Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Sparrow

Last weekend NPR's program "Speaking of Faith" interviewed Mary Doria Russell, focusing on her two novels The Sparrow and Children of God. I had heard of those two before, but never read them, so on a whim I picked up The Sparrow from the library last Sunday night and finished it yesterday morning. Without giving too much away, it deals with the reception of radio signals from another planet and the Jesuit mission sent to that planet to find the source of those signals. The potential for things to go wrong, the uncertainties involved with interacting with another culture, let alone another planet and multiple other species, are all rendered in a story that is at once beautiful and terrible. It holds serious resonances for me at the moment, given that I am teaching a class on evil. An article by Terrence Tilley (theology prof at Fordham) that we are reading right now asks of the protagonist of the Book of Job, but could just as easily ask of the protagonist of The Sparrow: "Does he undergo that most terrible experience for a victim: 'to believe himself exposed to the personal hostility of the divinity'?" We have spent a fair amount of time in class examining Biblical texts in which God is presented as a fairly ambivalent character - the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), for example, and now Job. Is it possible for Christians to hold a God-image such that they feel crushed by the whim of an ambivalent (if not malevolent) deity? I see so much denial and self-loathing arising from the conception that whatever happens to me happens for a reason, or is my fault, or that God is somehow justified in letting it be, but is the alternative (a morally questionable deity) any better?

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