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‘A Wrinkle In …’ Truth?

Despite its classic status, Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” is kind of boring me. But are the author’s apparently universalist beliefs even more concerning?
| Jun 12, 2012 | No comments |

Just a moment ago I posted this on Facebook (slightly edited here):

Folks who’ve read and enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: Help me out here. Reading right now seems a chore. The “uncanny child” thing is already wearing on me, the “Mrs.” characters a bit too forced-whimsical, and protagonist Meg is passive and uninteresting. Does it get better? Or is all this actually such literary genius that I simply haven’t recognized yet?

Instantly afterward, an email arrived from Fred Warren. He let me know that his final installment of his Legend of Intaglio comedy novella series will be (alas!) delayed.

This less-amusing replacement results from Becky’s May 28 question, Which [Christian Speculative Books] Are Required Reading? and my May 30 followup Define ‘Christian Speculative Story.’ Because, it turns out, not only is L’Engle’s debut yet beloved classic fantasy boring to me (at least four chapters in), but the author had questionable beliefs.

In starting this discussion, I will assume at least two presuppositions, as follows:

  1. A “Christian speculative novel” must be written by a professing Christian. (This does not rule out other authors who work according to Christian worldview tenets, but it does seek to distinguish specific-Christian stories from general-redemptive stories.)
  2. “Christian” is defined according to Scripture, simplified into the historic creeds and confessions that reflect Biblical truths. (Our faith statement borrows from these.)

Now, I want to recognize that historically, Christians have been sadly loose with the truth when it comes to fantasy novels and authors. Some Christians seem to flatly lie about, say, J.K. Rowling and the themes and content of the Harry Potter series. Others have wrongly concluded that C.S. Lewis was a universalist — that is, that Lewis believed Hell would only be temporary, if it exists at all, and that God is too “loving” to show His holiness for eternity.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918 – 2007)

So I may be wrong about this. Maybe Madeleine L’Engle was one of those folks who, say, are simply confused about one belief and somehow — perhaps out of ignorance — this does not infect their otherwise-orthodox faith. Maybe L’Engle recanted later. Still, there is this:

All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time, all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ. All the strayed and stolen sheep. All the little lost ones.

L’Engle, Madeleine (1974). The Summer of the Great-grandmother. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. pp. 164.

With this statement, L’Engle would not be permitted to join Speculative Faith’s writing team. Far worse, it would mean that she could not rightly join a visible local church, part of the invisible Church, that seeks to teach and live out the Epic Story of Scripture, the Gospel.

Space doesn’t permit a full criticism, but here is why: Universalism is a well-intended but false belief, that tries to “liberate” Christianity from the concept of Hell by implying or claiming outright that eventually all people will be drawn into Heaven. What it does, though, is reject at least three truths:

  1. The clarity, sufficiency, and truthfulness of God’s Word.
  2. The nature of God Himself, by saying that He not only disregards justice but His own love (for being so rude as to be unclear in His Word about our eternal fates).
  3. Man’s meaningful choice, by saying it doesn’t really matter what you believe about God or His Story in this world. God doesn’t care about your free will. So even if you hate Him and want nothing to do with Him, ever, He’ll make you like Him someday.

So with that in mind, am I wrong to believe that L’Engle was a lifelong universalist?

Would it be wrong to read her books?

I’ll go ahead and answer: no, not if I recognize her possibly wrong beliefs and practice discernment as I read.

Perhaps the most significant question: should we carry her books in the Speculative Faith Library of Christian speculative fiction? Especially when we already have books by authors whose personal theologies could be flawed (e.g., Catholicism, end-times-ism, etc.?).

Just so you know, no books will be “officially” removed or critiqued by the whole Spec-Faith team. This is merely my personal exploration.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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susanne lakin

Interesting, I didn’t know she held to Universalist teaching. I suppose we could get kind of nit-picky and start drawing lines on doctrine and determine who really is a christian and who isn’t, and whether a novel written by an author who belives in post-trib rapture should be excluded while a pre-trib rapture person would be included. TN publishers publish novels with “a Chrsitian worldview” yet I’ve heard that includes numerous authors who do not profess their faith in Jesus as God’s means for salvation. I realize they are looking more at the bottom line, but I suppose their criteria is more focused on the book and its content rather than the doctrinal beliefs of the author. I am sure if I were grilled by some here with spec faith, many of my “liberal environmentalist” views about God and the Bible might be considered heresy. I do take Scripture out of context, too, in my fantasy series, to use for my own end. Some don’t approve of that either.

So…back to A Wrinkle in Time (I actually wrote Time Sniffers as a tribute to that novel!). I like the section where she quotes from Corinthians. As a Jewish atheist kid growing up and who loved that book, I had no idea she was quoting the Bible. I’m sure God has used some of those 6 million copies sold to help kids like me eventually become believers. Did I know she was a Universalist? No. would I have cared? No. But the book moved me a lot, and I loved Meg and the message and the theme of love conquering all. You might have to be a kid to truly love Wrinkle. It’s pretty simplistic and entertaining, yet has some deep messages written in a way that teach kids some important lessons about love and loyalty. Just my two cents…

Amy Rose Davis

I, too, have always been troubled by L’Engle’s beliefs. I’ve been especially troubled by the reverence many Christians use when speaking about her. And yet… I really enjoyed her work when I was young. You have to remember–I grew up when the whole YA category wasn’t really a category. L’Engle’s books were in a category that wasn’t really an official category back then (the late 70s/early 80s). So for a young girl who wasn’t ready for grown-up books but needed something more than baby books, they were a welcome addition to the library.
I will say that I tried to re-read them a few years ago and was bored stiff. They are definitely fare for a younger crowd.
But here’s the thing I have to ask/point out. You say L’Engle wouldn’t be asked to be part of the Spec Faith team because of her universalist comments, and that’s fair and as it should be. But what about J. K. Rowling (since you mention her)? If she weren’t who she is–if she were just an aspiring and/or struggling author with a first book or two out there, would you recognize the value in the Harry Potter books, or would you be hung up on a few instances of cursing or the suggestion that ghosts roamed this magical castle?
I ask because I think about what makes a “Christian” book. I say that I do not write Christian fiction because I don’t want people to expect it to be clean. It’s not clean. But my doctrinal beliefs are about as far from universalist as you can get, and I fall very much in line with the tenets I’ve seen you all espouse. I just happen to believe that in order to represent the truth, sometimes characters have to be really messy. Occasionally, that means someone sleeps with someone outside of marriage or drops an F-bomb or steals something or blasphemes. But the themes in my work are very much in line with the doctrinal tenets I see here on Spec Faith. Of course, my work is also independently published, and I know you don’t review indie work, either.
I guess my only point is that perhaps each individual work should be evaluated based on its own merit. If you find a work that represents strong values and themes in line with the doctrine of Spec Faith (like Harry Potter), then maybe you just need your own rating system. If you find a work that is not traditionally published but represents strong values and themes that you agree with, don’t shy away from it.
As for people who write for you, I think it is important to have certain doctrines that you expect your contributors to agree with. When I signed on to be a leader with my daughters’ American Heritage Girls troop, I had to sign a statement of faith. But if an author doesn’t necessarily agree with your faith and still manages to write stuff with good themes that represent values and principles that are in line with biblical teaching, I don’t see why you can’t review the work and/or include it in your library.
Disclaimer: This is not a request for you to review my books or ask me to write for you. These are just the thoughts that occurred to me as I read the post. 🙂

Kessie Carroll

Stephen, you haven’t even got to the part that always troubled me so much. The rest of the book is okay, but pretty early on, in the angel bit, they equate Jesus with Buddha and a bunch of other religious figures. Like He was just one more good teacher “fighting against the darkness”.
I read her Walking on Water book, and aside from being a mystic, I didn’t find too much doctrinally wrong with it. Of course, I wasn’t looking for Universalist themes, so I’ll have to go through it again with an eye peeled. But she never explained why she equated Jesus with lesser men. In Walking on Water, she seems to revere Jesus the proper way. I just don’t get it.
I didn’t know she was supposed to be a Christian until years after I read it. I just read it because it was on all the recommended reading lists. Same with Julie of the Wolves, which contains a two-page rape scene. Don’t trust everything on those book lists.

Kaci Hill

Okay, I have to ask, Julie of the Wolves has a rape scene? I read the book two or three times as a kid and don’t recall anything like that.  Where did that happen?

Kessie Carroll

It’s at the end, when she has a flashback of why she’s living with the wolves in the first place. Her forced-marriage husband gets dared to “mate his wife”. I didn’t know what was happening, and had to show it to my mom. She had to explain it. It’s written very vaguely so a kid won’t understand it.

Kaci Hill

Oh! Yeah, I was so young I didn’t pick up on it, but I remember the dare now. It just….didn’t register. And it just never would have, at that stage.

Teddi Deppner

I like Amy’s idea about having a rating system that covers not only the typical movie rating items (violence, sex, language, etc) but also the author’s doctrinal beliefs and/or the doctrines espoused in the book itself. That way, people who care about those things could get a feel for things.
On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that God uses things for His purposes. If we all had to wait to be published until our beliefs were settled in their “final form” or our doctrine perfect, no Christian fiction would ever be written. 
“You shall know them by their fruits,” is something of a plumb line. L’Engle’s books have a history of having been a light in the darkness and a positive influence during the youth of many who later came to Christ. I didn’t know she was Christian when I read them, but I knew they drew me — just as the Narnia series did. Looking back at my childhood, I see many of the authors I was drawn to were Christian, but I had no idea of that at the time.
There are people who blast C.S. Lewis for his beliefs and refuse to read his fiction because his doctrine doesn’t measure up to their standards. Fine. That’s their choice. I say, let the Holy Spirit convict each of us.
Regarding the question of what to carry in your library or recommend here, I’d say if there is some question about the book or author then put a note next to it explaining why it’s controversial and then let the readers decide. 
And don’t feel bad if you’re not getting into the story. It was a different era and while it appealed to me as a child, I don’t know that it still would. Many of the classics I read as a child I don’t care to read today. Standards and styles for “good writing” in the 21st century would exclude MANY old classics from getting published!

Morgan Busse

Stephen, I’m in agreement with you. I read A Wrinkle in Time a year ago and was a bit disturbed with what L’Engle wrote. I can’t recall her exact words, but the impression I had was that she believed all religions led to God. And I couldn’t agree with her on that.
Amy, I don’t think Stephen was talking about clean or not clean fiction. I think what he meant is that L’Engle does not seem to adhere to the core belief of the gospel, that is, that all have sinned and only God, through His sacrifice on the cross, can save us. 
One way I picture it is like a target with a bulls eye. The bulls eye is the core of our belief. But the further you go from the bulls eye to the outer rings, the more gray areas become and the more people differ in their beliefs. But for there to be commonality, the center must be the same for everyone. We either agree or disagree on the gospel. That is the pillar of Christianity.
Cuss words, sex, violence… those are part of the more grayer outer circles. They don’t really make or break Christian fiction. It is the center that does. What does the author write about the truth of the gospel (or imply, since sometimes it is not written in a straight forward way)? A writer’s worldview will eventually bleed into his or her writing. And if that worldview is contrary to the gospel, then, in my opinion, it is not Christian.

Amy Rose Davis

I realize Stephen wasn’t talking about clean or not clean in his post, but it made me think of that because my work wouldn’t be considered “Christian” fiction. No “Christian” publisher would touch my work with a 10-foot pole, even though it’s clean and traditional by the standards of the rest of the publishing world. And as Susanne pointed out, some of the authors published by Thomas Nelson do have some troubling beliefs even if their work is clean enough to be published by a Christian publisher. My point was simply that sometimes we’re a lot more concerned with “clean” rather than “true.” Sometimes, “true” is messy and you have to show the messy to highlight the true.
I agree with you that worldview makes it into our fiction, and I agree that “clean” is part of the gray outer circle. I guess that was kind of my point: evaluate each work and each author based not on rigid adherence to a clean standard or an insistence that the work be traditionally published, but rather on the story, the worldview, the author’s professed faith, and the truths represented in the writing.

Kessie Carroll

Also, gray areas are where you get the really fun speculation of speculative fiction. I’m my current WIP, my hero is wrestling with the question of where being a werewolf falls in modern Christianity.

Chestertonian Rambler
Chestertonian Rambler

I’ll throw in a couple of comments to mix things up.

It seems a historical fact that a lot of Christians have been positively influenced by either non-Christians or Christians  with theology that seems unorthodox. The devout Catholic Thomas Merton, for instance, was hugely influenced by the unorthodox Christian poet William Blake. (He also, ironically, was partially converted to Christianity by reading a sermon in a novel by the atheist James Joyce. Joyce was attempting to satyrize Christianity, but Merton saw in the sermon a Christianity that was superior to Joyce’s own view.)

Lewis, of course, is the famous example. He credited the pagan Roman Virgil for first opening his eyes to the fact that there might be a god, and gave as much credit to the Christian Universalist fantasy-writer George MacDonald as to the Catholic Tolkien for his conversion to orthodox Christianity.

Even the apostle Paul argues, at one point, that pagan philosophers were speaking the truth of Christianity.

So I guess the question is: “what if L’Engle is unorthodox?”  I certainly don’t think that means her stories are going to always be dangerous or will lead people astray. 

On the other hand, I think it *is* dangerous to take an orthodox author of fiction too seriously. This happened to Frank E. Peretti with his This Present Darkness series. In that series, he featured angels and demons, and imagined (based on Scriptures, but enhanced by his imagination and sense of fun) how angels and demons might engage in spiritual warfare. After two books, he heard about people who were taking his imaginations as truth–and he stopped writing books in that series. He knew that people were failing to discern the difference between his imagination (which, like any human imagination, was still flawed and still being sanctified) and the truth of Scriptures.

He ended up fleeing to fantasy; when he wrote a book about a dragon, no one believed he was on par with Scriptures. But I think his insights are true for all of Christian fiction. Since all Christian stories are made-up attempts to imaginatively grasp how God and humanity work in the world, and since Christians who write them are still limited, shouldn’t Christians discern true and false ideas within even Christian fiction?

After all, Paul advises us to discern truth and falsehood even in sermons. 

Nissa Annakindt

Perhaps there is no such thing as Christian fiction. There is only Protestant fiction, Evangelical fiction, Catholic fiction, Lutheran-Church-Missouri-Synod fiction….
And some might say only one kind is really, properly Christian enough to be read by Christians, and then skip off to buy that best-selling novel written by a secularist.

Kaci Hill

I get the twenty-first response. 0=) 
So, having no more knowledge of L’engle than her name,  inquiring minds must ask: Since the book is a work of fiction, was this the writer’s belief or the character’s belief?


That would be my first question too. And especially, one must put the section in Wrinkle in context. The question was something like “who have fought the shadow?” (I’m too lazy to run up and get my copy now.). I don’t think it’s an equalizer–it’s just a way of categorizing. Micheal Phelps, Usan Bolt, and Aaron Rogers are all athletes, but it’s not putting them on a hierarchy..


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