Nonbelieving Literati: The Sparrow  

Saturday, December 15, 2007


As The Spanish Inquisitor phrased it, "I still can’t figure out where the book’s coming from - skepticism or dogma." I'm still not sure still after reading the book three times, but I think it's both.

Skepticism is exhibited by Anne and dogma by D.W. Emilio is in the middle, wavering between the two. We can see it in the way Emilio believes. At first, he is a priest, but a priest who doesn't believe.

"I mean, there was a place in me that wanted God to be in it, but it was empty. So, I thought, Well, not yet. Maybe someday. And to be honest, I sort of looked down on that kind of thing. You know how there are people who'll tell you that Jesus is a close personal friend of theirs, yes?" His voice was very low and he made a face that said, Who are they kidding? "I always thought, Sure, right, and you probably see Elvis at the laundromat."
And then when they find Rakhat and everything comes together and they actually go and land, he believes. He feels God.

But then we all know what happens. The plans that come together so well for so long fall apart and Emilio feels betrayed by God. So he can chose to believe in something evil or believe he was wrong. In the end he finds peace maybe, but is he a believer or an agnostic?

This time through I picked up on different bits of the author's underlying message in the story. I noticed more of the picking at the atheist argument through the character of Anne. Anne was always my favorite character. And I really get attached to characters in a story. I'll cry if the story grabs me and it's really sad.

I didn't like it in the middle of the story when she gave into faith, even if it was in cursing God. I realize it is my attachment to the character that makes it unacceptable. It's probably because I pictured myself as Anne in the story and I wanted the skeptical voice to win out.

In my previous readings of the book I always came to the conclusion that Emilio became a non-believer, someone transformed by an experience, betrayed by his faith. Re-reading the last scene, I'm not so sure. The author left the story open to what Emilio believed in the end. He was absolved of blaming himself through confession, but not of blaming God.

Was that the author trying to use the, "God works in mysterious ways" argument to show Emilio wasn't betrayed by God, but by his sureness of knowledge of God? I think to some extent she was, especially taken with the sequel to this novel, Children of God.

But taken alone I think I can find a compelling argument against theism, or at least, for humans being unable to understand God. Emilio thought he understood God's plan and was horribly wrong. Either there was no plan or it's incomprehensible to us as humans because it's too horrible to think that would be part of a benevolent god's plan. There was a sense that, even though the characters believed they were working under a divine plan, in the end we're all alone.

There were conflicting themes that perhaps the characters grew into as they evolved through the story. Early on when they're discussing the speed of light and when Emilio asks why it works the way it works the explanation, "God likes it that way," is an appropriate answer.

Later, after Alan Pace's death as they ponder how it could be God's plan to bring him to the planet to kill him. And after pondering agnosticism and the inability to understand God Emilio says,
"The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in an argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne's are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes,and we shall dance with God."
And I think they almost got it right.

Other Member Posts
The Sparrow and the Large Steel Pipe
NL: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Nonbelieving Literati: The Sparrow
Rakhat Rising
God snores as another Sparrow bites the dust
The Lonesome Sparrow
Exterminator, we have a pest problem

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6 comments: to “ Nonbelieving Literati: The Sparrow

  • The Ridger, FCD
    Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 1:25:00 PM CST  

    Except God's answer (as to Job) is usually "I'm bigger than you and I can do what I want."

    I thought Russell believes "God draws straight with crooked lines". I too was upset when Anne gave in to belief... But I think Russell comes down on the belief side.

  • the chaplain
    Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 1:42:00 PM CST  

    Thanks for the review. I don't know if I'll ever read this book, but it's nice to have some idea of what it's about.

  • The Exterminator
    Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 3:16:00 PM CST  

    Thanks for the post, OG.

    I do agree with Ridger, though. I think Russell comes down on the belief side -- although her bias is subtle.

    But the Aeschylus "quote" is pretty much a giveaway: In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

    This practically has neon lights around it when it appears in the last chapter of the book. I'm guessing that it was Russell's original jumping-off point.

    But it's bogus. It's a beautiful misrendering by Bobby Kennedy of a mistranslation of Aeschylus by Edith Hamilton. RFK famously used this quote in a speech about the assassination of Martin Luther King. But there's no way it would be found in a copy of Aeschylus on a Jesuit bookshelf in 2060.

    Here, from Wikipedia, is another of the many available translations of the quote:

    Wisdom comes through suffering.
    Trouble, with its memories of pain,
    Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
    So men against their will
    Learn to practice moderation.
    Favours come to us from gods.


    That version would have resulted in a much different book, but perhaps one that was more honest.

  • the chaplain
    Saturday, December 15, 2007 at 7:26:00 PM CST  

    Sorry to go OT during an interesting discussion. OG, I'm tagging you with the Seven Weird Things meme. You get to tell us seven weird, unusual or unique things about yourself.

  • John Evo
    Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 12:36:00 AM CST  

    OG asked: Was that the author trying to use the, "God works in mysterious ways" argument

    And I agree with the answer you provided. Yes.

    You must have liked the book a lot to have read it 3 times. I can't imagine putting yourself through that (to the point where I have zero interest in seeing how Emilio redeems himself with God in "Childern").

    My only question with all of our books is - Why couldn't God prevent the sparrow from passing the plague on to Julian and his little lamb?

  • ordinary girl
    Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 8:12:00 AM CST  

    My only question with all of our books is - Why couldn't God prevent the sparrow from passing the plague on to Julian and his little lamb?

    The obvious answer is because he's not real.

 

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