Dec 22 2011 4:00pm

Science, Religion, Wonder: The Glorious Impossible

The Glorious Impossible (1990) is Madeleine L’Engle’s retelling of the life of Christ. Intended for children, and illustrated with reproductions from the Scrovegni Chapel frescos in Padua painted by Giotto di Bondoni in the late Middle Ages, the retelling begins with the Annunciation and the Nativity and ends with Pentecost. It’s not exactly a Christmas book, but it does discuss Christmas, which is why I’m discussing this book out of publication order. (I did mention that L’Engle’s books create a problem with time.)

For many people, I suspect the main attraction of the book is less the narrative, and more the Giotto paintings. The reproductions are superb, and for those who haven’t had the chance to travel to Padua, and even for those who have and found that the experience made them feel very short and unable to see the upper paintings in detail, the book presents a splendid opportunity to see the paintings—most of them. Giotto’s original focus was the life of the Virgin Mary; L’Engle, more interested in the life of Christ, leaves out the pictures focused on the early life of the Virgin. I found myself fascinated by the little details in Giotto’s paintings—Joseph’s completely exhausted look; the way the Wise Men get halos while their poor servants, focused on taking care of the pack animals, are left without any halos at all (poor servants) and the look on Judas’s face, as if he just knows he has to suck the life out of everything. This is great stuff.

(Also, Giotto’s painting of Lazarus emerging from the tomb? I still want to know how he’s managing to walk swathed in bandages like that. At least with Hollywood mummies the legs aren’t bandaged together.)

On the other hand, these Giotto paintings do somewhat constrict L’Engle’s retelling: she can only focus on the two miracles Giotto chose to paint (the Wedding at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus) although other miracles are mentioned in passing. Similarly, she says very little about Jesus’s preaching and ministry, since Giotto didn’t paint that in this chapel. And the paintings sometimes give an odd tenor to her statements, as in this quote from her:

In Scripture, whenever an angel appears to anyone, the angel’s first words usually are, “FEAR NOT!” which gives us an idea of what angels must have looked like.

….which appears right next to Giotto’s illustration of the angel Gabriel, who looks just like a lovely, straight nosed human, admittedly with red wings—but otherwise, not particularly terrifying. More problematically, in the account from the Gospel of Luke, Mary is less terrified by the appearance of the angel and more terrified at what the angel is saying, which she correctly guesses is not going to be universally believed.

But these narrative asides also provide the most interesting parts of the text for those interested in L’Engle’s religious beliefs, and how they may have shaped her fiction. Some of these asides are quite straightforward—L’Engle’s explanations of certain aspects of ancient Jewish life, or her statement that having older friends who are not parents can be helpful, and so on. Some are somewhat awkward— for instance, her comment that 20th century atrocities hardly excuse Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, which, well, yes, with the slight problem that the 20th century atrocities actually happened and Herod’s Massacre is historically dubious (but painted by Giotto) although Herod’s murder of his own sons is less historically dubious. (In this book L’Engle appears to accept all of the New Testament stories without question, regardless of their historical probability.) The entire discussion of these atrocities suggests that L’Engle was still struggling with reconciling the horrors seen in her lifetime with her belief in a loving Christ, and that particular page is left with an ambiguous ending.

But her most interesting comments come when she inserts discussions of science into her text, particularly telling in her description of the baptism of Jesus, with this paragraph:

We human beings seem quite capable of accepting that light is a particle, and light is a wave. So why should it be more difficult for us to comprehend that Jesus was completely God and Jesus was completely human?

I’m not entirely certain that all human beings are capable of accepting that particular quality of light—but this goes back to an insistence that L’Engle would return to again and again: science and religion are not opposites, but complimentary, and that the study and understanding of science should bring people closer to God.

The retelling is filled with questions, and L’Engle does not claim to have the answers. What she has is an abiding wonder that a creator God would become human—a wonder that allowed her to create in her fiction stars that became angels, time travelling unicorns, and the ability to travel to other galaxies and inside a mitochondria. I cannot recommend this book for casual readers. But for those interested in Giotto’s frescos, or for those interested in an easily accessible summary of L’Engle’s theology, this may be worth a look.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, and will be heading back to publication order for the Madeleine L’Engle reread next week.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Anthony Pero
1. anthonypero
More problematically, in the account from the Gospel of Luke, Mary is
less terrified by the appearance of the angel and more terrified at what the angel is saying, which she correctly guesses is not going to be universally believed.

Well, that is why they call them the synoptic gospels. Just because the author of Luke chose to focus on Mary's consternation over the perception of this message isn't meant to imply that she had no fear of the Angel's appearance, or even that Mary was more concerned over the message than the messenger. It simply means that the author was more concerned over the message. And that stands to reason, since his account is about the Message, not about Mary or an angel.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@Anthonypero -- Fair enough, but Giotto's angel still isn't scary at all, whatever Mary may or may not have felt, which undercuts L'Engle's point that angels must have been terrifying.

And it's not that Giotto couldn't produce terrifying images -- his vision of the massacre of the Holy Innocents shows that he was absolutely capable of representing terror. It's just that he chose to portray angels as beautiful, reassuring sorts of humans with wings.
Mr Pond
3. Mr Pond
Brilliant post, Mari. It makes me want to buy the book! But then I'm a bit of a sucker for medieval sacred art.

I wonder if L'Engle isn't necessarily 'accepting' the Gospel accounts, regardless of what historians are saying, or simply treating with the stories that are there on their own terms? If she's dealing with the facts of the narrative, in other words; the historicity of the narrative might not have mattered so much for her purposes.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Mr Pond - She appears to accept the Gospel accounts as historical truth, which isn't an unusual opinion for a devout Christian.

In a later book, Many Waters, she seems to be struggling between her religious belief that the Bible is entirely true and the fact that science does not support the Genesis account, and although archaeology has identified various major, devastating floods in Biblical periods, it has not identified a flood covering the entire world, as in the Genesis account. Choosing between religion and science in that book gave her more difficulties.
Anthony Pero
5. anthonypero
Reconciling a belief in the complete historical veracity of the Bible with the first 11 chapters of Genesis is something many fundamentalist Christians struggle with. Most choose to simpy ignore it. Some try to find ways to make it work "scientifically", and a very few decide that something can be complete "true" without being completely "factual". The historical accuracy of Genesis should not really effect a person's belief in the historical accuracy of the Gospels, since they were written hundreds (if not a thousands in the case of Genesis source material) of years apart and are really completely separate books that happen to be contained in one volume.
Mr Pond
6. HelenS
L'Engle was never any sort of fundamentalist -- she was always well within the liberal Anglican tradition. Incidentally, the bit about angels having to start with "Fear not" is cribbed from C.S. Lewis, who went on to say that the typical Victorian angel looked more as though it was going to say, "There, there."
Anthony Pero
7. anthonypero
Perhaps I used the word to loosely. By fundamentalist, I mean a literal interperatation of everything in the Bible, which is what what MariCats is alluding to in post #4. Of course, that used to be what most Christians believed, not just fundamentalists.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@HelenS and @anthonypero -- :: nods :: I have to agree with HelenS that L'Engle was not a fundamentalist Christian. She did accept that the universe was created by God, and her vision of that creation (in A Swiftly Tilting Planet) owes something to Lewis, which in turn owes a great deal to Tolkien (although L'Engle would not have known that while writing Planet) and also owes something to George MacDonald.

With that said, I don't think it's quite as easy to pick and choose which parts of the Bible can be regarded as historical. Genesis does, after all, express at least some historical truths about life in the early Bronze Age in the Mediterranean basin -- people of the period did wander around, did keep sheep and goats, did get kidnapped, did dig wells and so on (although I have my doubts about people turning into pillars of salt), and those uncomplimentary stories about the incestuous ancestry of some of the groups of the area reflect negative attitudes towards those peoples. And some people -- generally fundamentalist Christians - do believe that faith in Christ requires a complete belief in the infallibility of the Bible. (Some of these people, in turn, dislike L'Engle for not holding to all Biblical truths.)

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