A Review of A Light so Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L' Engle, by Sarah Arthur
"Artists continually find themselves playing apologist to their fellow believers--a role that can become exhausting over time," writes Sarah Arthur in her latest book, A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle.
As an alumna member of the Arts Guild, I've witnessed the fruit of the Anselm Society's efforts to explain why the arts should matter to the Church. I've also known artists of all stripes who would agree with Arthur's claim regarding the exhaustion that can come with being an apologist for the arts, which is why Anselm has felt like a homecoming to so many of us.
It can be difficult to find examples, however, of writers and artists who managed to point to the Gospel while also speaking in a compelling way to the culture of their own time and place. I'd always assumed that Madeleine L'Engle was one of these rare people, so it was interesting to read in A Light So Lovely that L'Engle's position as "Christian author who actually manages to influence culture" was not always so secure. I had no idea there was ever any controversy surrounding L'Engle's faith or the "appropriateness" of her books, and one aspect of Arthur's portrayal I really appreciated was how she focused on the points of tension that L'Engle often occupied. With chapter headings such as "Icon and Iconoclast," "Truth and Story," "Faith and Science," Arthur suggests that L'Engle's ability to stand in the uncomfortable place of paradox is key to her lasting legacy. Given the ultimate paradox of the "God and Man" who became like us so that we might become like Him, maybe this shouldn't be surprising.
I should note that unlike many Christians who also happen to be writers, I can't say that Madeleine L'Engle was one of the formative authors who inspired me to attempt to write fiction myself. I've read bits of her nonfiction and I vaguley remember reading A Wrinkle In Time as a young child, but Madeleine hasn't personally influenced me like some of the other well-known writers of faith (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K Chesterton...you know the initial-loving, tea-drinking crew).
And that's precisely what I appreciate most about Sarah Arthur's new book. While it covers some of the most important "plot points" of L'Engle's life, it is not a straightforward biography, but rather an examination of her influence in the broader spheres of creativity and faith. Arthur explores this influence through interviews with creative people working in the world (including Luci Shaw, Anselm Fellow Jeffrey Overstreet, and Sara Zarr) who have been especially impacted by L'Engle's work and life.
Good doesn't mean safe
And what is this legacy? Why is it that her books are still being celebrating by mainstream publishing and the broader culture?
Arthur suggests Madeleine L'Engle's stories continue to speak not because they contain the right "message," but because they shine a lovely light onto our world and invite readers to consider that light's source. Yet like many authors who've experienced their own version of the "hero's journey" they write about, L'Engle's success did not come quickly or easily, but followed years of struggle and rejection (a.k.a., the hero enters The Abyss).
Even after her stories were published, L'Engle continued to endure rejection, only now it often came from her own tribe--other people of faith who either did not find her books "Christian enough," or considered them outright dangerous. In other words, Madeleine L'Engle struggled with a tension many Christian storytellers struggle with today--how do we make good art that reflects our roles as "sub-creators" (to use Tolkien's term) without resorting to...
- Safe, "clean" topics (not the same thing as "good," and a description that could not *ahem* be used for the Bible).
- Predictable "Come to Jesus moment" formulas that provide readers with comfort (in the same way the happy ending of a romance novel provides comfort), but often feel detached from the actual walk of faith (just as typical romance tropes may not highlight the mundane difficulties of an actual marriage). Not to mention detached from the cross.
At the same time, the last thing our cynical, "keeping it real" culture needs is more cynicism masquerading as realism.
So where does that leave us? Instead of promoting either escapism or ideology, how do we create art that reflects the reality of the human condition--both in its fallenness and glory--while remaining bold enough to adopt a missional mindset that avoids merely preaching to the choir?
Turning to Madeleine L'Engle as an example, Sarah Arthur offers a response in the chapter entitled "Religion and Art:"
So, we make good art, and we hope that by doing so we have offered up an honest, well-executed gift of worship to the Maker who designed us to make things. And we share that work with our fellow readers--not just our fellow believers, but all story-loving humans--because not only do we want them to experience our own delight in making it, but also because, as people of faith, we are called to play a small part in transforming the culture in which we live. Our works become icons: windows by which others can see the "light so lovely." And by this, we hope, lives can be changed. Including our own.
It seems so simple, doesn't it? Good art isn't about promoting the right moral or theological message disguised as a story; it's about revealing who we truly are. But just because the task is simple doesn't mean it's without risk or the potential for misunderstandings--after all, "who we truly are" is up for debate in most spheres of 21st century life today.
Perhaps this is where the often-cited writing rule "show, don't tell" may be helpful. If "beings designed by a Maker to make things" is a significant part of who we are, then let's start by making more beautiful things, more icons, that highlight this nature. Whether you consider yourself an "artist" in the formal sense or not, as a human being you are a sub-creator, gifted with the creative capacity to cultivate beauty in the spaces and relationships around you.
The legacy of Madeleine L'Engle described in A Light So Lovely encourages us--all of us--to embrace this identity Soli Deo Gloria.
Ashlee Cowles is the author of the award-winning debut, Beneath Wandering Stars (Simon Pulse 2016), a Young Adult novel about two teens who walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain. Below Northern Lights, a companion novel with the same characters, but set in Scotland, is now available. An Anselm Society member artist, she resides in Traverse City, Michigan with her husband and daughter.