book response: The Sparrow by Russell (1996)

Cover of
Cover of The Sparrow: A Novel
I read Mary Doria Russell's premier novel, The Sparrow, this past weekend. I forced myself to take breaks from it so I could be a participating member of my family. It was very good. Since it is a 16 year old book, I don't feel bad discussing the ending, but this is a spoiler for those who don't know, like me, who are new to this book.

I don't read much fiction, but sometimes on a lark from a recommendation at a blog I enjoy, I take a risk. It was a good risk. Ultimately, this is about God, the problem of evil, rape, death, sacrifice, and despair.

I am very interested in Russell's jab at the problem of evil, which comes at the end. The Jesuit interplanetary missionary ends up the lone survivor of an exploration party to an alien civilization. But he survived because he became an exotic sex toy to one of the alien species and he suffered repeated sodomy. (This is quite the irony in light of the scandal of the pederastic priests who came to light in the 90's.)  He thought God had lined up all the circumstances to visit this new civilization but his party all ended up dead, and he was violated. His anger at God was so visceral his only options were that God did not exist, meaning that all this pain was brought on by himself, or God, in effect, raped him, meaning he was a wicked god. He couldn't believe the latter, so he chose the former. But his fellow Jesuits sought to bring him to a place of healing, not necessarily belief, but relief from his internalized pain. His cathartic moment comes at the end when he speaks out loud that he was raped, repeatedly. But where does leave God in the Jesuits' mind?
"So God just leaves?" John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. "Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!" [Deism - JPU]
"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering."
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'"
"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said.
They sat for a while, wrapped in their private musings. (p.401)
Her answer to the problem of evil is that God knows, and feels, but he doesn't usually intervene. I can go with that. We are always looking for patterns. The patterns that predominate our news cycles are those which it appears God doesn't intervene. There aren't as many stories about close calls and near misses, who knows if we are even conscious of half of those. If the miraculous were normal, there wouldn't be, by definition, any miracles. In the case of the book's main character, Father Emilio Sandoz, there were dozens of unusual circumstances, referred to as turtles on top of fenceposts, that could only be explained by God's doing. (A turtle on a fencepost can only happen by the action of an intelligent agent.) His response to his assaults is that, if God were real, then God raped him.

"But God." God permits evil. If this life is all we have, then evil has won. But if there is a life beyond our mere 70 odd years, a life a million multiples greater in length than this one on earth, the evil permitted will not continue to overwhelm our world. Healing and redemption and justice will come. It may take longer than our life span on earth to complete the healing, but it will be complete.
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