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James T. KeaneJuly 18, 2023
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Our recent selection of Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow as our next group read for the Catholic Book Club occasioned a trip to America’s archives to see if we had reviewed the book upon its release in 1996. (O.K., fine, I made an intern do it; it builds character.) We had: Our reviewer, Andrew Krivak (now the author of four novels, one of them a finalist for the National Book Award), called it “an intriguing venture into the journey of faith by way of science fiction, anthropology and the Society of Jesus.”

The book has attracted enough attention from filmmakers over the years that at one point a rumor went around Hollywood that Brad Pitt had signed up to play Emilio Sandoz, S.J., the Jesuit protagonist of the novel, in a Warner Bros. film adaptation. Hard to imagine, but hey, it’s science fiction—suspend your disbelief!

One of the major themes of The Sparrow is the question of theodicy: Why does God allow evil in the world?

Krivak (whose own futuristic novel The Bear was reviewed in America in 2019) was not the first to note that The Sparrow’s appeal was not limited to science fiction fans; nor is its religious dimension unique in the larger genre. The Sparrow, he writes, “is science fiction brought back to the project with which it began in the hands of a writer like Jules Verne: the necessity of wonder, the hope for moral rectitude and the possibility of belief.” And of course one of the major themes of The Sparrow is the question of theodicy: Why does God allow evil in the world?

The Book of Job might still be humanity’s most poetic reflection on theodicy, but the question has been asked again and again through the centuries, and our forward-looking sci-fi tales are no exception. Even authors who are avowed atheists ask the question. If you’re willing to be a bit shaken up, click here to read “The Star,” a 1967 short story by Arthur C. Clarke about a Jesuit scientist sent to examine the ruins of an interstellar civilization destroyed by a supernova. Robbed of his faith by a terrible discovery, the priest prays to St. Ignatius himself: “Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?”

The Sparrow, too, ends on a disturbing and theologically thought-provoking note (no spoilers here). The characters in the novel, including a number of Jesuit priests, voyage to a different planet with the best of intentions toward the intelligent life they have discovered there. In fact, more than a few of them think God is guiding them on their mission. Unimaginable tragedy ensues, and it is hard for the characters to see how it isn’t their fault—and if it isn’t their fault, it is surely God’s. The book, wrote Doris Donnelly in America in 2012, “prompts the perpetual question about how a good God allows excruciating suffering to exist.”

One might also ask, of course, why anyone would look to science fiction for cogent approaches to religious questions. This is, after all, a genre that usually privileges cool lasers and Kessel Runs over character development or plot. And the founders of the genre, including figures like H. G. Wells, were more or less violently opposed to religion. But over the past century, many science fiction writers have come to embrace religious themes.

“For centuries now, science fiction has helped us grapple with our most complicated historical, political and—most definitely—spiritual questions.”

“At first glance the two terms seem almost antithetical, yet a close examination of much of the best science fiction of the last decade reveals just the opposite,” Willis E. McNelly wrote in a 1980 article for America. “Religion or religious themes have provided contemporary speculative literature with some of its most cogent extrapolations, and, perhaps not coincidentally, with some of science fiction’s very best novels and short stories.” And in the case of The Sparrow, the author, Mary Doria Russell, has a doctorate in anthropology and has wrestled with questions of faith in a number of her works.

A forerunner to The Sparrow in certain ways was James Blish’s 1958 novel A Case of Conscience, which features a Jesuit priest/astronomer who discovers a planet he suspects is free from original sin—or is actually possessed in its entirety by Satan. The novel raises some of the same questions as The Sparrow, in particular this one: What do we make of it when it seems that God has created evil?

Blish, who later wrote a fictional biography of the 13th-century English Franciscan Roger Bacon, unfortunately made something of a hash of the theology in his sci-fi tale, and neither the thoughts of the Jesuit protagonist nor the religious themes of the novel make much sense by the end. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy (and author of a new article in America), admitted in a 2015 article for U.S. Catholic that he found A Case of Conscience to be, well, unconscionable.

“The trouble for me is that [Blish] gets both the theology wrong and the Jesuit spirituality exactly backwards. The author’s idea of what the church teaches about evolution had already been contradicted by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis, some 10 years before the book came out,” Brother Consolmagno wrote. “And the world-hating spirituality of the main character is not Jesuit but Jansenist: The Jansenists historically were the biggest opponents of the Jesuits. The book is popular because the author tells a good story, but these howlers stop me in my tracks.”

Brother Consolmagno didn’t much care for The Sparrow either, writing that while he found the book’s theological speculations to be naïve, “the real crime of this novel is that the Jesuit characters take themselves far too seriously.” (This is also a common crime when playing “Jeopardy!” with Jesuits).

Both novels have a Jesuit protagonist; so, too, did Arthur C. Clarke’s tale; ditto for a short story by Isaac Asimov. And as Tom Deignan noted in a 2019 article for America, science fiction has more priests than a Roman restaurant. What gives?

“For centuries now, science fiction has helped us grapple with our most complicated historical, political and—most definitely—spiritual questions,” Deignan wrote. Priests are a somewhat ideal template for a character asking such questions because the reader usually assumes certain characteristics of a priest: spiritual curiosity, an engagement with deep and sometimes troubling theological questions and, ultimately, a commitment to a life that puts rather more trust in a benevolent God than most. Who better to express in stark terms—in fiction or not—that central question of theodicy with which we all struggle at some point?

The Book of Job might still be humanity’s most poetic reflection on theodicy, but the question has been asked again and again through the centuries.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Apology for Belief,” by Alex Mouw. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

As I said above, this summer, we will be reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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