From the ENS Archives: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ author Madeleine L’Engle on the power of storytelling

March 13, 2018

Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote more than 60 books ranging from children’s stories to theological reflection, died Sept. 6, 2007, in Litchfield, Connecticut, at 88. She is shown here two years earlier. Photo: Square Fish Books

[Episcopal News Service] The March 9 release of Ava DuVernay’s movie version of the classic — and controversial — children’s book “A Wrinkle in Time” has brought a new awareness of author Madeleine L’Engle who was a world-renowned lay Episcopal playwright, poet and author of fiction and nonfiction books.

L’Engle, who wrote more than 60 books ranging from children’s stories to theological reflection, died Sept. 6, 2007, in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was 88. In its obituary of L’Engle, the New York Times reported that “A Wrinkle in Time” was then in its 69th printing and had sold 8 million copies. Those figures are sure to increase with the release of the movie.

“A Wrinkle in Time” won the Newberry Award in 1963. L’Engle traveled widely from her home base in New York, leading retreats, lecturing at writers’ conferences and addressing church and student groups abroad. In 1965 she became a volunteer librarian at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York. She later served for many years as writer-in-residence at the cathedral.

“A Wrinkle in Time” director Ava DuVernay, left, speaks with Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murry, between scenes. Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

L’Engle’s work expressed her Christian theology and has been compared to C. S. Lewis. “A Wrinkle in Time” rankled some conservative Christians and the book ranks 90th on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most-banned/challenged books of the early 2000s. Critics said the book combined Christian themes and the occult, and they disputed L’Engle’s contention that science and religion can coexist.

There are echoes of the Gospel of John and 1 Corinthians in the book. After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg Murry, her brother and her friend to space in order to find him. Three mysterious astral travelers known as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which lead the children on a dangerous journey to a planet that possesses all the evil in the universe.

In 1995, L’Engle spoke with Episcopal News Service about the power of storytelling and her theology.

‘Story Is Where We Look for Truth’ An Interview with Madeleine L’Engle
Episcopal News Service
January 19, 1995
By Neil M. Alexander

Neil M. Alexander was vice-president and editorial director of the United Methodist Publishing House when he interviewed L’Engle. He is now president and publisher emeritus. He is not to be confused with Bishop J. Neil Alexander, the current vice president and dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee The University of the South.

What are you seeking to discover and share through your writing?

I wrote my first story when I was five, because I wanted to know why my father was coughing his lungs out from mustard gas he was exposed to in the First World War. Why is it that people hurt each other? Why don’t people love each other? I learned quickly that a story is the best place to explore these unanswerable questions. Facts are limited; they don’t carry us very far. Story is where we look for truth.

Which questions do you find yourself asking over and over again?

All the big ones. The questions that adolescents ask — and that we should never stop asking. Unless we continually bring questions to our faith, it will become sterile and cold. And so we ask: Why did God create the universe? Is there a purpose to it? Why did God take the incredible risk of making creatures with free will? And this leads us to ponder why, if God is good, do terrible things happen? Of course, there are no simple answers. If you have people with free will, they are going to make mistakes, and our actions do have consequences.

Is too much emphasis given to the importance of individual freedom? Would it be better if our communities provided more narrow boundaries?

I remember many years ago being in Russia with my husband. After a concert we were walking back to our hotel late at night, with no fear whatsoever, through tunnels beneath Red Square. When we came up on the other side of the square, I turned to my husband and said, “The price for this sense of security is too high.” With freedom there also comes risk, but it is worth it.

Ava DuVernay’s movie version of the classic children’s book “A Wrinkle in Time” was released March 9 and has renewed interest in the book and its author. It has also prompted a host of other books related to the story and the movie. Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Where do you find the resources to sustain your search, to help you struggle with the ambiguity of being human?

Reading the Bible has always been a part of my daily life. My parents were Bible-reading people, and I grew up reading the Bible as a great storybook, which indeed it is. It is remarkably comforting to me that of all the protagonists in scriptural stories, not one is qualified to do what God is asking. In a sense we are all unqualified. If you were going to start a great nation, would you pick a hundred-year-old man and a woman past menopause? That’s the kind of thing God does.

I also read in the area of quantum mechanics and particle physics, because these are disciplines where people are dealing with the nature of being. These writers describe a universe in which everything is totally interrelated, where nothing happens in isolation. They have discovered that nothing can be studied objectively — because to look at something is to change it and be changed by it. I find such discussions helpful in framing theological responses to questions about the nature of the universe.

You have an incredible ability to draw upon your memory, to discern truth from events in your own life. How might others be helped to develop this capacity?

One thing that is helpful is keeping an honest and unpublishable journal. What you write down you tend not to forget. I’ve been keeping journals since I was eight. It is a way of having a say in the telling of our own stories. The act of writing it down helps set it in our memory. For storytellers, memory is very important because we can’t write a story without drawing on our own experience.

How does that apply to our spiritual pilgrimage as Christians? Do you think the faith community has developed a good memory to draw upon?

I don’t. I think we have forgotten far too much. I am concerned, for example, that we take Jesus’ parables out of context. We treat them as isolated illustrations in and of themselves, but they make much more sense if you know when they were given in the course of Jesus’ ministry and to whom he was speaking.

I don’t believe you can be a Christian in isolation from the support and collective memory of the believing community. My church is very important to me, and so is the group of women I meet with every Monday for study and prayer. We are in this life together, not alone.

Some time back there were reports about folks speculating that you are a “new age” thinker. What was that all about?

I haven’t the faintest idea. I once asked someone what led people to say I was promoting “new age” concepts. The response was, “You mention the rainbow, and that’s a sign of new age thinking.” I said, “Hey, wait a minute. The rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant with his people. Don’t hand our symbols over to those promoting ‘new age’ spirituality. Don’t let faddish groups take away what God has given us.”

“A Wrinkle in Time,” whose original book jacket is show here, was rejected 26 times before it was published and won the Newberry Award in 1963. Photo: Wikipedia

I was sent a newspaper clipping that cited my book “A Wrinkle in Time” as one of the 10 most censored books in the United States. When it first appeared in 1962, it was hailed by many as a Christian work. In the intervening years not one word of that book has changed. So, what has happened to cause people to want it banned?

What do you think happened?

I think there are some people who are terribly afraid … afraid that they cannot control or manipulate God, that God might love people they don’t love, that God’s love is too all-embracing, and that we don’t have to earn it. All we have to do is say we are sorry, and God throws a big party.

That is frightening to some people. They seem to feel that they can’t be happy in heaven unless hell is heavily populated. I don’t really understand that.

Do you worry that an overemphasis on unconditional grace might lead to giving license for the self-centered pursuit of personal comfort without accountability?

Unconditional grace is not the same as permissiveness, though I think it gets confused with that sometimes. We are creatures who sin. I don’t think that makes God angry. On the contrary, I think that makes God incredibly sad.

I think we hurt God by our sinning and by manipulating the idea of unconditional grace into something that makes it easier for us to go on sinning. Grace does not give us permission to be destructive people. God’s grace ought to give us the courage to try to give pleasure to God.

At night when I read my evening prayers, I ask myself, “What have I done that would have hurt God today?” and “What have I done to give pleasure to God?”

How do your books help people experience God’s grace and grow in faithfulness?

I have had many letters from people who say that the loving God revealed in my books has changed their lives. They tell me that they have discovered that they no longer have to be afraid of God.

“The Summer of the Great Grandmother” is about my mother’s 90th and last summer. I was very angry about what was happening to her. I wrote about walking down the dirt road in front of the house shouting, “God, don’t do this to my mother. You take her!”

I have received letters from readers who said, “I didn’t know I was allowed to be angry.” Well, of course we are allowed to be angry, but we are also called not to stay stuck in our anger.

In “The Irrational Season” you say that male and female will not be completely reconciled until Christ returns. Yet in “Two Part Invention” you describe the extraordinary harmony of your own marriage. We seem to be in a time of struggle over male and female roles and relationships. What are your current thoughts about this subject?

There is a lot of antagonism in the world between male and female. I think we are paying much too much attention to gender conflict. What I hear people asking is: Does God really love me? Will I continue as who I am after death? Will God continue to help me grow? Why is there so much pain? Why, if God is good, do we do so many wrong things? I wish the church would address itself to that.

We see violence, deprivation, suffering and hatefulness close to home and across the world. As you survey what is happening, how do you dare to be hopeful?

I am hopeful because I don’t think God is going to fail with creation. I think somehow or other love is going to come through. Christ is with us.

After my husband died, I lived several years with my two granddaughters who were in college. They questioned things, and sometimes we didn’t agree, but at least we were all struggling to find truth.

Because we are human and finite, and God is divine and infinite, we can never totally comprehend the living, wondrous God whom we adore. So, there are always unanswered questions as God pushes us along and helps us grow in love. But my granddaughters and the other young people I meet are willing to ask and struggle with the important questions. That gives me hope.

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