By J. R. Daniel Kirk, Associate Professor of New Testament
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow and Children of God
(Ballentine Books, 1997 and 1999)
J. R. Daniel Kirk
Despite bearing the name “James Kirk,” I tend to steer clear of science fiction novels. This summer, however, I wandered into this somewhat unfamiliar territory and read a story that is spread over two novels, The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell (Ballentine Books, 1997 and 1999). A friend had recommended them, and since one can pick them up in the Amazon.com marketplace for $.01, I figured it was advice I could afford to follow!
The books trace the journey of a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, to and from a newfound planet, Rakhat, and at the same time it traces his journey toward and away from God.
Music is what first tips off people on Earth about the presence of life in outer space. A radio transmission finds its way from Rakhat to Earth. Music will continue to play an important role in the story, not only as something beautiful and redemptive but also as an expression of sinister hearts.
Russell is an excellent storyteller. Telling her story from the vantage points of several different characters, she allows us to experience the partial knowing that each is subject to. Only as the story progresses do we learn how partial knowledge has led to misunderstanding and sometimes devastating mistakes. She draws us in, surprises us, boldly sends beloved characters to their deaths, powerfully resuscitates characters who seem to be beyond redemption’s reach, and refuses to provide easy resolutions to complex problems in the plot and its characters.
One of the most important themes of the book is whether or not God is active in the missions to Rakhat and how someone would know. Does too much “coincidence” point toward a divine hand at work? Does the silence of God in the face of people’s unspeakable suffering indicate that there is no God at all?
Entering into this other world that Russell creates, we are invited to wrestle alongside her characters with the questions that so often plague us in our own: How do we know there is a God? Do not the darkest experiences of the fallen cosmos point decidedly against the notion of the existence of the Christian God? What might it take to rebuild a soul that has been shattered by physical violence and emotional despair?
As with any attempt to wrestle with such large questions, there are aspects of Russell’s presentation that any reader will disagree with. But the books contain rich fodder for thought and discussion, and would make excellent book club material. In fact, both books are equipped with conversation starter questions in the back for just this purpose.
The Sparrow and Children of God are great examples of the science fiction writer’s craft of developing a new world, like our own in many ways and yet full of surprises. And they take us far into outer space only to send us more deeply into ourselves.
Read Dr. Kirk's blog
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