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A LIGHT SO LOVELY: THE SPIRITUAL LEGACY OF MADELEINE L’ENGLE
If she were alive, Madeleine L’Engle would turn 100 at the end of November. Her centenary, along with the release of a version of A Wrinkle in Time brought to us by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling earlier this year, has brought this formidable and prolific author back into the spotlight.
Sarah Arthur, a prolific writer herself, has produced a new look at L’Engle’s varied career in A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle wrote more than 60 books, including novels, poetry, memoirs, essays and sermons. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time, but readers of Perspectives may also know her well for Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art and for her appearances at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing.
What do we do when the misrepresentation comes out of the mouth of someone we like?
For this book, Arthur interviewed several contemporary writers (many who have also been regulars at Calvin’s Festival) and asked about L’Engle’s effect on them. Voices such as Luci Shaw, Makoto Fujimura, Phillip Yancey and Sarah Bessey all have chances to speak through this book.
CLAIMING HER FAITH
L’Engle was a pioneer, part of that generation with Frederick Buechner and others who were claiming their Christian faith in a faith-limiting secular literary world. She wasn’t prepared for the ways the literary world minimized her because of her faith, nor was she prepared for the way the Christian world attacked her. In several unsettling passages, Arthur reveals how L’Engle was the target of scathing rebukes from ultraconservative Christians who thought she was leading her readers straight into hell through witchcraft, sorcery and other dark arts.
As a result, L’Engle resided in a liminal space in between different poles, and Arthur captures the paradoxes in L’Engle’s career by pairing opposites in the chapter titles: Icon and Iconoclast, Sacred and Secular, Truth and Story, Faith and Science, Religion and Art, Fact and Fiction.
It’s this last combination, Fact and Fiction, that reveals a side of L’Engle I found surprising. The great author had a problem keeping her facts straight. For example, she told various audiences A Wrinkle in Time had been rejected by 27 publishers. Then it was 30. Then 37. Then it became over 40. Which was it? The manuscript was rejected by a lot of publishers. That’s the truth of the story. As for the facts of the story? The facts, in L’Engle’s hands, had a certain elasticity.
A FICTION WRITER
She also invented stories in her memoirs. The stories captured the “truth” of events but weren’t factual. Fans focused on the details. One anecdote was especially compelling: Her eldest daughter, Josephine, recalled how fans would approach her and would say how they felt they knew her family well. “You have to remember that my mother is a fiction writer,” Josephine would say. “No,” the fan would say, “I’m talking about her nonfiction.” And Josephine would repeat, “You have to remember that she is a fiction writer.” Arthur then adds: “I’m struck by how much hurt and love and bewilderment and courage is bound up in such an exchange.”
I was struck by this as well. Are facts and truth always the same thing? In our present hyper-polarized world, we focus on every misstatement and hyperbolic inflation that comes out of the mouth of those we don’t like. Each side condemns the other because they don’t tell the truth. But what do we do when the misrepresentation comes out of the mouth of someone we like? What if it is our candidate? Or a relative? Or a favorite author?
These are murky waters, and Arthur does a good job navigating them. I appreciated a story she shared about Frank McCourt, whose memoir Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize for Autobiography in 1997. McCourt’s brother was asked about the veracity of the book and said he disagreed with the accuracy of it. When this information was relayed to McCourt, his reply was, “Well, he should write his own damn memoir.”
People are people, prone to telling their stories the ways they remember and interpret them. Madeleine L’Engle, it turns out, had the same clay feet as the rest of us. “When we make an idol of someone,” Arthur writes, “we elevate them to an impossible plane. But when we treat someone with human dignity, with humility and grace, we allow her the chance to be, once again, an icon. Not an object to adore or shun but, rather, a window – rippled with imperfections, at times distorting our vision, but through which God’s light can shine nonetheless.”
To which I say “Amen.”
Jeff Munroe is executive vice president of Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. This review first appeared on The Reformed Journal’s blog, The Twelve.