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The Freewheeling Spiritualism of Madeleine L’Engle

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels are young adult adventure classics—and also handbooks for a strange, fantastical approach to Christian faith

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“If I’ve ever written a book that says what I feel about God and the universe, this is it,” Madeleine L’Engle wrote in her journal. “This is my psalm of praise to life, my stand for life against death.”

L’Engle was writing about her 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time, which was rejected by 26 publishers before Farrar, Straus, and Giroux acquired it when the author was in her 40s. It was a lit sparkler of a novel, tracing the dimension-hopping journey of three children pulled into an intergalactic good-and-evil battle, alternately hailed for its playful Christian allegory or banned for blasphemous content. L’Engle, a lifelong Episcopalian, was also a longtime librarian at St. John the Divine in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, and she peppered her work with references to scripture and theoretical physics. A Wrinkle in Time, and the books in a series that would follow it, offered a freewheeling, idiosyncratic mysticism which felt like an oddball blueprint for living and believing in the world, even as it incorporated religious touchstones, from cherubim to Noah’s Ark.

I was an earnest, devout child. We were Catholic. (I thought everybody was Catholic.) I sobbed to the priest who heard my first confession. I whispered prayers to Jesus every night. I believed, with the ironclad, full-soul conviction of a 12-year-old, that my recently-dead grandfather would be able to catch me from Heaven if I dared masturbate. My faith started cracking early precisely because I was so intense. I asked all the questions parents and teachers hate to be asked. So all the prophets just happened to be men? How did Noah collect all the animals in the world, even the little bugs from the Amazon’s trees? If he was so good, instead of curing individual lepers on a case-by-case basis, why didn’t Jesus just eradicate leprosy with a tap of his sandal? The brutality of Christianity offended me. If God was omnipotent and omniscient beyond the confines of linear time, surely He would have known all along that His son would be tortured and murdered? As Creator, why not come up with a slightly less-hideous scheme for salvation? My (probably exhausted) teachers emphasized that these mysteries were part of the beauty of faith, and that accepting them would show maturity, but each unanswered question made believing less possible for me.

On the occasion of Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation, I revisited A Wrinkle in Time for the first time since I was a young adult, when I revered the book and its sequels as something closer to guiding parables than sci-fi fairy tales. L’Engle offered a hodgepodge spirituality even stranger than a children’s Bible, and diving into her narrative worlds gave me an emotional ballast against my unraveling understanding of my traditional faith. A Wrinkle in Time briskly introduces the reader to 13-year-old Meg Murry, its intemperate protagonist, who won my preteen heart forever by not being pretty and by having a bad attitude. (Her looks are described as “outrageous plainness” and her mother laments, “You don’t know the meaning of moderation, do you, my darling?”) The book follows angsty Meg, her angelic 5-year-old prodigy brother Charles Wallace, and their gregarious red-headed neighbor Calvin as they traverse time and space to find Meg and Charles’s missing physicist father. Even as frequently-absent young adult novel parents go, Dr. Murry is in a particularly nasty situation, having been trapped on the distant planet of Camazotz, in the headquarters of an insatiable evil. The children are shepherded on their journey by Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, three supernatural beings who can shapeshift and “tesser” across dimensions. To save themselves, the children must stymy an utterly malevolent force.

L’Engle supplied readers with a vocabulary as wild and ornate as the Church’s, one which cobbles explicitly Christian concepts with a mixture of scientific jargon, like tesseracts, and New Age-y phrases she made up whole cloth. Her pantheistic vision frequently involved odd mashups; in the series’ second installment, A Wind in the Door, a cherub named Proginoskes travels with Meg into Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, which are under the thrall of a force attempting to annihilate the cosmos. The books frequently read as goofy to an older reader, but the flamboyant eccentricity gave me a thrill as a young person. It made ideas I recoiled from in a theological setting more palatable by framing them as fantastical, its didacticism counterbalanced by a satisfying ecumenical daffiness.

As a child, I excused the book’s considerable problems, though rereading as an adult makes A Wrinkle in Time’s flaws apparent. Charles Wallace’s precociousness is grating rather than charming—we get it, he speaks in complete sentences. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, the celestial beings who guide the children, tend to focus an awful lot on the wisdom of dead white men for visitors from the cosmos, and they appear and disappear whenever the plot requires them to do so. Then, there’s the hokey ending. A Wrinkle in Time climaxes with a showdown between a young girl and a totalitarian intergalactic being, and she defeats her adversary, despite an obviously uneven matchup, by harnessing the energy of love. (It’s worth noting that both Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter followed the deus ex good vibes path L’Engle laid out for embattled Chosen One types in dismal underdog situations.) The future of both humanity and all known and unknown universes resting on the choices made by three Connecticut kids is at least as preposterous as a virgin giving birth to a doomed savior. But the hero was a normal girl instead of the literal son of God, the angels had a sense of humor, and its narrative universe took the extraterrestrial into account. (I was always disappointed by the distinct lack of aliens in the Old Testament.) I was constantly worried about having a sinful nature, about being intrinsically bad, and A Wrinkle in Time’s unorthodox celebration of the “bad” things about Meg—“Meg, I give you your faults,” Mrs. Whatsit says, as she prepares the children for a life-and-death battle—offered a far more generous idea of what can be valuable about a person than the strict vision of patient, humble, kind goodness I had known. In L’Engle’s world, defiance could be a virtue.

As I got older, I latched onto L’Engle’s more realistic work. She wrote two distinct but occasionally overlapping series, one which begins with A Wrinkle in Time and follows the Murry family, and one which begins with Meet the Austins and follows the Austin family. A Ring of Endless Light, which L’Engle published in 1980, is the fourth book in her Austins series, which uses characters from the better-known Time series but is more a philosophical spin on Judy Blume than straight science fiction. A Ring of Endless Light was my favorite of all L’Engle’s work because it was forthrightly fixated on death in a way that I found refreshing, and it was slightly more sparing with the cornball ontologism than the Time books. (Although it is, at heart, still a novel about a teenage girl who communicates telepathically with dolphins.)

The protagonist, 15-year-old Vicky Austin, functions similarly to Meg Murry, acting as the awkward, pubescent Special Girl to Whom Things Happen. I adored A Ring of Endless Light even as I started incessantly sassing the Jesuits at my high school. (Did you know that some Catholic high schools take issue with students using “God is dead” as a senior quote?) A Ring of Endless Light buffered Christian themes with New Age weirdness, and L’Engle seemed determined to approach dying with appropriate terror. Spoiled, handsome Zachary Gray’s mother is put into a cryogenic freeze after she dies, which the Austins find repulsive, although Leo Rodney, whose father was buried the traditional, “right” way, is just as emotionally damaged from his parent’s death as Zachary is. Vicky’s fatally ill grandfather, who is depicted as an ideal Christian patriarch, seems spiritually at peace with his impending demise, but his physical deterioration is still shown as a gruesome ordeal for the entire family. The book also depicts the death of a small child in bloody detail, when Vicky encounters a young girl named Binnie whose parents refuse medical treatment on the grounds of religious beliefs to catastrophic consequence. It’s a surprisingly harsh indictment of Seventh-day Adventist–style aversion to modern medicine.

A Ring of Endless Light, like A Wrinkle in Time, is not perfect. The Austins are a bit too everything-just-so to be relatable, with their beachside singalongs and converted-barn summer home. As a hormonal teen, Vicky’s insistence to all three of her suitors that she was only ready for kissing felt like an infuriating dodge on L’Engle’s part. Plus, the book’s Lisa Frank insistence that dolphins are a more glorious form of being veers into syrupy territory. It is, however, a remarkable young adult book that addresses its female artist protagonist’s intellectual growth with a rare solemnity. I didn’t necessarily want to be like Vicky, but I certainly wanted to be treated like her. Seeing a character whose cerebral life was granted so much primacy stirred me.

When New Yorker writer Cynthia Zarin asked L’Engle to define science fiction in 2004, she replied “Isn’t everything?” (L’Engle died in 2007.) As a journalist, her blurring of boundaries looks treacherous—and, indeed, L’Engle’s family was frequently frustrated by the way she reframed their home life into popular children’s mythology. Her books thrust their female protagonists into spiky, difficult worlds, where transcendence is not guaranteed, but struggle is. Reading her stories felt—and still feels, I found—like an opportunity to glimpse life through a spiritual cipher that didn’t demand faith so much as it required imagination. As someone still stumbling toward an understanding of the truth, L’Engle’s exuberantly eclectic world-building is as hopeful a theology as I can find.