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 26 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 atheist—or thought you were—and 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.
My father died when I was seventeen, my last year in high school. That Christmas I had a date with a sophisticated young man—or so I thought.
He said that death was death and that was that. That we are our cerebral cortex. We think through it. When it's gone, we're gone. My outrage brought me an analogy. I'm extremely myopic. If I take off my glasses, there are no stars in the sky at night and all faces become vague little pink blurs. I said to him, "I can't even see you without my glasses. Are they doing the seeing? No. I am. I'm seeing through them. My brain isn't doing the thinking, I am. I'm thinking through it." That's analogy. Now, an analogy is never a provable fact. An analogy is something that opens the door or the window and gives us a glimpse of the truth that gives meaning to lives.
Then, what about doctrine and theology?
I think that right doctrine is far more often taught in stories than in direct dogma. At least it works better for me that way. I'd like to go back a minute to something you asked about atheism. One of my sons-in-law is an English Anglican theologian priest. He has talked about being atheists for Christ's sake. He means that Christians build up little gods, little temples of Baal. We begin to worship them. And we must tear them down, destroy them. The gods we erect are easier to worship than the Creator of the universe. They're more comprehensible. The God I believe in is not comprehensible in finite, mortal terms. God is infinite, immortal, all-knowing. I have a point of view, you have a point of view. God has a point of view. But we don't like having to depend on that which we cannot control, manipulate, dominate.
In a sense, praying and writing involve the same disciplines. When I sit down with an act of will, either before the typewriter or to pray, I have to let go of my control and listen. I listen to the story or I try to get beyond the words of prayer and listen to God. Ultimately when I hear, that is the gift, not my act of will, not my act of virtue. It is pure gift. I guess my favorite analogy for the difference between faith and works came from Rudolph Serkin. My husband and I heard him play Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata better than Beethoven could play it. When the last note faded away there wasn't a sound. Then, slowly, like the ocean waves, the applause swelled. Later I realized that we had been present at a moment of transcendence, of transfiguration. What did Serkin have to do with that? He practices eight hours a day every day. I have to write every day whether I want to or not. I have to pray every day whether I want to or not. It's not a matter of feeling like it, or waiting when I feel inspired, because both in work and in prayer, inspiration comes during rather than before.
Are you saying that emotions don't count, or that they only count after the fact?
That's partly what I mean. When we work either with our intellects or with our emotions, that's fragmented. When we're really working well, we work with intuition and intellect together, with heart and with mind. This fragmentation is old. Paul talked about it in Romans. When mind and heart, or intellect and intuition, work together, it's a gift. To sit down to work—whatever it may be—is an act of free will. But then you have to let go.
By and large, that's a frightening thing. You're moving into mystery, into dark waters. When I let go and move into what I call overdrive, any interruption jolts me as though I've been shoved through the sound barrier—back into a world that is less real.
Which leads—emotion or intellect?
It really isn't a thing of the cart and the horse, or one leading the other. It's a question of true collaboration.
How would you define love?
I'm learning that love is not an emotion. God is love, but God is not an emotion. We may not always feel love toward those who are close to us, but that doesn't alter the fact of our love. Love is what we do. One of the great victories of the Enemy is to persuade us that love is a feeling.
When did you marry?
I wasn't married until I was twenty-seven. I think that was good. My husband was twenty-nine. He's an actor, I'm a writer. We've been married for thirty-three years, which in our professions is surely unusual. I'd already had two books published. In the middle of my marriage, I didn't have to say, I want to be a writer. I already was a writer. We knew we would have to divide the domestic chores.
What about children?
I had seen other theater wives getting up at six in the morning with their babies and being exhausted when their husbands got home. That didn't make much sense to me. Hugh would go to the theater at night, and I would put the baby to bed. When he got home, I woke the baby up and we had our evening together. Right from the start, neither of us was being dominant all the time or giving in all the time. It really was a collaboration.
Granted, we've had plenty of rough times. I don't think any good long-term marriage comes free. But I think many marriages break up just on the point of pain when they might begin to grow. Why didn't we break up? Why were we able to stay together? I don't know. Hugh asked me not long ago, "What have we done to deserve this?" "Not one single, solitary thing," I said. It was a sheer gift of grace and I'm grateful for it daily. Hugh has always been behind me in my work and I have been behind him in his.
Aren't you saying that you respect each other?
Yes. We also love each other. They can be two quite separate items. You can have two people who respect each other but the chemistry is missing. Or you can have a wild chemistry but no respect. Neither one is going to work very well. You really need both. I think we underestimate our pheromones, that is, our subconscious, intuitive sense of smell. In my relationship with my editor, for example, pheromones have to be right. Two editors can tell you exactly the same thing. One you'll hear. The other you won't. I think the same thing is true with preachers. Two preachers will say the same thing. One I'll hear, the other I won't. But, if we all had to hear everybody, what a cacophony there would be. In a sense, that also leads to our ways of approaching Christ. For me, my writing brings me to Christ.
Let's talk about the 10 dry years. You'd had five books published. You must have thought you had it made. Then, nothing. What did you do? How did you feel?
I felt terrible. My husband had left the theater. We wanted more children. He thought it was unfair to bring more children into the world with two parents in totally precarious professions. Even with five books I wasn't making enough royalties to support us.
We had gone through a perfectly terrible year. He'd had a number of jobs, but they'd taken him out of town. We were together two weeks out of the fifty-two. So, he left the theater forever, and during the nine years of forever, we lived in a 200-plus-year-old farmhouse. And, we bought a run-down general store and brought it back to life.
For the first time in my life I got involved with the institutional church. I found real Christian community. I was beginning to think more about why I couldn't live without God, about why I had to have meaning to all of life. This affected my writing whether I wanted it to or not, or whether I knew it or not. Obviously, even in telling a story, what we're thinking about is going to underlie the story.
It seemed ironic and unfair that just as I was turning closer to God, I couldn't sell anything I wrote. Particularly, Meet the Austins. It was rejected for over two years because it begins with a death. At that time death was taboo in children's literature. What I believed about the Christian family, about our responsibility to each other, about living and dying, was being denied. I wrote another regular novel and then I wrote A Wrinkle in Time. It was rejected and rejected. I would put the kids to bed, walk down the dirt road in front of the house, weep, and yell at God. I'd say, "God, why are you letting me have all of these rejection slips? You know it's a good book. I wrote it for you."
You were writing. What were you reading?
I tried to read German theologians. I thought, if I have to believe the way they believe, I cannot be a Christian. I found them depressing, though their soporific sentences did help my insomnia. Then I discovered higher math—physics, which is easier than lower math. But higher math asks questions that don't have simple answers. Reading Einstein and Eddington, for example, opened up a world where I could conceive of a loving God who really could note the fall of every sparrow and count the hairs on every head. A book that had enormous theological influence on me was The Limitations of Science. In writing Wrinkle I was writing about the universe in which I could love and be loved by a creating God. When it was finally accepted, the publisher told me it wouldn't sell. The editors were indulging themselves. When it won the Newbery, everybody was shocked. If my prayers had been answered years earlier, the book might have dropped into a dark pool of oblivion.
Would you have kept on writing indefinitely?
I hope I would have had faith in my work. But I'm not sure how much failure the human psyche can take. My agent was afraid that failure would kill my talent. In that decade I was protected by my worst faults-stubbornness, pigheadedness.
That verse where Paul says God only sends us as much as we can bear seems pertinent here.
Yes. That verse has been important to me, though I sometimes ask, "God, why are you overestimating my capacity to this extent?" But, always, we're given the strength that we need.
Explain more fully your idea of freedom.
Freedom comes on the other side of work. If I want to play a Bach fugue, I must practice scales. If I hope for any transcendent experience in prayer, I have to have just done my ordinary, everyday prayers, which is the same thing as practicing my scales. I have to write every day. Freedom and discipline, rather than being antithetical, are complementary. Permissiveness, either from others toward you or toward yourself, ends up being restricting and crippling. If you choose to be a writer and a mother, you have to be incredibly disciplined. Otherwise you won't manage. Discipline does not imprison you.
What about failure? Fear of it can cripple even disciplined people.
We've got to be free to fail. As Christians we follow a man who in terms of the world failed. He listened to his mission, to where the Father told him to go. We seem to have lost sight of that. We live in a world that insists we be successes. If you're not free to fail, you'll never be anything but mediocre. You must try to do more than you can really do. Sometimes, you do do more than you can really do. That's the marvel of it.
Is writing difficult?
Yes and no, but basically no. I find getting started every day difficult. But once I'm started, in a sense I find it almost too easy. I love to do it. I've been doing it for so long. I'm convinced that every work has its own life, quite aside from the artist who serves it. Artists of all kinds are servants no matter what the discipline. We bear the work, we bring it to life.
Why do you find the form of a children's book compatible for what you want to say?
The fantasies are my theology. In a way, I'm going to say things in my new book, A Ring of Endless Light, that I said in Planet. People who can't understand the earlier book may understand this one. But I couldn't write Ring if I hadn't first written Planet.
Theologically, I suppose that there is an openness and an aliveness to many young people that ceases in adulthood. Jesus said, "I thank thee Father of heaven and earth that you have revealed these things to children and hidden them from the wise." Maybe I'm still trying to grow up myself.
You enjoy reading children's books, then?
Yes. I get bored with depressing novels about discontented women who end up discontented women at the end of the book.
The act of honest work—would you call it a form of worship?
Yes. I've called it a form of prayer before, but I think prayer is largely worship. Prayer may be work. Adam worked in the garden. His work was his play. For me that's true. I think the awful thing is that for many people their work is drudgery—neither a gift, nor a vocation. Hugh and I are both lucky that we do work we love.
How do you redeem a situation like that?
I have a story about work. There was an old woman who ran one of the elevators at Columbia University, when it was an all male bastion. It was a menial job, but it was her vocation. Those students had to say "good morning" and "good evening." If their clothes weren't straight, she straightened them. When she died, the church couldn't hold the people.
Would you say that art is religious?
Whether artists are aware of it or not, art is always incarnational. True art is Christian. Sometimes I know that my work at its best keeps me from straying, keeps my faith intact. Someone once asked me if the fact that I was a Christian affected the way I work. I said no, but the way I work affects my Christianity.
Are you a universalist?
No. I am a particular incarnationalist. I believe that we can understand cosmic questions only through particulars. I can understand God only through one specific particular, the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the ultimate particular, which gives me my understanding of the Creator and of the beauty of life. I believe that God loved us so much that he came to us as a human being, as one of us, to show us his love.
Let's talk further about the relationship between science and theology.
Einstein, for instance, was a theologian. He said that anyone who is not in awe at the mind behind the universe is as good as a burnt-out candle. We've lost our sense of awe and reverence in worship.
I don't think we know how to worship.
We don't. At our best we must amuse the angels enormously. I read last summer that scientists are closer to the creationists now—that there does seem evidence for a beginning to the universe. This has upset other scientists. I don't see why it should. Galileo upset the establishment enormously. Jesus upset the establishment. Galileo did nothing to change the nature of God. He only changed human thinking. That was threatening. We get things organized and we don't want to rethink them.
We five in a Newtonian, Euclidian world. Your desk for all practical purposes has to be flat and firm. We know it's a mass of swirling atoms. If we knew how we could put our fingers through it. But for you to work on it, it's got to be Euclidian.
Contemporary physics is really mystical. It accepts that time is a creature, created, that it has a beginning, that it has an end. Timelessness is, in fact, still a concept of time. Eternity and timelessness aren't the same thing. The two words I like are kairos and chronos. We live in chronology. Kairos is eternity, which has nothing whatever to do with time. An artist is free to know kairos. The person who prays is free to know kairos. We are literally free from time.
Time seems to be fluid, right?
Yes. Yes. It is fluid, it can expand. Sometimes I do more in a day than it's possible to do. Another day I'll work just as hard and I won't get nearly as much done. The mad hatter in Alice in Wonderland says that he quarreled with time last May and ever since then time won't do anything for him. Lewis Carroll was right. Time is a creature we can work with. Time can work against us or for us. Eternity, in which we will live ultimately, has nothing to do with time at all. It isn't endless time. It isn't time going on and on and on. It's a quality that we don't know, because we are in chronos. But we have these fleeting glimpses of kairos.
Time is fluid. What about space?
They don't exist without each other. Time exists only when there is matter in motion. If I knew how, I could close my eyes now and move to my star-watching rock in Connecticut.
Perhaps when we dream, our concept of space is altered.
In the Bible, God often calls men when they're sleeping.
The Wind in the Door deals with space, right?
One of the whole points in the book is that to God there's no difference between a farandole and a galaxy. Size is not what matters.
In Wrinkle you dealt with time.
And in Planet I'm back to time.
Well, there I think you've combined the two.
Yes, maybe that's the way it's supposed to be. Time. Space. Time and space.
The two have come together in an unusual way. Space is radically different when time changes.
Time and space acting on each other. After we first exploded the atom bomb here, many of the physicists who worked on that were converted. Pollock became an Episcopal priest. More and more, scientists are turning back to the church. That's a wonderful thing. Science should help us enlarge our vision: never change it, never diminish it, but enlarge it.
God doesn't need protection?
No. And the establishment feels it must protect God.
Yet God was always shattering images of himself. He did the unpredictable, as with Jonah.
We've built up an image of God—a comfortable God. It must be shattered.
God shatters it by various means.
All kinds of means. Always particular means, like Galileo, for instance.
Or your neighbor next door?
Yes, the greatest shattering of all being with Jesus.
Because who would have thought that God would do such a thing?
Born in a stable. Born of a virgin. Died on a cross. Nothing that anybody had been brought up to expect. Totally, totally shattered.
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