February 4, 2008
I can't remember the last time I read a book a second time--except perhaps for Goodnight Moon.
But when our neighborhood book club decided to discuss The Sparrow, I was delighted to read it again.
This book by Mary Doria Russell is one of the most profound, readable and gripping meditations you'll likely find on the problem of evil, on how we can know whether or not we are truly hearing God, and on how we can walk with those who suffer deeply. And all of this in one of the most unlikely packages you might imagine.
The Sparrow is a novel with what on the surface is a ludicrous premise--Jesuits in space. Yet the characters are some of the most believable I have ever come across. The dilemmas and aspirations the author portrays are supremely human and convincing. One of the impressive aspects of a very impressive book is that the author is able to put in the mouths of her characters the cases both for faith and against, for God and against, in the strongest, most compelling terms.
No spoiler alert is needed here because the back cover and first pages of the book tell us that at a point in the near future radio contact is made with a sentient species outside our solar system. Since Jesuits have always been on the vanguard of human exploration and first contact with other peoples, it is perfectly reasonable that they should go to meet "God's other children." They do so with the best of intentions and for God's greater glory. And then something goes terribly, terribly wrong. In the course of the book, masterfully told, we find out what that is.
We had a great discussion with our neighbors, but there was one question they didn't ask me that I wish they would have. It would have gone something like this: "The Sparrow is a book that calls faith into question at the deepest levels. It makes an extremely strong case against God being good and shows what terrible, horrible things can happen in the name of faith even if the intentions are good. This is a book that could and should shake the beliefs of any Christian. Why in the world do you, a person of faith, like it so much?"
I think I would say that this is a book that deals with some of life's most important questions: What is real? What is true? How do we know what we know? What is faith? Is there a God, and if so, what is God like?
The book is supremely about a vast journey, the longest journey humans are ever likely to undertake. This is an apt metaphor for the life we live on this planet, even if we never travel far from home. The book calls us all on a vast journey, even if we have not traveled far from the certainties and assumptions we have long held. It compels us to ask and search out these ultimate questions.
Whether we are skeptics or believers, and we think we know everything there is to know about God and have everything tied up in a neat package, this book says think again. And any book which makes us think again at this deep level is well worth rereading.