Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Christian Time Travel Possible?

I've just finished Madeleine L'Engle's An Acceptable Time, the last novel in her Time series, which I picked up on the recommendations of Enbrethiliel and Lissla Lissar in the combox here.  I absolutely loved it.   At the same time, though I still haven't read his Landscape with Dragons, I'm starting to get an idea of why Michael D. O'Brien might have a bit of a beef with L'Engle.  The novel is about Meg Murry and Calvin O'Keefe's oldest daughter, Polly, who goes to stay with her grandparents, the celebrated Dr. and Dr. Murry, in rural Connecticut, in order to be homeschooled.  (Now, you'd think that's a premise that a self-styled guardian of traditional Catholic mores ought to love, but the homeschooling has been proposed as a solution to the fact that there are drugs and riotous living at her high school, and besides, like all the Murrys and their descendants, she's absolutely freaking brilliant, and so is poorly served by her district school; so there's no whiff of religious orthodoxy in the equation.)  Like many of the Murry-O'Keefes, Polly finds that she can time-travel, and she has some gripping adventures on the site of her grandparents' farm three thousand years ago.  She has a companion in her time travels, a retired Episcopalian bishop, who, though he unashamedly and frequently professes Christ, appears as a sort of Teilhard de Chardin figure. (Now, here's a bit of trivia for you:  I've actully been in the New York apartment in which Teilhard died in 1955.  It is in a building -- in the neighborhood where L'Engle herself lived, the neighborhood she writes about in The Young Unicorns -- that was once a Jesuit residence, and one of my professors from grad school lives there now. I wonder if L'Engle knew Teilhard or his confrères?)

Polly and Bishop Colubra find themselves in extreme danger three thousand years ago, and are unable to transfer themselves back to the present.  While Polly has more faith in science than in God, the Bishop invokes the mercy of Christ in ways both subtle and obvious -- intoning the Kyrie when he's been captured, for instance, and assuring Polly that Christ existed even a thousand years before His birth.  However, he also believes that the ancient druids possessed knowledge that has now been lost -- knowledge, for instance, of the techniques of time travel -- and I suppose that it is these statements that a critic like O'Brien would call heretical.

Now, I don't want to set up a straw man, because I haven't read O'Brien's polemic (though I do have it on order through interlibrary loan).  If anyone has read the book and can set me straight, please do so in the combox.  But it seems to me that, if you believe that we exist in both time and in eternity (which is what we believe, isn't it?), it is not heretical to believe in the possibility of time travel.  We already know that it is good and meet to pray for the dead as if they were still alive.  Nor is it heretical, is it, to suggest that ancient peoples and pre-Christian cultures possessed knowledge that has been lost to us?  Can't one believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord of and the fulfillment of human history and, at the same time, acknowledge that non-Christian lands and people had a great deal to offer?

I suppose the problem comes when we try to resurrect lost knowledge in its original context, rather than baptizing it in the light of the salvific proclamation.  Of course, we should not try to use any power to circumvent or second-guess the will of God, and part of the discipline of Christianity for some who have the special gifts of which Saint Paul speaks is the laying aside of those abilities in favor of accepting smallness, weakness, and utter dependence on God.  But, contra O'Brien, I don't believe we should be afraid to read any literary suggestions of special gifts existing in a non-Christian context, or about time travel, or about snakes or dragons who are good rather than evil.

36 comments:

elena maria vidal said...

Interesting. I always enjoyed the series, just as I enjoyed the Narnia books. While I knew they were not "Catholic" I did not see them as hostile to either faith or morals but inspiring and entertaining. I never read the lest one, though. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and I agree with you.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

The only time Bishop Colubra really lost me was when he started preaching about "the dark side of God." But if by "dark side" he meant the mystery of "Christian time travel," then I don't think it's very dark at all!

He is right that Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, existed long before the Incarnation--and it's not far-fetched to think that He, in His mercy, gave everyone in the world a chance to know Him, even if they could not also know the whole truth about Him yet. And I think it was respect for the linear unfolding of salvation history (and some humility in the face of its mysterious tessering) that kept Bishop Colubra from doing the "obvious" Christian thing where pagans are concerned, and trying to convert them. (But I'm still not sure how I feel about that.)

lissla lissar said...

I don't remember Bishop Colubra talking about "The dark side of God", but I haven't read An Acceptable Time in probably more than ten years. Where in the book does that happen, Enbrethiliel? I'll have to look it up.

I don't think L'Engle ever mentioned meeting de Chardin. I guess she might have- that would be interesting!

For no particular reason I've had part of That Hideous Strength (have you read it, Pentimento?) bonging around in my head for the past few days. There's a discussion in it about whether the powers Merlin had were demonic, or whether there were, at one time, powers once licit but now (post-Jesus'-birth) forbidden. It's an interesting fantasy-story question.

Apologies if this double-posts- my computer is being weird.

Pentimento said...

Lissla, here's the quote about the "dark side of God":

"[W]e rational and civilized people have turned our backs on the dark side of God because we are afraid of the numinous and the unexplainable. Forgive me, I'm preaching." Page 93 in my edition.

I haven't read That Hideous Strength -- another one to add to the list!

lissla lissar said...

Hmm. I remember that, sort of. I wonder if Bishop Colubra was speaking about parts of the Bible like when David and Bathsheba's son dies, or God allows Job's suffering, or Elisha gets bears to kill the children?

That Hideous Strength is the third in C. S. Lewis' space trilogy. The titles are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. They're all good, but the last one is my favourite.

Mac said...

That's a minority opinion, lissla, as you're probably aware. But I like it a lot, too--I wouldn't say more than, but as much as, the other two, though it's very different.

I haven't read the O'Brien book you're talking about, Pentimento, but I have heard views from him on this subject that I thought were over-rigorous, e.g. on Harry Potter.

I don't see why the idea of time travel as such would be heretical, though I expect L'Engle is heterodox in some ways. I have that impression from a few interviews and such. Personally I'm not drawn to her fiction. I think Wrinkle In Time may be the only one I've read--the Mrs. Who et.al. one. Somehow it left me cold.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

To add to what Pentimento has provided, the "dark side of God" quote is in Chapter 4 (page 89 in the 1997 reissue). Polly, Bishop Colubra and Dr. Louise are talking about the star-watching rock as a "place of power"--but specifically "benign power."

It's very neo-pagan (and I throw behind my assessment my own history of neo-pagan dabblings), and Dr. Louise wonders whether Bishop Colubra's faith has been affected.

He replies:

"I was not then and I am not now returning to the old gods. No, the God I have tried to serve all my life is still good enough for me. Christ didn't just appear as Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago, don't forget. Christ is, will be, and certainly was at the time the druids dug the root cellar three thousand years ago, just as much as now. But we rational and civlised people have turned our backs on the dark side of God . . ."

It's certainly true that the Second Person of the Trinity has always existed, but I think it's a major leap of theology to say that one can find Him--or even worship Him--in the religious rituals of people who lived a thousand years before He revealed Himself as Christ.

As for the issue of Merlin's power in That Hideous Strength, which I also haven't read . . . It reminds me very much of the more gnostic strains of the modern occult movement. I don't know if there's any basis for saying that certain powers were once licit but are now illicit--except, ironically enough, a gnostic basis.

What is your own take on the issue?

Pentimento said...

This is why I called Bishop Colubra a Teilhard de Chardin figure. He skates a very fine line between the orthodoxy of his profession of faith and the sort of bet-hedging he appears to be doing in this passage.

Another interesting thing is that the powerful love for her enemies that Meg Murry was able to summon in her own trilogy seems to have been diluted in her daughter.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

That is so true about Meg and Polly, though I never thought about it before. (Do you suppose it's something she got from her father? LOL!)

Every time Zachary comes up, I'm also reminded of Mr. Jenkins of A Wind in the Door. Though certainly not as self-destructive as Zachary, he, too, has to bear the burden of being prosaically human in a book full of demi-god characters. Yet he shares their great adventure, anyway, before going back to being prosaically human. The real change is in Meg, who hates him at the beginning but does a complete 180 degree turn by the end.

We can almost lay A Wind in the Door and An Acceptable Time side by side. Meg and the unlovable Mr. Jenkins on one side; Polly and the unlovable Zachary on the other. A dying Charles Wallace here and a dying Zachary there. In the first book, a physical healing goes hand in hand with an emotional healing; in the second book, we get a physical healing and an abstract line about "lines of love" to take the place of real love. It's certainly not the same thing, which probably explains, in all fairness, why An Acceptable Time is not as well loved as the earlier books in the Quintet.

And now I just wonder why Polly's grandparents never mentioned these earlier adventures of her mother to her. Mrs. Murry gives her some insight into Meg's life choices, but there's no way that bit of psychoanalysis could stand in for the whole story.

Melanie B said...

I kept forgetting to grab the O'Brien out of the office where Ben's been sleeping. Now I've got it, though.

O'Brien only addresses the original trilogy: Wrinkle in Time, Wind in the Door, Swiftly Tilting Planet. His complaint isn't with the time travel per se.

In brief these are his major complaints:

--People with ESP are the vanguard of civilization and guardians of mankind. The children are chosen to save the world not because of their virtue but because of their intellect and psychic powers.

--Jesus is only referred to as a great fighter for the good alongside Buddha, Shakespeare, and Einstein.

-- She is trying to tame the image of the witch, show us that Christian fears about supernatural are groundless

--Charles Wallace inhabiting his hosts in STP is a form of possession. There can be no benevolent possession, no sanitized version of supernatural powers.

--General theme that there is no spiritual difference between pagan and Christian spiritualities. (O'Brien gives no examples here)

-- When Meg Names the Echthroi in the final battle with them. "The author appears to believe that if evil spirits are embraced they will cease to have power... While it is true in one sense that evil is the absence of good, that is not the whole truth... They are conscious, willful, distorted beings.... To think one might pacify them is similar to thinking one can tame a hungry shark."


I don't necessarily disagree with O'Brien about all the details. Where I part with him is in his summation: "Madeleine L'Engle's fantasy tales have got many details right, but the foundation is wrong."

Pentimento said...

I also wondered why the Murrys didn't mention Mr. Murry's own time travel experience. And it does seem, in that brief comment to Polly, that Mrs. Murry feels as if Meg may have squandered her potential by having seven children - or am I reading too much into that exchange, I wonder?

Pentimento said...

I really think O'Brien is overinterpreting some of these things. I wonder if he believes that the Grimm brothers are morally dangerous for children too. What bothers me is the spirit of fear that seems to underlie his criticism. "The Lord is my stronghold and my life -- of whom shall I be afraid?" (Ps. 27)

lissla lissar said...

I don't think you can find Christ Himself in the rituals of earlier, pagan religions, but Tolkien and Lewis would say you can maybe find foreshadowings in myth.

I like That Hideous Strength in spite of not liking Charles Williams, whose influence is pretty clear.

lissla lissar said...

Okay, some comments have gone up since I refreshed- The Happy Medium is NOT "trying to sanitize witchcraft"! It's a JOKE! The twins accuse Meg of not having a happy medium! So she finds one! It's funny! L'Engle actually wrote about someone complaining about that scene.

Yeesh.


I also think that he's overinterpreting. Are we allowed any fairytales or fantasy at all? Are the Ainur and Istari, the scrying of Galadriel, and the horn of Susan forbidden?

elena maria vidal said...

Pentimento, CS Lewis' space trilogy is great. Start with the first one, OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET.

Those are interesting points that Melanie shares from Michael O'Brien's book.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for reinfording Lissla's recommendation, Elena. I'm looking forward to reading it.

And Lissla, I couldn't agree more. What came to my mind in the "sanitizing witchcraft" remark was Mrs. Which - who's not really a witch. I suppose he would decry The Wizard of Oz for having a character like Glinda, too.

Melanie B said...

Here's a third vote for the Space Trilogy.

I agree both that O'Brien is overinterpreting and that it seems like there is a sort of fear involved.

O'Brien does, incidentally, include Grimm in his recommended book lists. He seems to be suspicious of anything modern but similar elements in earlier works don't come under similar scrutiny.

Here's what he says about Mrs Which:

"One of the angels, curiously, has no scruples about stealing, and another materializes as a witch. That is not its true form, the angel assures the children, it is merely playing. Nevertheless, it is an odd image for an angel to use, considering the fact that in the real order of the cosmos witchcraft is involved with, or at least opens doors to, the world of the diabolical. Clearly the author is venting a popular modern notion about Christendom's horror of witchcraft. She is trying to tame the image of the witch and to show us that certain Christian fears about the supernatural are groundless-- an undercurrent throughout her books."

Pentimento said...

Sigh. One thing I'm always suspicious of in criticism of any kind is critics who say things like "Clearly the author is etc. etc." I'm sorry, but it's disingenuous to draw a direct line between one critic's opinion of what an author is trying to do, and proof that she *actually is* trying to do it. This is the sort of facile amateurishness that O'Brien brings forth when he's away from his novels. I think he needs a less-sympathetic editor.

Melanie B said...

Agreed. The sad thing is I think many of his points in the book are well made. But I think his more extreme over-reactions tend to overshadow the valid points he does make.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Lissla, I agree, with reservations, to the idea that we can find foreshadowings of Christ in the pagan religions of antiquity. But L'Engle seems more excited by the idea than Lewis or Tolkien ever were.

In A Ring of Endless Light, Vicky learns that when her grandfather, who is a minister, and grandmother were missionaries in Africa, they devoted a lot of time to recording the stories, songs and rituals of the people they were living with. That didn't go down very well with his colleagues, because it didn't fit into their preconceived ideas of what a missionary should do. Harmless enough, aye?

But in A House Like a Lotus, we see the Christian missionary's mission from the other side. Polly meets a Polynesian character who says that his people were Christian long before the missionaries came and finally told them Christ's name. Which I think is problematic on a couple of levels.

L'Engle really seems to like her noble savages.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Melanie, I also tend to agree with O'Brien's points, but would make the opposite conclusion.

For me, L'Engle got a lot of details disturbingly wrong, but at least has the right foundation.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, you are far more widely read in the L'Engle oeuvre than I am. Perhaps it's my love of her novels that makes me want to agree with you. But, to be fair, I think that I need to read O'Brien's book, and I also think it was uncharitable of me to call him facile and amateurish in a fit of pique, so please forgive me, readers.

lissla lissar said...

It's sort of ironic - reading L'Engle kept me Christian during my teens and early twenties, and O'Brien's novels were one of the reasons we became Catholic.

Pentimento said...

That's amazing, Lissla. I actually love his novels, too. If you look on my favorite books list, you'll find at least one of them on there.

I'm going to analogize wildly about his argument contra L'Engle for a moment. I know lots of Trads who are very down on Medjugorje, and have good reasons for their claim that the apparitions can't be valid. There is a Carmelite abbey in Colorado whose nuns do rosary repair, and I've sent them some of my broken rosaries; they refused to fix one that was stamped "Medjugorje" (given to me by a Croatian friend). But on the other hand, when I became close to the Sisters of Life back in New York, I learned from several of them that their conversions had come about through their visits to Medjugorje. Some of them hadn't even been Catholic before going there. And that order really is a great sign of holiness in the world.

I guess I wish I could be more like L'Engle or some of her characters, and say what O'Brien seems to believe she is saying: that the ends justify the means -- i.e., if holiness is the fruit, then what does it matter how we produced it? But I'm afraid that statement, if adhered to, rationalizes all kinds of heresy.

The problem is that while some people are, through the grace of God, able to grasp at holiness through or after or in the midst of evil acts, you would be damning yourself and others if you recommended that as a viable way to live. "Go on and think, say, and do as you like . . . as long as you bring some good or holiness out of it, it's all good." Which is a sort of converse thesis to the one that the false bishop proposes in The Young Unicorns: compel goodness through manipulating the human person, and you have goodness; doesn't matter how you achieved it.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Indeed, in all fairness to O'Brien, I'll admit that I'm critiquing all the points he has made secondhand.

But I myself have found L'Engle problematic without any help from anyone--not because of the witches, the dragons, and the like, but because she is so quick to baptise or absolve even the most exotic religious traditions, calling them Christian in everything but name.

My own experience with her is kind of mixed. At the time I was eating up her stories with a spoon, I was also reading a lot of occult books. And I found it very easy to reconcile what I found in her books with some of the more un-Christian elements in my other reading. (Incidentally, A Wrinkle in Time was recommended for "further reading" by an astrologer who put it on the same list as titles by Manly Palmer Hall and Rudolph Steiner!)

So if I were to subject her novels to an O'Brien style fisking of my own, I'd say that Charles Wallace's "going within" in A Swiftly Tilting Planet wasn't possession at all, but "clearly" a form of past life regression. There is a dusty notebook somewhere in my home in which I wrote my very detailed case for that being so.

Which is my long-winded way of saying, Pentimento, that I think your analogy with Medjugorje is actually pretty good!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

PS--Pentimento, I think you read the exchange between Polly and Mrs. Murry correctly. In A House Like a Lotus, another character who is a kind of mother to Polly says that Calvin has been unconsciously selfish and that Meg has been holding herself back for his sake.

I totally disagree with that assessment of Meg, by the way. I don't think she was still so cowed by her mother as an adult for her not to wish to "compete" or to give her own daughter a complex. And even if she had been, I think she would have "cracked" after almost twenty years of living in Calvin's shadow. I mean, she has always been so much stronger than that.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

PPS--I just read my last comment over and think I should clarify what I mean by "cracked."

What I wanted to say was that if Meg had felt unfairly taken advantage of, she would have said or done something about it much earlier.

Or presumably, Mrs. Murry would have said something to her daughter. But doesn't it sound as if she never told Meg what she has just told Polly?

Pentimento said...

Interesting, E. Meg must be L'Engle's most fully-fleshed out character, and, arguably, her most important one. If L'Engle herself believes that Meg has squandered her promise through prolific motherhood -- and certainly it doesn't seem that any other character came along to counter those assertions -- it makes you wonder why.

And it also really calls into question how much childbearing is intentional, a whole other subject. And . . . it suggests the issue of contraception, yet another.

And now I have something else on my mind, dating back to that "simple Episcopalian" theme: Calvin O'Keefe is surely a Catholic, right? I mean, his name. And the fact that he's one of eleven children and they're poor and the father is a drunk. It makes you wonder what L'Engle thought of Catholicism, and also in what church Meg and Calvin were married! Could Meg have converted to the RC Church? Is that why she has apparently eschewed artificial contraception? Hmmm . . .

Pentimento said...

EXCEPT that Calvin O'Keefe's first name is . . . Calvin. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

The O'Keefes were another reason I spent quite some time confused about whether or not L'Engle was Catholic!

I agree that Meg is L'Engle's most important character, though it's Vicky who has always been the "favourite child." What's really interesting, moreover, is that L'Engle never let Vicky grow up (even though her younger sister Suzy does!), but allowed Meg to age in a way L'Engle herself later seemed to find problematic.

Pentimento said...

Now, I wonder what happened to Charles Wallace? He is the kind of character -- preternaturally both innocent and wise -- who most authors would kill off. I haven't read Many Waters, but he doesn't seem to be in any of the other books.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I vaguely remember Polly asking her mother where "Uncle Charles" has been most of her life, and Meg saying, "He's fighting on the side of the angels," or something like that.

So I assumed that Charles Wallace disappeared to have more cosmic adventures--which makes sense, anyway--and that only Meg would really know the whole story.

And now it seems to me that there was nothing to stop Meg from kything with him all throughout her marriage! Maybe that is what happened! And who needs a flashy career when you have secret adventures like those???

Pentimento said...

That is pretty cool!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Pentimento, our discussion of Zachary inspired me to write this post:

http://shreddedcheddar.blogspot.com/2010/04/jmj-character-connection-4-read-about.html

So thanks! =)

Pentimento said...

Really interesting post, E. I didn't know I'd come so late into the Zachary Gray Argument. From your description it really sounds as though L'Engle uses him as a straw man to prove all her usual points. And perhaps the last point is the most mysterious: we never know on whom God's grace will fall. Often it appears that the least worthy get the most consolation. So I'm continuing to see him as an emblem of God's prodigious mercy.

Anonymous said...

From a Christian perspective, it would be right to follow God's will, but what if God could work through time travel?