ought have converted to Judaism instead. She loves an omniscient, omnipresent God but never had much conviction about the whole Jesus thing. Was there really a virgin birth? Were you there? Neither was I. Who can know, and who gives a damn? She has this faith in a Creator that is unwavering but comfortably agnostic — in the sense that she has more questions than answers, and is okay with that.

The only thing I know — which the Jewish people know — is the line that is repeated in the novel: God will not come and save you. At least, not from earthly dangers. You cannot ever know what will happen: it is very possible that neither the blessings nor the curses are personal, that you may encounter both in ways that are beyond comprehension. Jesus’ life teaches that God does weep with us in moments of tragedy and that, in enduring, boundless agape, our salvation is made whole.

Within the novel, it is very strongly implied that, if there were ever a candidate for sainthood, Fr. Sandoz was (supposed to be) it. It is also strongly implied at the end of the novel that his efforts of trying to understand alien life had not been in vain, that his science would be useful for the new generation of explorers.

It occurs to me that there might be a container for Fr. Sandoz that is bigger than his suffering; if he were indeed called to sainthood, God would know and love him even/especially in his desolation. As Jesus reconciled with his Father for having nailed him to the cross, perhaps Fr. Sandoz would reconcile with God.

For a novel that so loved its Catholic protagonist and the Jesuit environment around him, there was a curious absence of Christology, when the outlines were obvious to me. This is the unflinching complexity of religious faith, and never did the narrative voice waver away from the heart of paradox. Hats off to Ms. Mary Doria Russell.



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Review of John Irving’s “Until I Find You”

It may be pertinent that I was an Irving virgin. I was resentful most of the time I was reading this book. The first third, I was annoyed at the improbable weirdness of the characters and events (a tattooist who is dragging a four-year-old all over Europe, including Amsterdam’s red light district, in futile pursuit of a man.) The second half, I was irritated by the relentlessness of the ordeals that the protagonist, Jack Burns, endures with maddening passivity. In the third half, I couldn’t believe the novel was still not over. This may be the longest novel I’ve read that wasn’t by a long-dead Russian.

Yet, a day after I’ve finished the book, I find myself a little weepy, even in tropical paradise (hi, writing from Sri Lanka!). I am increasingly in awe of the success of Irving’s vastly sprawling but tightly constructed storytelling. I cannot quite believe it, but in the end, not a single one of the trillion pages feels extraneous.

The story, as much as a synopsis could be meaningful, is as follows: William Burns is a church organist who knocked up a woman called Alice (a tattoo artist) and deserted both of Alice and child, Jack Burns. Alice is permanently scarred by this desertion and brings Jack up alone(-ish). Jack gets molested and statutory-raped a bunch. Then he becomes a Hollywood star. Then something else happens. Make sense? It will.

I feel haunted by the intensity of Jack’s character, which is to Irving’s great credit, given what an unrelatable kind of person Jack will be to the vast majority of readers: devastatingly attractive and weirdly hollow. I am overcome with relief at the novel’s resolution — a relief whose dimensions are equal to the grief that preceded it. Really good, intellectually and emotionally satisfying redemption — deeply cathartic but also authentic to life — is hard to come across nowadays. Irving pulls it off.

The loss of innocence isn’t necessarily an event characterized by visceral and cataclysmic discomfort. It could sneak up on you quietly, lullingly. Consent requires a self solid enough to be aware of what there is to protect, a soul capable of drawing a permeable boundary around itself. Before the violation of innocence, the self is liquid, spilling, trusting, at once with the happiness and thrill and sadness and grotesque of the world, moving between it all smoothly, unflinchingly, as tiny hands go from grabbing fistfuls of dirt and caterpillar and snail to the dry, fragrant warmth of a mother’s hair. In that liquid world, innocence that does not yet know itself as a precious and fragile quantity. After the violation of innocence, all that one can do after is to watch the rest of one’s world unfold in the pattern of that original wound.

Pain and grief come later. Maybe they do not come at all, not acutely, not in neatly articulable color. You cannot say that you would have preferred to encounter your sexuality in a context that is developmentally appropriate, or merely non-criminal. You cannot go back and inject the grief of a fully measured loss, magnified by the response to injury that ripples out in time, into your younger consciousness. You can only measure extent of damage done by the counterfactual: what your life and idea of self and body and self-respect and the primal trust in your own judgment (taken for granted by others) may have been like if they had been left intact.

This is part of what accounts for the infuriating darkness of the sin of sexual abuse, and “Until I Find You” illustrates this with unsparing brilliance: one cannot easily articulate its damage except through the ponderous work of imagining what may have been instead — a task that can require the very faculties that the abuse compromised — and to bear the awful psychological weight of this awareness in order to properly indict the perpetrator.

This is a hard point to make, and Irving’s tremendous imagination and virtuosity succeeds. A+.


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