Children of God: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

Summary: The second half of the story of The Sparrow.

When I first read The Sparrow, I did not realize that Children of God was actually part two of the book. I thought it was a sequel, but instead, it should be considered the second half of a single story. Because of this, I did not read Children of God until two years after I read The Sparrow. It was not until re-reading that I realized how much those two years impacted my understanding. This is a single story.

The book opens immediately after the end of The Sparrow. The reader and the characters think that they understand what happened on Rahkat (the other world that they traveled to.) But one way you should prepare to read Children of God is to think of it as an explanation of all the things misunderstood in The Sparrow. This is an alien contact story. Culture and biology are different. And even when Sandoz thinks he understands the language as a linguist, there are mistakes and misunderstandings.

Sandoz was traumatized in The Sparrow, and multiple stages of healing come throughout the Children of God. It is not that he “forgets” his pain and trauma. But he does come to terms with it in some ways over time. This does bring up my main concern about The Children of God. In my post about The Sparrow, I somewhat minimized this as a book about the problem of evil, which is still a significant theme within The Children of God. I do not believe there is a solution to the problem of evil. However, one method of dealing with the problem of evil is to suggest that God was behind everything to accomplish the greater good. While I think there is some space for seeing a different plan than what we had or that we misunderstood God’s plan, I get concerned with “making things come out right.”

I have two main concerns with it. First, I do not think that God ordains evil. I think God can work to redeem the results of evil, but that is different from thinking that God has a plan from the beginning where evil is required to be done, which results in God’s plan being accomplished. The problem with how I conceive of this is that it limits God’s power, knowledge, or willingness to intervene. I think God is all-powerful, has knowledge, and wants good to happen for all of us. However, evidence from history shows that evil still occurs. So, I cannot explain the problem of evil. I can only say that God, in his incarnation, chose to be with us in our pain to show us a way forward. And while I think that is true, I do not think it is a great answer pastorally.

I still think that these two books lack consideration of the role of evil or an embodied Satan (see Reviving Old Scratch for more). There is a brief exchange in Children of God that acknowledges the problem and, I think, shows Russell’s lack of familiarity with Ignatius. This exchange is between Sean (a Jesuit from Northern Ireland) and Sandoz.

“I’m told y’blame God for what happened on Rakhat. Why not blame Satan? Do y’believe in the devil, then, Sandoz?” “But that is irrelevant,” Sandoz said lightly. “Satan ruins people by tempting them to take an easy or pleasurable path.” He was on his feet, taking his mug and plate to the galley.

“Spoken like a good Jesuit,” Sean called to him. “And there was nothin’ easy nor pleasurable in what happened to you.”

Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment are much more nuanced about how temptation works. In particular, Ignatius talks about two different types of temptation. One type is similar to what Sandoz is suggesting. We can be tempted on two sides of the same coin by thinking that the life of a Christian is too hard or that there is more pleasure in not following the path we think is God’s will. But there is another type of temptation, and Ignatius suggests that this second type is more likely to be used against more mature Christians. It is when people are tempted to do too much because God needs them, and they can’t depend on others. Taking on another role or changing jobs to get more prestige, or diluting our time with many things instead of focusing on the more important things. The main point of this second type of temptation is that it either detracts us from our relational connection to God because of our busyness or it feeds our pride by making us think that only we can do the things that are necessary around us and that God has no one else to share the load.

Mary Doria Russell, I think under concieves of how the reality of satan or the concept of evil work in these two books, which does impact how she approaches the problem of evil.

I am going to quote again from later in that same discussion. I understand the point that is trying to be made here—finding meaning in the suffering—but I do not think it is theologically accurate.

“You were a priest for decades,” Sean said with quiet insistence, “and a good one. Think like a priest, Sandoz. Think like a Jesuit! What did Jesus add to the canon, man? If the Jews deserved one thing, it was a better answer to sufferin’ than the piss-poor one Job got. If pain and injustice and undeserved misery are part of the package, and God knows they are, then surely the life of Christ is God’s own answer to Ecclesiasticus! Redeem the suffering. Embrace it. Make it mean something.”

and slightly later

Sandoz closed his eyes, but Sean’s voice went on, with its hard r’s and the flat, unmusical poetry of Belfast. “Pity the poor, wee souls who live a life of watered milk—all blandness and pleasantry—and die nicely asleep in ripe old age. Water and milk, Sandoz. They live half a life and never know the strength they might have had. Show God what yer made of, man. Pucker up and kiss the cross. Make it your own. Make all this mean something. Redeem it.”

Later in the book another character (John) from The Sparrow is reflecting on the problem of evil and how Sandoz is handling his pain.

He thought of all the ways of coping with undeserved pain. Offer it up. Remember Jesus on the cross. The bromides: God never gives us a burden we cannot bear. Everything happens for a reason. John Candotti knew for a fact that the old sayings worked for some people. But as a parish priest, he had often observed that trust in God could impose an additional burden on good people slammed to their knees by some senseless tragedy. An atheist might be no less staggered by such an event, but nonbelievers often experienced a kind of calm acceptance: shit happens, and this particular shit had happened to them. It could be more difficult for a person of faith to get to his feet precisely because he had to reconcile God’s love and care with the stupid, brutal fact that something irreversibly terrible had happened.

I really do appreciate and recommend these two books. There is value in thinking through the problem of evil. And in spite of the fact that I do not think that Mary Doria Russell understands the Ignatian Rules of Discernment, I do think you can read this with an eye on how the characters think about what it means to understand God and the world around them.

Between the two books, this is a 900-page story, so it is not a quick read. There are lots of tragedies and traumas. But I do think it is a theologically rich look at actual pain that we should not ignore as Christians.

Children of God: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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