If we are willing to live by Scripture, we must be willing to live by paradox and contradiction and surprise.” Madeleine L’Engle said it, and she certainly lived by it. Sarah Arthur takes this principle to heart in A Light So Lovely, a new book that explores the novelist’s life and work.
Formidable in personality and far-ranging in accomplishments, L’Engle wrote more than 60 books, including novels, poetry, memoir, essays, sermons, commentaries, and creative nonfiction. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time, the first novel in the Time Quintet, but she may be best loved for Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, her breathtaking opus on the creative process. In it, she writes, “We live by revelation, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget the questions.”
As Arthur explains, L’Engle refused to be “forced into either/or.” And so, rather than approaching her subject chronologically, Arthur proceeds thematically, with chapter headings that identify pairs of complementary opposites: Icon and Iconoclast, Sacred and Secular, Truth and Story, Faith and Science, Religion and Art, Fact and Fiction (italics in the original). Like L’Engle, Arthur shows a clear preference for risk over certainty, narrative over affirmation, and questions over answers.
L’Engle’s refusal to be pigeonholed had a tumultuous effect on her life and career. The mixed reception of A Wrinkle in Time is one example. Wrinkle, Arthur insists, is “clearly, unequivocally Christian,” enough to make non-religious readers squirm. Lois Lowry, a celebrated children’s author, has expressed doubt that the book would even be published today. “In the world of literature, Christianity is no longer respectable,” wrote L’Engle. “When I am referred to in an article or a review as a ‘practicing Christian,’ it is seldom meant as a compliment.”
But censorship of her work from Christian critics has been just as ferocious. A Wrinkle in Time has been labeled “spiritual poison” and banned by believers who accuse her of promoting witchcraft, goddess worship, divination, and a host of similar heresies.
Arthur points out that similar criticism was aimed at C. S. Lewis: Both have been denounced by people of faith, scorned by the literati, and banned from libraries. Both worked as lay evangelists and apologists. Both reclaimed myth and championed the arts. Both wrote in multiple genres, and both remain notoriously difficult to categorize.
One more comparison worth sharing: Both Lewis and L’Engle wrote in reaction to the prevailing assumptions of modernism. But they went about it differently. As Arthur observes:
To combat [modernist assumptions], Lewis mined back into the riches of tradition—the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche for his novel Till We Have Faces, for instance, or from Plato and Aristotle’s universal moral law in The Abolition of Man—in order to glean insights about God and human nature that had been dismissed or forgotten. L’Engle, by contrast, pressed forward into the mysteries of scientific discovery. … She engaged science to show just how small, how relative, how limited our view of God has been in light of the wonders of an astonishing universe.
A Light So Lovely is an engaging and deeply satisfying book. It offers a wide-ranging overview of L’Engle’s thought process and a compelling account of her legacy. Arthur clearly admires her subject but steers clear of hagiography. I do, however, have a few quibbles. Arthur has a tendency to rely too much on quotations, and there are some jarring structural leaps and gaps in the text. On occasion, her interpretive passages can be heavy-handed. And, now and then, she shares her own experiences in a way that muddies the focus on L’Engle rather than clarifying and enriching it. But these are small matters in light of the many pleasures of this book and the brilliant figure it illuminates.
Arthur summarizes L’Engle’s impact this way: “Through her relentless, generous, prolific art and her obvious love for Christ, Madeleine managed to challenge the narrow, reactionary, oddly unjoyful posture of some believers to the extraordinary world God made—and to the extraordinary God who made it.” May her example inspire the church as it attempts to navigate a more generous and joyful path through the wilderness of this increasingly contentious world.
Diana Pavlac Glyer is a professor in the Honors College at Azusa Pacific University and the author of two books about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.