Allegorical Fantasy: Mortal Dealings with Cosmic Questions
This article originally appeared in the June 8, 1979 issue of Christianity Today.
Madeleine L'Engle won the prestigious Newbery award "for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children" in 1963 for A Wrinkle in Time, her first fantasy novel. Since then she has written two others, A Wind in the Door, and her latest novel, published last fall by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The three books form a trilogy and, as she explains, contain much of her theology in story form. Although she is known as a fantasy writer for children, most of her books have been written in the realistic genre, many of them for adults. She has also written, among her twenty-six published books, several works of nonfiction. (The Summer of the Great-grandmother, for example, is a moving portrayal of the death of her own mother. Anyone who has lost a parent, or who is losing one, should read that book.) L'Engle serves as librarian and writer in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She lives with her husband, actor Hugh Franklin, in New York City. Many of her manuscripts and papers are housed in the Wade Collection, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, where she is a frequent speaker. Editor at large Cheryl Forbes interviewed her last fall. The following is an edited version of the transcript.
When did you become a Christian?
Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience. I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known.
Possibly I was fortunate not to have had the usual formal religious background. My parents were Episcopalians, and so were theirs, and so on back. My father was ill during my childhood and young womanhood; he'd been gassed in the First World War. Mustard gas slowly and relentlessly eats away at a man's lungs. He worked at night, writing until two or three in the morning. No one got up in time to take me to Sunday school. Now I am convinced that was a great blessing. I wasn't taught things I had to unlearn.
I don't know why I always had a deep sense of the nearness of a personal God to whom I could talk. Perhaps part of it was the influence of a marvelous old English Roman Catholic woman, Mary O'Connell, who took care of me. Mrs. O. was a true Christian saint. Wherever she was, there was laughter and joy, the infallible signs of the presence of God. Yet, she had a terrible life. Her husband was a total alcoholic. She had to take her children's Sunday coats with her to work; otherwise, her husband hocked them for booze. She quite often didn't know where the money would be for the rent. In her later years she suffered with painful arthritis. But she always brought laughter with her. A close friend of mine says that a Christian is someone who's met one. I met one, early.
You indicate in your writing that at one point you were an atheistor thought you wereand then you decided otherwise. How did that come about?
When I realized that I was trying to be a Christian with my mind only, trying to put Christianity in terms of provable facts. My husband left the theater when our children were little, and we moved to a little New England village. I was asked if I would teach Sunday school. I explained to the minister that I didn't really believe in God, but I couldn't live as though I didn't believe in him. I found life intolerable without God, so I lived as though I believed in God. I asked him, "Is that enough for you?" I began teaching Sunday school. I learned a basic thing from my high school students: cosmic questions do not in mortal terms have mortal answers. We learn through analogy, through story. A distinguished writer friend of mine said that Jesus was not a theologian but God who told stories.