I’m fairly sure that the first time I ever ran into any of the words in the Bible in print was in the pages of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s the first of many occasions in the book where she quotes scripture, and I almost certainly understood even less than the book’s young protagonists what it was that the winged beings of the planet Uriel were doing:
They were making music, music that came not only from their throats but from the movement of their great wings as well. “What are they singing?” Meg asked excitedly. Mrs Whatsit shook her beautiful head. “It won’t go into your words: I can’t possibly transfer it to your words. Are you getting any of it, Charles?” Charles Wallace sat very still on the broad back, on his face an intently listening look, the look he had when he delved into Meg or his mother. “A little. Just a very little. But I think I could get more in time.”
Charles Wallace, the heroine’s five year old brother who has some kind of ability to read and understand the hearts of those he loves, can’t quite manage the translation, yet, so Mrs. Whatsit, their guide, does it herself.
“Listen, then,” Mrs Whatsit said. The resonant voice rose and the words seemed to be all around them so that Meg felt that she could almost reach out and touch them: “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof…”
I didn’t grow up with scripture elsewhere, except, probably, in the lyrics of Christmas carols.
I did, however, grow up with the cathedral of St. John the Divine, a little less than a mile north of me on the Upper West Side. It was part of the landscape of my imagination: walk up Broadway and go East and you’d see it: the looming facade, the entry to the grounds marked by the strange statue of St. Michael the Archangel defeating Satan, horned head dangling below a giant crab as a giraffe presses its neck lovingly against the victorious angel’s side; pass by the statue, and there was the medieval herb garden, there were the pair of peacocks that roamed the cathedral grounds. They were New Yorkers, those birds; comfortable in their own exoticism, and streetwise: they knew, somehow, not to wander onto Amsterdam Avenue, where they would have been hit by cabs. And then there was the grandeur and mystery of the building itself, perpetually under construction.
L’Engle was the cathedral’s librarian for many years, and in my favorite of her books, The Young Unicorns, the battle between good and evil is fought on those grounds, and in the catacombs under them, catacombs which run throughout the city, ducking into and out of the ordinary underground of the subway tunnels. I loved her writing fiercely; her imagination somehow interpenetrated mine, and the city about which I have written is in part the city that she described.
In graduate school I found myself a Christian. One of the things that made this unexpected development maybe OK, maybe not an erasure of myself, was that Madeleine L’Engle had been one. She was familiar, a guide to this new world that turned out to be one where God had become man.
I didn’t want to write this piece really, because being a cranky writer complaining about the de-Christianization of Starbucks cups is not part of my ambition. I don’t want to be That Essayist. But here’s the thing: if the Christianity in A Wrinkle in Time has been erased in the movie, the particular flavor of Madeleine L’Engle’s Christianity is in danger of being erased in the hot takes. And that flavor of Christianity is what was, for me, a bridge to belief.
It was a faith that was braided together with a fascination with molecular biology and cosmology; L’Engle saw science, actual new discoveries about the world, as harmonizing with and not threatening to faith. The world was a mystery: in the pages of scripture and in the thought experiments of Einstein, in cellular evolution, one was able partly to pull back the fabric of the universe and look beneath it, to see some of the harmonies in the way it worked. Reason and faith were not competitors; discovery and poetry and revelation all avenues to truth. It’s not that I’m a Thomist now because I loved Madeleine L’Engle then; it’s that the part of me that St. Thomas appeals to is the part that she appealed to.
It’s not the case that fiction need be Christian to tell truth, to be good, solid, real stories. It’s not the case that movie adaptations must follow their source material in all ways. And I’m not — I hope– complaining about the movie’s de-Christianization of the book per se. What I want to look at is whether the movie did what its makers believed they were doing with the book, and I want to look too at what this faith of hers was.
In her TimesTalk last Thursday, DuVernay talked about the challenges of adapting a book for the screen: they had made changes, but
…you have to do your best to say what an author meant. If you’re faithful to what they meant, you’re doing OK.
Jennifer Lee, the screenwriter, in an interview an interview with Uproxx, explained her decision to take out the quotations from Scripture that are pervasive in the book, the reference to Jesus. “Madeleine L’Engle’s [book] … had that strong Christian element to it,” said Lee,
And I respect that and I understand those feelings of things you want to say in the world that need to be said that are out there. In a good way, I think there are a lot of elements of what she wrote that we have progressed as a society and we can move onto the other elements. In a sad way, some of the other elements are more important right now and bigger – sort of this fight of light against darkness. It’s a universal thing and timeless and seems to be a battle that has to keep being had.
There is so much here that is almost true, and with which L’Engle would nearly agree. The battle between good and evil, the struggle of love to overcome darkness, is a battle that she saw playing out across the world’s wisdom traditions, not just in Christianity. Conservative Christians were horrified at her when the book came out, and up until the movie became the red Starbucks cup of its day, the occasion for conservative Christians to complain about Christian erasure, many were still horrified at her.
And for reasons which are predictable. L’Engle was devout; she was also a midcentury Episcopalian. She had, to an extravagant degree, willingness to see truth in the wisdom traditions of humanity outside Christianity, the human accomplishments that were not within its official bounds. At one point, Mrs. Which shows Meg the Earth.
The outlines of this planet were not clean and clear. It seemed to be covered with a smoky haze. Through the haze Meg thought she could make out the familiar outlines of continents like pictures in her Social Studies books.
“Is it because of our atmosphere that we can’t see properly?” she asked anxiously. “Nno, Mmegg, yyou knnoww thatt itt iss nnott tthee attmosspheeere,” Mrs Which said. “Yyou mmusstt bee brrave.”
“It’s the Thing!” Charles Wallace cried. “It’s the Dark Thing we saw from the mountain peak on Uriel when we were riding on Mrs Whatsit’s back!”
“Did it just come?” Meg asked in agony, unable to take her eyes from the sickness of the shadow which darkened the beauty of the earth. “Did it just come while we’ve been gone?”
Mrs Which’s voice seemed very tired. “Ttell herr,” she said to Mrs Whatsit.
Mrs Whatsit sighed. “No, Meg. It hasn’t just come. It has been there for a great many years. That is why your planet is such a troubled one.” …
“But what is it?” Calvin demanded. “We know that it’s evil, but what is it?” “Yyouu hhave ssaidd itt!” Mrs Which’s voice rang out. “Itt iss Eevill. Itt iss thee
Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!”
“But what’s going to happen?” Meg’s voice trembled. “Oh, please, Mrs Which, tell us what’s going to happen!”
“Wee wwill cconnttinnue tto ffightt!” Something in Mrs Which’s voice made all three of the children stand straighter, throwing back their shoulders with determination, looking at the glimmer that was Mrs Which with pride and confidence.
“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs Whatsit said. Mrs Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
“Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”
“Now you, Meg,” Mrs Whatsit ordered.
“Oh, Euclid, I suppose.” Meg was in such an agony of impatience that her voice grated irritably. “And Copernicus. But what about Father? Please, what about Father?”
“Wee aarre ggoingg tto yourr ffatherr,” Mrs Which said.
This is the kind of thing that drives conservative Christians absolutely bats. Jesus as one “wisdom teacher” among many; quotes from scripture interspersed with quotes from Confucius. And indeed, there is a case to be made for Madeleine L’Engle as a sort of left-Perennialist: Rene Guenon of the Upper West Side.
But this isn’t quite right. Jesus was one wisdom teacher among many. He was true man. He was not only that. “In my mind’s ear,” she wrote decades after Wrinkle, in the extended essay Penguins and Golden Calves,
I can hear God saying to God, “Can I do it? Do I love them that much? Can I leave my galaxies, my solar systems, can I leave the hydrogen clouds and the birthing stars and the journeyings of comets, can I leave all that I have made, give it all up, and become a tiny, unknowing seed in the belly of a young girl? Do I love them that much? Do I have to do that in order to show them what it is to be human?” Yes! The answer on our part is a grateful Alleluia! Amen! God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…
Jesus was, she said, “God who told stories.” And this was not a God who was the All, who was identical with those galaxies, those solar systems, or that young girl. Meg’s moment of decision is not the realization that she is “one with the universe,” that she is all she needs. It is rather a response to a call.
“We are called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies,” Aunt Beast tells her, when she is healing before her return to Camazotz, before her rescue mission. “Of course we have help, and without help it would be much more difficult.”
“Who helps you?” Meg asked.
“Oh, dear, it is so difficult to explain things to you, small one… What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”
“We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.”
She’s the one who must rescue her brother. She will not go without help. But she must still say yes.
“All right, I’ll go!” Meg sobbed. “I know you want me to go!”
It’s not enough.
“We want nothing from you that you do without grace,” Mrs Whatsit said, “or that you do without understanding.”
This is a central moment of the book, the moment of decision. And her fiat is, like that other fiat, one that comes only as she is full of grace.
Meg’s tears stopped as abruptly as they had started. “But I do understand.”
She felt tired and unexpectedly peaceful. Now the coldness that, under Aunt Beast’s ministrations, had left her body had also left her mind. She looked toward her father and her confused anger was gone and she felt only love and pride. She smiled at him, asking forgiveness, and then pressed up against Aunt Beast. This time Aunt Beast’s arm went around her.
Mrs Which’s voice was grave. “Wwhatt ddoo yyou unndderrsstanndd?”
“That it has to be me. It can’t be anyone else.”
But not because she is the one savior of the world. There is a great question behind both the book and the movie: whom shall you worship? The movie answers: yourself; the universe; you must find out that these are the same thing, and that this All, which is really you, is where your help comes from. “I am part of the Universe!” exclaims Oprah in the movie.
Again, DuVernay comes so close. A message of self-acceptance is in so many ways profoundly good; Meg has, throughout the first part of the movie, a degree of self-rejection that’s frightening: she does not want to be who she is. Her desire to be otherwise means that re-materializing after she tessers is hard for her: she rejects her own being. To say yes to existing as oneself, distinct and different, is a crucial yes. That’s what she must learn, and she learns it as she learns that she loves and is loved by Charles Wallace.
And her temptation is in fact also very effective: IT tempts her with being something other than herself. IT offers her the popular (and straight-haired, rather than natural-haired) mean-girl version of herself. And she passes the test: choosing to forgo that twisted power, and choosing to accept her own being. But this choice, self-acceptance, is shown as something that can only happen if one accepts that one is not distinct and different and created: you are only valuable if you find yourself to be part of the All, and to have being in yourself, rather than receiving it as a gift. It’s another kind of self-erasure, because it rejects the idea that you have limits.
“You have everything you need in yourself,” a friend summarized it as we got ice cream after the movie. She paused. “Boy, that’s going to be a hard lesson for kids to unlearn.”
The lyrics of the final song over the credits perfectly encapsulate this message: “Today I saw a rainbow in the rain / It told me I can do anything / If I believe in me,” Demi sings. And then the chant before the chorus: “I can, I can, I will, I will / I am, I am, no fear, no fear.” Learn to take on yourself the name of God, the I AM, and you have learned the lesson of the movie version.
It is precisely the opposite of the message of the book. The wisdom here is precisely counter-wisdom. And this is why, while Jennifer Lee’s version of perennialism seems to mirror L’Engle’s, it does not.
Just before the children hear the winged creatures singing on Uriel, Mrs. Whatsit transforms.
“Now, don’t be frightened, loves,” Mrs. Whatsit said. Her plump little body began to shimmer, to quiver, to shift. The wild colors of her clothes became muted, whitened. The pudding-bag shape stretched, lengthened, merged. And suddenly before the children was a creature more beautiful than any Meg had even imagined, and the beauty lay in far more than the outward description. Outwardly Mrs. Whatsit was surely no longer a Mrs. Whatsit. She was a marble-white body with powerful flanks, something like a horse but at the same time completely unlike a horse, for from the magnificently modeled back sprang a nobly formed torso, arms, and a head resembling a man’s, but a man with a perfection of dignity and virtue, an exaltation of joy such as Meg had never before seen. No, she thought, it’s not like a Greek centaur. Not in the least.
From the shoulders slowly a pair of wings unfolded, wings made of rainbows, of light upon water, of poetry.
Calvin fell to his knees.
“No,” Mrs. Whatsit said, though her voice was not Mrs. Whatsit’s voice. “Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”
The first time that Scripture is quoted in the book is thus in response to an implied question: to whom, then? The centaurs answer:
Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!
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Featured image via: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1c/Cathedral_of_St._John.jpg/1024px-Cathedral_of_St._John.jpg
I read A Wrinkle In Time when I was in elementary school and loved it. When I heard Disney was making a movie I picked it up again after 35+ years and a seminary degree. I had some of the concerns you listed, but they didn’t “feel right.”
Thank you for clarifying the theme of worship for me, and Jesus’ place in the book and in Lengle’s thought.
Nice review. The film is the epitome of a missed opportunity. It settled for the shiny and the shallow but was too self-obsessed to notice or understand. Our culture is fascinated by the gospel of Oprah; it just doesn’t realize it radically predates her and that there is so much more, immeasurably more, in the true Gospel. May Christians increasingly be conformed to the image of Christ and be salt and light to a hurting and confused world.
“Learn to take on yourself the name of God, the I AM, and you have learned the lesson of the movie version.:
>> Sadly Satan’s words to Eve hold true “And you shall be like God”
Reading your description of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine conjured many memories of my time as a grad student at nearby Columbia U. And for anyone who wants to visit, I can also highly recommend V&T’s Pizza, directly across Amsterdam from the cathedral. Best NY style pizza in the world!
Thank you, Susannah.
Most excellent review! Thank you.