Sometimes fiction speaks more effectively than anything that is objectively true. And never more so than in complex pastoral situations where no one (not even the poor pastor) can hold all the pieces.
So today, I offer a double book recommendation for the emotional unravelling of pastoral knots. But be warned: the books will take you through the pain rather than around it…
The first book is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. (I know some of you have read it.)
The Sparrow imagines a world that moves between our own time and the not distant future. The premise is that a talented (if gangly) young scientist notices wave patterns from space that seem to be music, and therefore learns of life on another planet. This young man has a friend who is a Jesuit priest, and the Jesuit convinces the order to fund an exploratory journey into the new world.
The band of characters drawn together is immensely appealing. The awkward young scientist; the fervent Jesuit who believes he is called by God to this work; an earth-mother type and her husband, both of whom happen to be polymaths; and a beautiful and enigmatic Sephardic Jew (cue budding romance with gangly youth…)
The story is complex. The narrative’s ‘present’ is our future, in the midst of a Jesuit Inquisition. The priest is being tried for crimes against the other creatures, and he seems unable to defend himself.
But through the trial, you are given flashbacks. You follow the priest through all his discoveries, his optimism, his joy. And you are never sure whether he is sinner or saint.
Head and heart pull in opposite directions, then suddenly at the end, it makes a terrible sort of sense. It’s a stunning book that pushes you to think carefully about the nature of God, vocation, and ethics.
The books feels complete in itself. You may think you don’t want to read the sequel. But do. The second book is actually better — if also more painful.
The second book, Children of God, covers exactly the same story — but this time, the narrative moves between the Jesuits and the perspective of a life form that is indigenous to the planet. You see it all again: how the humans came, what the humans did, how their actions were received. And it is devastating.
Yes, the humans made mistakes. We knew that in the first book. Some of their actions had consequences they had never imagined. We knew that too.
But what catches you off guard is the complex way in which it was the very best of the human’s actions — their good intentions, their striving to get it right — that had the most damaging effect.
And that is so much easier to face in a novel than in a congregation, in someone else’s life than in our own.
The books are well worth a read. But don’t expect to feel like doing much afterwards.
p.s. — and if anyone out there knows where my copies are…