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James T. KeaneAugust 04, 2023

The stories of eight Jesuit missionaries to 17th-century North America might seem a less than apt starting point for a discussion of a science fiction novel. However, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow—this summer’s Catholic Book Club selection—is as much a tale of faith and the question of religious belief as it is a story of spaceships and interstellar travel. In that sense, Isaac Jogues and the other North American martyrs provide a sort of analog for Russell’s characters and plot.

The Sparrowby Mary Doria Russell

408p $18

A French Jesuit, Father Isaac Jogues was sent to “New France” in 1636 shortly after his priestly ordination to work among the Native American Huron tribes. While Father Jogues found some initial success in preaching to and converting some of the Huron people, French explorers and settlers and Jogues’s fellow missionaries brought with them European diseases and new ways of living that also caused serious disruptions in the lives of the Native Americans among whom they worked.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is as much a tale of faith and the question of religious belief as it is a story of spaceships and interstellar travel.

In 1642, Jogues and several of his companions were captured by Native American Iroquois, who were warring with the Hurons at the time. The missionaries were tortured by their captors, who mutilated Jogues’s hands in particularly gruesome ways. Expecting death, Jogues was instead kept as a captive by the Iroquois. He eventually escaped and returned to France in 1643, emaciated and injured, where he was treated as something of a celebrity. Incredibly, he offered to return to French Canada to resume his missionary activities, and he was killed there by Iroquois Native Americans in 1646.

Known today as the North American Martyrs, Jogues and his fellow companions who met death became a kind of symbol of the bravery and fortitude of early Jesuit missionaries. Canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930, they are the first North American saints. Shrines to them abound in the United States and Canada.

Longtime members of the Catholic Book Club may remember that our selection for Winter 2014 (okay, fine if you don’t remember) was Emma Anderson’s The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. In his interpretive essay for the book, Catholic Book Club moderator Kevin Spinale, S.J., noted Anderson’s careful analysis of the way missionary work and martyrdom can be used to suggest a dichotomy between holy (and innocent) evangelists and their presumably evil persecutors. “The alchemy or the inverting logic of martyrdom turns defeat into victory—the blood of six Jesuit priests and two lay assistants anchored Christian France in its harsh new territory and sanctified the new continent’s soil.”

At the same time, Father Spinale expressed frustration at Anderson’s “underlying suspicion of inauthenticity regarding the motivations of the eight men who were killed. Did they seek death selfishly? Did their seeking martyrdom prompt more violence? And, there is a further, necessary question—free of such suspicion—what of the number of native Catholics that suffered and died along with the Jesuits who were killed? Are they martyrs? Did they die for the faith?”

How did such a well-intentioned and seemingly divinely inspired journey end so catastrophically? And, more important, where was God in all of it?

A new world

So what does this all have to do with the science fiction novel we’ve been reading? Like Father Jogues and his companions, the Jesuits and lay colleagues whose journey to and experiences of the planet Rakhat make up the bulk of the storyline of The Sparrow are depicted as having the best intentions and a genuine zeal for honest encounter—if not the same shared opinions about evangelization. However, they too not only eventually meet violence and death, but they also find that their well-intentioned arrival on the planet wreaks chaos on the carefully calibrated cultures of the two sentient species who dominate Rakhat.

A brief synopsis (mostly) free of spoilers (but with a trigger warning: The Sparrow depicts violence in brutal and unsparing ways): After a lay radio astronomer discovers recordings of songs coming from Rakhat, he and a number of friends and colleagues who seem to have been brought together by fate decide to journey to the planet to meet “The Singers.” Their adventure is directed and bankrolled by the Society of Jesus, which sends four priests along with their lay colleagues in a spaceship tucked inside an asteroid, which it mines for fuel on a six-month journey to Rakhat. The time differences occasioned by Einsteinian physics mean that they will return only slightly aged themselves but after decades have passed on Earth.

Among the priests is Emilio Sandoz, S.J., a mystic of sorts who becomes convinced that God has directed every step of the journey to Rakhat. When he and his fellow travelers arrive, they discover a habitable planet occupied by an intelligent and largely benevolent vegetarian species, the Runa, among whom they happily live for a time. They even introduce new methods of farming and agriculture while generally adopting the lifestyle of the Runa—whom they find a bit simple but generally to be without malice.

Eventually the group discovers that Rakhat has two sentient species, and the second (the Jana’ata) resemble the Runa superficially but with one enormous difference: They are carnivores. It takes a while for the humans to figure out what the Jana’ata—the ruling class of Rakhat by any definition—eat, but you don’t have to be long into the book before you get the gist. This is not just two species living in symbiotic relationship—this is a world of predator and prey.

A seemingly friendly Jana’ata brings Father Sandoz and some others in the group to see Jana’ata cities and culture, and the humans begin to agree with Father Sandoz that God has brought them there for a reason. But not long after, one disaster after another befalls the group. Death comes for most; terror and torture for others; a shocking amount of violence and misunderstanding for all. Eventually, only Father Sandoz returns to Earth, sent back alone by a second group of astronauts who disappear after their arrival on a suddenly restless Rakhat.

Russell does not tell us what finally befell Father Sandoz on Rakhat until near the book’s end, but from the very first pages we encounter him as a shell of the confident Jesuit who journeyed to Rakhat. His hands have been mutilated for reasons he doesn’t understand; he has suffered unimaginable violence; he stands accused of the murder of a Runa child on Rakhat; there are suggestions that he and his band caused Rakhat’s social order to collapse into a planetary civil war. The tabloids treat him as a sociopath or a pervert, someone who “broke bad” at some point on the mission.

Through the course of many interviews with his Jesuit superiors, Father Sandoz tries to explain (and piece together) what happened. How did such a well-intentioned and seemingly divinely inspired journey end so catastrophically? And, more important, where was God in all of it?

The Jesuits and lay colleagues who journey to the planet Rakhat are depicted as having the best intentions and a genuine zeal for honest encounter.

Mary Doria Russell holds a doctorate in anthropology, so readers are presented with an alien world whose flora and fauna are described in depth; she also spares no detail in her explication of the social structures of both the Runa and the Jana’ata. At the same time, the book is an exploration of faith and the difficulty of belief. Yes, the science and anthropology and botany and sheer creative portrayals are fascinating, but they are not really the main point.

A former Catholic herself who now identifies as Jewish, Russell gives her characters (especially Father Sandoz, Sophia Mendez and Anne Edwards) long external dialogues (and internal monologues) on the nature of faith, the question of theodicy and the many thorny questions that arise when Christianity encounters a culture that finds its certainty and theological distinctions something of a puzzle. The reader asks the same questions the characters do: Did God bring them there? Who is God in a world with no religion and a vastly different moral code? And what exactly is a “mission” when astronauts and evangelists use the same word in such radically different ways?

Not everyone loves The Sparrow. In fact, one prominent Jesuit astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, told U.S. Catholic in 2015 that he found the book’s theology a bit naïve; worse, however, “the real crime of this novel is that the Jesuit characters take themselves far too seriously.”

I don’t necessarily disagree on the latter point, but I still find the novel compelling, 25 years after I first read it. Rereading it in preparation for our discussion here, I was reminded of how creative and expansive a world Russell creates, one where theological questions like theodicy and ethical dilemmas about moral culpability can be explored in much more vivid and compelling ways than in any academic text or homily. Like the tales of Jogues and his companions almost four centuries ago, Russell captures the imagination.

Oh, and she wrote a sequel: Children of God. If you want to revisit the world of Rakhat and of Jesuits who take themselves very, very seriously, that should be your next read.

What exactly is a “mission” when astronauts and evangelists use the same word in such radically different ways?

Questions for discussion

The science:  Is Russell’s tale a believable one? Every science fiction story requires a certain suspension of disbelief from readers, of course, but did you find the science of The Sparrow (the spaceship, the planet of Rakhat, the two sentient species we encounter) coherent and understandable?

The movie: In the years since the book’s release, a couple of attempts to make it into a film or a miniseries have surfaced—including one proposal that would see Brad Pitt playing Father Emilio Sandoz (!!!). Would The Sparrow work as a film along the lines of “Avatar”? Or would the internal dialogues of the individual characters too difficult to depict on screen?

Lay-Jesuit collaboration: This term, beloved at most Jesuit apostolates to describe the working relationship between vowed Jesuits and the many lay people with whom they serve (and who often have their own immersion into Ignatian spirituality), has a special resonance in The Sparrow, because the Jesuits and their lay collaborators are living in a spaceship together for six months—and then on an alien planet for years. Does the book depict the fruitfulness—and the tensions—of this model of collaboration well?

The Jesuits:For Jesuit readers—and those of us who work with Jesuits: Did Russell “get it right”? Are the men in The Sparrow believable Jesuits and priests? And do they take themselves too seriously?

The question of theodicy: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Every human being asks this question at some point, and more than a few have tried to answer it. Does The Sparrow offer any insights into this question?

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