I have mentioned before that I am a subscriber to the online magazine Christ and Pop Culture. Their private Facebook group is the best thing about Facebook right now. Marion Hill (author in his own right and book blogger as well) is one of the active participants in the group and frequently talks about books he is reading. So several books that are on my radar are directly a result of his advocacy.
The Sparrow is not a new book. It will be 20 year old next month. But I had not heard of it prior to Marion’s suggestion. The Sparrow is the story of a group of people, mostly Jesuit priests, that travel to the first new alien world that has been discovered to understand the population for eventual evangelization.
The story starts at the end. We know that Emilio Sandoz (one of the Jesuits that specialized in linguistics) was the only survivor of the trip. He was found by a team from a follow-up United Nations mission and sent back to earth. Once the initial introduction to the story occurs, then we start at the beginning of Sandoz’s journey out of poverty through the priesthood. We see how God appears to have gathered together a team of people put at the right place and time to providentially be prepared to take on a first contact mission.
Theodicy, or how a good God can permit evil, is the main focus of the book. It takes until the very end of the book to really get the story of what happened to the mission and how everyone else died and why Sandoz was found in the status that he was found in. Sandoz at the start of the book is a completely broken man, physically, mentally and spiritually. The telling of the story is in part about the care of the man who has been brutalized (in ways that are not completely unique to other missionaries in history.)
The Sparrow is the first of two books and it feels incomplete. I have not picked up the second book, so maybe the second book will fully round out the story. But most reviews suggest that the second books is not quite as good as the first.
Mary Doria Russell, I would have assumed was Catholic. It is interesting that like The Book of Strange New Things, which The Sparrow is often compared to, neither was written by Christians. Mary Doria Russell is Jewish, as is one of the main characters. The question of theodicy is both a Jewish and Christian question. In many ways, fiction seems to be a better place to handle the question than straight theology.
I think this was a very engaging novel. The method of going back and forth in time makes sense to the way that the author seems to want to reveal the story, but I did find it a bit annoying at times. I was also a bit annoyed that after more than 15 hours of audiobook, it still felt like an unfinished story (and I do think that was intentional).
I am somewhat surprised that I have not really seen anyone compare it to Endo’s Silence. Both books are about Jesuit missionaries, both have to deal with the reality of faith in the face of serious evil perpetrated not only on themselves but on those around them. They are much more alike than The Book of Strange New Things is similar to The Sparrow. The Book of Strange New Things and The Sparrow both are about the idea of how Christianity relates to aliens as one of their themes, but other than the setting, the books are really not related.
This is not a book you want to read if you want everything to work out nicely or without some real questions. But it is a book that handles faith well and for its weaknesses I still strongly recommend it. It is yet another example of ‘secular’ books handling questions of faith better than most Christian fiction.
There is some real content warning on the book (violence, sex, torture and language). But none of it is gratuitous and it all makes sense in the context of the book and its themes.