I recently rediscovered the second theology book that captivated me. The first was George Forrell’s The Protestant Faith, assigned to my freshman Religion 100 class at Lenoir-Rhyne by Michael McDaniel. I read a few chapters and was slain in the Spirit, so to speak, with the unarguable conviction that there was no topic I was ever going to care about as much as theology… alas. And here I thought I was going to be a linguist. Anyway, in tears of equal joy and irritation I declared my major, and it’s been downward mobility for me ever since.
But the second book of theology did not provoke irritation or tears at all. It was Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season, first published in 1977 as volume 3 of the Crosswicks Journal series. McDaniel was more indirectly responsible for this one: he and his wife Marjorie let me have the run of their immense personal library and somehow I picked it out among thousands.
Now of course I knew L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and all its sequels, though my favorites had always been The Young Unicorns and The Arm of Starfish, other trademark blends of fantasy, science fiction, and Christian faith. But I didn’t know L’Engle wrote nonfiction, too. I was intrigued.
The Irrational Season is organized around the church year, starting (sensibly) in Advent and cycling through them all till it comes back to end at Advent again. The various entries are mixed in genre: some memoirs, some poems, some moral reflection (though L’Engle seemed to despise “morality” despite its being in evidence in her writings left, right, and center). She talks about love and death. She inhabits Scripture stories and ruminates on kairos as opposed to chronos. She remembers college and the Second World War and various novels she’s written. Hers are some of the lovelist meditations on marriage I’ve ever seen. All of it is threaded through with the effort and desire to make sense of her life in light of Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen.
Theology is life, I realized reading this book. Not alien to it, not detached academic discourse, but figuring out how to live, being fed by God by growing in knowledge of Him.
I had completely forgotten the impact the book had on me till I recently unearthed an intermittently-kept college journal and saw the pages and pages I’d copied out from her book by hand, both poems and prose. I still like this one:
Love Letter Addressed To:
Your immanent eminence
permanent, in firmament
other and awful
king of the kingdom
ex nihil creator
complete but unending
helpless before you
I, Lord, in my fashion,
love and adore you.
Another poem I wrote out in larger letters than the others:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
From this one the book obviously takes its name. It is a subtle but recurring theme: reason is the enemy of faith, of love, of wisdom, of relationship. Being a newbie at theology and sucking down an unnuanced version of Luther’s (widely misunderstood) apothegm “Reason is a whore,” I saw no problem with L’Engle’s perspective on my first read and in fact endorsed it.
Although I scrawled in my journal that The Irrational Season was a book “I’ll have to read every five years or so for the rest of my life to be sure I get everything out of it,” it went forgotten for more than twenty years. Yet on re-reading I was as charmed by it as the first time, even thinking that it would be a good beginner book in theology for just about anyone.
…well, I’m not quite sure how I cottoned on to it, but I think it was because I got confused by the references to her children in the book. There were three of them, but their ages seemed to shift around and that perplexed me. I vaguely recalled that her husband Hugh Franklin was an actor. There was no Google back when I was in college, but now it was easy enough to find out a bit more about L’Engle’s family life.
Whereupon I found “The Storyteller,” an article in The New Yorker by Cynthia Zarin from 2004. It told me a story I did not want to hear.
To wit: “L’Engle’s family habitually refer to all her memoirs as ‘pure fiction,’ and, conversely, consider her novels to be the most autobiographical—though to them equally invasive—of her books.” For example, one of L’Engle’s three children, Maria, was adopted under circumstances similar to Maggy’s in Meet the Austins—except in the fictional world, Maggy gets shunted off to another couple. Maria says bluntly that she hated the Austin books and family friends still can’t believe L’Engle did that to Maggy/Maria.
All that waxing eloquent about marriage in The Irrational Season (and other books, like Two-Part Invention)? It bears little relationship to the relationship she had with Hugh, a fourteen-year fixture on “All My Children.” Maybe starring in a soap addled his morality: he was a notorious philanderer, with two major sidelines going on at the same time.
The most devastating detail is that L’Engle’s son Bion, who was the model for Charles Wallace in the Murry family and Rob in the Austin family, died young, at age forty-seven, of alcoholism, which L’Engle never acknowledged. Nor the fact that Hugh was a drunk; nor L’Engle’s own father. She lived in a perfect bubble of denial and enabling, all the while writing lyrical books about faith and family.
What’s a theologian to do with that?
In one respect, it’s hardly a new problem, to me or anyone else. Cyril of Alexandria is my hero of the early church where christology is concerned. He was also responsible for egging an angry mob into killing Hypatia, the most distinguished pagan woman scholar of her era and perhaps of the ancient world altogether. For years I have been trying to cope with Luther’s appalling writings against the Jews. John Howard Yoder, exemplar of pacifist politics, is now known to have behaved with extreme impropriety toward countless women. And who knows what really went on between Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. To name just a few of the more famous.
Somehow this news about L’Engle hit me harder than the others, right or wrong. Partly because she’s a woman and a near-contemporary. But above all because she’s a liar—deliberately or not. The things we regard as crimes of saints in ages past they didn’t judge the same way we do; they thought they were doing the right thing and didn’t cover up their actions. But L’Engle straight up gave us a distorted portrait of her own life and the people most closely connected to her, and we wouldn’t have known it apart from the office of investigative journalist. (Zarin seems to take no pleasure in being the bearer of bad news, incidentally.)
On another level, of course, the story is sheerly sad. Alcoholic systems are desperately difficult to break out of, and the shame of an adulterous spouse is enormous. L’Engle’s fame, among other things, probably prevented a forthright acknowledgement of the profoundly broken life she was living.
But since re-reading her lovely if all too fictional book and learning these terrible truths, I find myself coming back to her announced glee at the “irrational” season. The contrast to blessed irrationality is IT, the oversized brain that keeps the lockstep populace of Camazotz in stultifying rhythm in A Wrinkle in Time. Meg overcomes IT with love—sheer love—and sets Charles Wallace free. It sounds very deep, very Christian: “God is love,” as I John 4:8 tells us.
But I suspect we cotton on to this propostional statement because, culturally, we like propositional statements. It’s the closest we get to one in the Bible where God is concerned—more straightforward, anyway, than “I Am Who I Am.” Surely God is love. Yet God is also power, wisdom, strength, and righteousness. God is good. God is the way, the truth, and the light. God is the resurrection and the life.
To me, the disheartening disjunction between Madeleine L’Engle’s life and her writings bears witness to the inadequacy of love alone to do the job in our sin-wracked world. I’m sure she wished desperately that the sheer force of her love could keep her straying husband at home. I’m sure she thought her profound love for her children could offset the profound un-wisdom of ransacking their common life for her writing career. I’m sure she thought love for her father or her son should have the power to erase the power alcohol held over them.
I’m not so foolish as to think a greater appeciation of reason would have fixed any of those things in and of itself. But did the embrace of the irrational do her any favors? The hard work of reason—in the sense of thought disciplined by Scripture, according to the cross—is to bust up our illusions about the best part of ourselves. Good theology cauterizes the weeping wounds of ego. It exposes to the light our very mixed loves and their impurities. It calls a spade, a spade—and pious bullshit, pious bullshit. Clearing the way gives God's love, righteousness, and wisdom a better chance to get to work on us.
Meanwhile, I’m still torn about the book. Whatever went awry in L’Engle’s own life, it remains a charming set of meditations on faith and life, a prime example of theology as life. Does her failure to make hope and reality accord disqualify the book? Or is learning of the failure itself an essential part of theological growth?
Either way, may Madeleine rest in true peace in God's loving, unfailing arms.