Review: The Sparrow

I know; I’m a little late to the game if I’m reviewing a book that’s twenty-five years old. But I’m excited about it enough that I really don’t care about that.

So, we’re gonna talk about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, an exposition of theodicy wrapped in a sci-fi tale that’s secretly a bildungsroman of sorts. If you’re not a theology nerd, “theodicy” is the word for the study of the problems of evil and suffering. In Christianity, in particular, this problem might be more specifically phrased as “If God is all-powerful and entirely good and loving, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Why do these things happen to seemingly good people?”

Job is my favorite book of the Old Testament, in part because it addresses this very question and gives us the best answer I think can be had for it. When God appears to Job at the end of the poem, God’s answer to Job’s questioning is to tell Job that he cannot understand the answer. It’s too complex, it’s too nuanced, for the human brain to comprehend in all its depths. The ultimate answer God gives that humans can understand is “Trust me.” Faith, faith that God is sovereign over all things, that God is love and intends ultimate good for God’s creation, hope that everything will one day be clear and suffering and evil will be conquered fully after having served their purposes–as inscrutable to us as those purposes may be–is the answer. It is, admittedly, an answer that I find at once entirely frustrating and comforting. It’s not my job to solve the problem of evil and suffering; it’s my job to respond to evil in suffering in the way that God has instructed me.

Part of the brilliance and beauty of Russell’s book–and only part, mind you–is that she takes the same approach. There is no attempt to answer the question of suffering, only an attempt to hold it in her hands and turn it at all angles for the reader to view, to experience in part, all of its manifest complexity and difficulty. There are no apologies here, no arguments, only an investigation of the issue that is by turns beautiful and terrifying, humbling and infuriating.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I’ve got to at least tell you what the book is about, right? All of that investigation into theodicy is not exposition or diatribe, it is examined through the experiences and humanity of the characters.

The Sparrow tells of the aftermath of a first-contact mission put together in secret by the Society of Jesus to the planet of Rakhat, discovered by the Arecibo facility in Puerto Rico in 2019, when the astronomy equipment there picks up radio signals that turn out to be the singing of the indigenous peoples of Rakhat.

Only priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz survives the mission; the handful of clergy and layperson companions that accompany him to Rakhat do not. The time dilation of space travel, the reports of the second, secular mission to Rakhat, and reports from the first missionaries themselves seem to tell the tale of a horrific fall from grace and into depravity on the part of Sandoz. The story jumps back and forth between the Jesuit interviews with the recovered Sandoz (in an attempt to discover the truth of the reports and, hopefully, salvage something of the Jesuit reputation after the reports of the missionary journey have decimated it), the first discovery of Rakhat and the synchronicity that brought Sandoz and his companions into the mission in the first place, and the events that actually unfolded on Rakhat. These separate narratives meet, as it were, at the climax of Sandoz’s telling of his story.

That main thread, and its analysis of theodicy, contrasted with the modern missionaries’ own thoughts about their relationship to the 16th century missions of the Jesuits to the “New World”, form the core of the text, but Russell’s writing of the missionary characters, their backgrounds, their feelings, their developing relationships to one another, their thoughts about their places in Creation as they confront their missionary (or priestly) status, provides just as much literary joy and human insight as the “mystery” that frames all of these subplots.

This is, after all, a sci-fi story (one for which Russell won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1996, the year the book was published), and great detail is paid to the physiology and culture of the peoples of Rakhat, to the methods of space travel (the missionaries convert a mined-out asteroid into their spaceship) and the believable physics of story. At the same time, those elements never get in the way of the narrative; no time is lost on long exposition about the nature of technologies or theories of culture and alien psychology. These run seamlessly throughout the text, woven in with the unfolding plot instead of interrupting it.

The writing itself is beautiful, jealousy-inducing for an aspiring writer such as myself. The blend of familiar, practical tone with clever description and amusing turn-of-phrase reveals the intelligence and imagination of the mind behind this tale in an ever-delightful manner. The pacing and plotting of the story are an example of mastercraft in that aspect of the art, something especially apparent to me as I struggle with revising the plotting and pacing of my own fledgling work.

I must also express a debt of gratitude to my wife for bringing me to read this book. It’s one she first read–and told me about–almost a decade ago. It sounded interesting, but I must not have been paying close enough attention to her explanations, because this a book that fits with my own interests so uncannily perfectly. Only when she announced that she was going to read it again, now that her experiences in ministry and seminary had sharpened her abilities to appreciate the tale, did I agree to read it alongside her. As I must often admit, she was right all along. I should’ve read it the first time she told me to. So should you.

Sci-Fi Christianity, Part I: Inverse Xenotheology, or, Anticipating First Contact

Okay, I have to admit here that the title is a little bit of a stretch, and I’m using it more because there are so few opportunities to (seriously) write words like “xenotheology” in non-fiction work.

“Xenotheology” is the word for the burgeoning (yet speculative and perhaps still a little premature) field of the study of alien religious systems and theologies. By the inverse of xenotheology, I mean to look at the repercussions in Christian theology that might result in the instance that we make contact with other intelligent lifeforms in the universe (or multiverse, if the physicists are right). See; the title’s a stretch.

Nevertheless, I continue. I read an article this morning that piqued my interest and spurred me to write this post; you can find it here. In the article, scientists at NASA discuss the ways in which an ancient but advanced civilization might be detectable millions of years down the line–what they call the “Silurian Hypothesis” after Doctor Who (sounds like the name of a “Big Bang Theory” episode). That, of course, got me thinking about the Fermi equation, and the likelihood of eventually encountering some alien species. And that (again, of course, because most things do) got me thinking about Christian theology.

To be fair, there are plenty of scientists (and speculative fiction writers) who believe that if we find other intelligent life “out there,” we still might not be able to communicate with or understand them. Their existential position (as a perceptual framework or paradigm for understanding existence as a whole) might be so different from ours that there are so few common points that real communication might be difficult at best. How could that be, you ask? That’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of this thought–the whole point is that their understanding of existence would be so different from ours that we could not readily conceive of it (nor them of ours)!

This in and of itself would beg a deep theological question: if Christianity is the true faith, how could it be applicable and accurate to something so radically differently situated from us? I say this without intending to devalue other religions, which I do believe have valuable things to offer the seeker of truth while maintaining that the person (divine and human) of Jesus Christ gives us the most truthful understanding of God and the cosmos. A troubling prospect, indeed; a seed of doubt that, by its very nature, could not be resolved by human minds. Is that an insurmountable issue? Of course not, there are many existential questions that we humans are incapable of resolving without divine revelation–the problem of evil and suffering, for existence. Becuase of all of this, I can only point out the question without offering any potential resolution except to say that it, like many other things, must be a matter of faith.

Lesser (in terms of difficulty in resolving, at least) existential questions follow. In such a situation, we would have to work out a new understanding of the relationship of Scriptures and Jesus to our suddenly-expanded reality. Here are a few scary (and, thankfully, improper) resolutions: (1) Christianity is proof that God favors humanity, allowing for crusades and persecution of alien species, or at least latent and continuing racism. While we no longer live in a society of monolithic religion, it is possible that Judaism and Islam could reach the same conclusion (because of human nature, not because of the nature of those religions, just as with Christianity), resulting in a hostile stance for humanity as a whole. I think it’s more likely, though, that some maintain such a belief privately, resulting in continuing issues of race (though in a slightly-new context) for centuries or millenia to come. (2) The “baby with the bathwater” approach: Scripture doesn’t tell us about aliens and neither does Jesus, so none of it must be true. This, of course, is a logical fallacy–there are plenty of things Jesus doesn’t talk about (molecular biology, cars, computers, black holes, particle physics, string theory) that nevertheless exist and that have not (at least when intellectual rigor and honesty is employed) destroyed the plausibility of Christian belief, despite how much the Enlightenment (and modern materialists) may have attempted such. (3) Christianity is supplanted by alien religion (assuming we could understand it) under the idea that a culture more advanced than us technologically must be more advanced than us spiritually–one only needs to read the Old Testament and look at the world around us to know that people generally have not changed much, if at all, in their nature because of technology. There are more possibilities than could be recounted here; I’ll leave you to your imagination.

Additionally, there’s the possibility that an alien culture that is like us enough that we can relate to them has had their own revelations from God that mirror those from our own Scriptures and the Incarnation. If that were the case, the type of thought I’m concerned with in this post might be moot.

However, my understanding of God sees great purpose in God’s remaining often hidden from us and not directly revealing the nature of all existence to us in some undeniable way. This makes room for faith, and it is possible that some of life’s ambiguity is necessary for our free will to exist in the way that allows for meaningful relationship with God and for following Jesus on the path of sanctification. That’s a topic for another time.

I think it more likely that we find alien religion much like we find other human religions–not devoid of some existential truth and not without some ability to point the seeker to the reality of the Creator, but mixed in with misunderstandings and fallacies that result in a system of belief that misses more than it gets right. Again, being subject to human failings in interpretation, I certainly wouldn’t say that Christianity has everything right–far from it. But, God’s revelation through the Incarnation lays bear more existential truth and gives us more to work with in the search for capital “T” Truth than any other system of belief or understanding of God known to man.

Rather than revel in the negative possibilities (which doesn’t seem very Christian at all, does it?) perhaps we should discuss theological principles that might need adjustment to conform our understand of God and the meaning of Scriptures and Jesus in light of new experience.

The most fundamental question of all would be to decide whether Christianity retains applicability given the existence of other intelligent lifeforms. I think most Christians would unhesitatingly answer, “Yes.” If we believe that the God’s revelation through Christ is True, no new understanding of our universe should change that. The second question, then, is whether Christianity should be viewed as applicable to aliens. Again, if we believe that Jesus, as He claims to be, is “the way, the truth and the life,” we must answer this question affirmatively. Which means that we must come to an understanding of God’s salvific work in Jesus (and God’s overall Great Plan for existence) that applies equally to all sentient beings capable of understanding (I’m willing to believe and hope that my pet, Berwyn, is an innocent subject to Grace despite how frequently he’s a “bad little dog.”).

These questions answered, we must look to ways in which Biblical interpretation must change to account for the new situation. I’m going to argue that some (admittedly more progressive) interpretations of the faith would not have to change at all.

In light of the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrials, we would do well not to interpret the story of Creation literally. Instead, we should seek to understand what early Genesis tells us about the existential condition of sentient beings (I use this phrase as a more-expansive variant of “the human condition”), the foundation upon which God’s plan for all Creation builds. As we would by necessity need to presume that Christ had a hand in creating all alien species as well (following the beginning of the Gospel of John), we would need to accept that the metaphors contained within Genesis are equally applicable to aliens and that, likewise, the path to salvation is open to them.

Alongside this, we ought to be less concerned with historicity in the Bible and more concerned with what the Bible tells us about the existential condition, as the latter will be far more universally applicable than the former. The ancient context of the writings will continue to be an important interpretive tool, but even this is entirely separable from historicity.

We would also have to find ways in which the experiences of alien cultures and beings help us to better understand Jesus and Scriptures–otherwise, we prove ourselves hypocrites in the belief that there is divine revelation (however difficult to discern) through existential experience.

Certain things might need to be interpreted more generously than current trends allow. If there are species that are not biologically binary (as in, distinctly “male” and “female”), then our understanding of sex and gender ought to expand. Otherwise, we might have to exclude entire species as “against the law of God.” In such a light, finding that homosexuality, transgendered people and other non-cisgendered folk are somehow abhorrent to God seems downright foolish.

We would also have to find a new humility–if we find that the Incarnation is not a common feature somewhere within the religions of all alien societies, we will have to sort out why God chose to condescend to humanity and not some other species in a way that impresses upon us the need to “make disciples” while not becoming self-righteously arrogant or assuming that our species has some special favor from God. This, I think, would be a great struggle but a fascinating aspect of the path of santification.

There are many more (and more specific) aspects of Christian theology that will need re-evaluation (as they perenially do anyway) to account for such a new discovery, and this post is admittedly a stream-of-conciousness response to something I came across this morning, so I must admit that this post is a collection of initial impressions–not a researched and long-considered topic like some of my other posts.

Still, I find it interesting (though this could be my own bias), that it appears that a more liberal/progressive theology is already better situated to account for the existence of other intelligent life in the universe than a more conservative theology. That by itself cannot be considered proof of the superiority of one interpretation over the other, but it is something worth pondering.