The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell (2nd Reading)

The Sparrow cover imageSummary: A group mostly made up of Jesuits discovers that another world with intelligent creatures exists and secretly decides to visit it; tragedy ensues.

I previously read The Sparrow about six years ago. In my ongoing reading about Discernment, it was a fiction book that was suggested to me as one that looks at discernment, so I put it back on my list to reread, but a Holy Post discussion about The Sparrow made me decide to pick it up when I did.

As I have been reading various ways to think about Discernment, I keep coming up against the tension between those who see discernment primarily as Christian decision-making, those who see it as a set of tools or a process that includes decision-making, and those who see it primarily as seeking after God. I am definitely in the latter camp. I know these are not mutually exclusive ways to think about discernment, but I do tend to think of them as the three modes where one is prioritized.

I started a book on discernment a couple of weeks ago, and I could not make it through the first chapter because it approached discernment as a tool that was more similar to an incantation to control God or to get God to reveal himself more than a method to help us understand who God is. This problem is part of why I have been reading about discernment, to help figure out where it seems to go wrong. Discernment is often invoked in discussions of spiritual warfare, and people who regularly talk about spiritual warfare seem more likely to believe in various conspiracy theories. The very nature of belief in conspiracy theories makes me distrust your perception of discernment.

Skye and Kaitlyn’s podcast discussion of the Sparrow took the standard approach of considering it primarily a discussion of the problem of evil or a meditation on the Book of Job. That is an aspect of the book, but Skye said that he did not think it involved discernment much at all. That is why I picked up the book right now. I was reading it to see why it was both recommended to me because I was looking for fiction about discernment, and Skye said that it didn’t really discuss discernment.

As I read it, I thought two things were going on. First, many people do not have a background in Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment. The Sparrow, even though it is primarily about Jesuits, never explicitly invokes the rules of discernment. And I think this is what Skye meant. For a book about Jesuits, written by an author who grew up Catholic, I thought there should have been a more explicit discussion of the rules.

That being said, I think discernment is in the background of The Sparrow but not explicitly invoked. I think I am going to say that while it is not, not about the Problem of Evil, I think the more nuanced take is that it is interested in the problem of evil regarding the process of discernment, especially when you are no longer sure of the validity of your discernment.

Because of the story structure, with the book starting at the end and then telling the story in flashback, it is not a spoiler to say that the main character has a crisis of faith because he was attempting to follow God but had all of his mission members die, except for himself. I continue to come across the concept of Betrayal Trauma in religious settings. David Swanson’s interview with Dr Glen Bracey about Bracey and Emerson’s book,The Religion of Whiteness, again touched on Betrayal Trauma and especially the problem of Christians who are racial minorities who feel a call toward racial reconciliation and then feel rejected in that process, and who feel a type of betrayal trauma as a result. They identify a call, attempt to live out that call, feel rejected or unsuccessful in the calling, and they end up having to reject part of themselves (either their culture or background or calling), causing a trauma response.

The main character in The Sparrow, Emilio Sandoz, is having a trauma response. He is medically broken but also psychologically and spiritually broken as well. It is a spoiler to discuss why Betrayal Trauma might be a good way to discuss Emilio’s pain. If you do not want spoilers, you should stop reading here. I don’t love the way that sexual violence, rape, and prostitution are used in The Sparrow to evoke trauma and pain, and I do want to give a warning about that.

Last night, I started the second book, Children of God. It picks up immediately after the end of The Sparrow, and in the prologue, it summarizes the ending of The Sparrow this way:

“Do you know what I thought, just before I was used the first time? I am in God’s hands,” Emilio had said, when his resistance finally shattered on a golden August afternoon. “I loved God and I trusted in His love. Amusing, isn’t it. I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.” [and then just a few lines later another character thinks] “Emilio Sandoz was not sinless; indeed, he held himself guilty of a great deal, and yet … “If I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness,” Sandoz had told them. “But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances, is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”

My reading of The Sparrow is that Emilio feels trauma because of betrayal, not abstractly as a problem of evil, but because he has followed an Ignatian sense of discernment. At the end of that discernment, things do not go as he thought they should. His friends are dead; he was being held as a sex slave and brutally raped by aliens after having been medically tortured in an alien ritual that left him disfigured and unable to use his hands and on the edge of death. That trauma is reinforced when another party of humans finds him on that alien planet, misunderstands the situation,  accuses him of murder and prostitution, and sends him back to Earth all alone without adequate medical care or support. The storytelling method of The Sparrow is an informal defense trial within the Jesuit structure to determine whether he had committed murder and prostitution.

Betrayal trauma is throughout the book, both from the human rescuer’s response, the Jesuit official response, and his understanding of God having rejected him or betrayed him.

But this brings up another aspect I missed on my first reading. Mary Doria Russell converted from Catholic to Jewish due to writing The Sparrow, her first book. Anne, an agnostic doctor who reluctantly came on the trip because of her friendship with Emilio twice, says in The Sparrow that her problem with God is that people always give God credit for the good but never responsibility for the bad. There is some reality to that, and it is one of the reasons that many have for rejecting a strong Calvinist position of double predestination, where both the saved and the not-saved have been specifically destined for their fates by God from before the start of time.

But the book of Job and traditional Christian theology has a role for “the accuser” or the enemy or a personified Satan. It is not God who tortures Job for God’s own pleasure, but the accuser who tortures Job to see if Job will reject God when things get hard. I did not realize in my first reading that The Sparrow has no Satan or concept of an evil force. Anne’s rejection of God is in part because she has no concept of a role for Satan. I do think there are some problems with the saying that Satan can be blamed for clearly natural results of our sin. There is no perfect answer to the problem of evil. But at least part of the answer has been that God is not the originator of evil and that God does not cause evil things to happen. Whether Christians believe in a personified evil (Satan) or a more abstract evil force, Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch is all about the need for a concept of evil in order to make sense of God.

Part of the problem of discernment in The Sparrow is that Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment are not abstract principles of decision-making but Rules of Discernment of the Spirits. He is trying to help those doing his spiritual exercises discern whether the spiritual messages they are understanding are from God or from evil spirits. At least in Ignatius’ system, discernment without a concept of evil makes no sense.

The strength of The Sparrow concerning discernment is that it makes clear that we are fallible in our understanding of God’s direction. Everything may seem to lead us in one direction, but we may still be wrong and it may not be from God. The problem with the presentation of discernment in The Sparrow is that there is no enemy.

Review of Children of God

Note: I drafted this whole post immediately after reading The Sparrow, but because of travel and work, I did not post until I finished the second book, The Children of God. These are intended to be read as a single story in two parts. I do not think at this point in my post about The Sparrow that it is a spoiler to say that, in large part, The Children of God explains what was misunderstood in The Sparrow. While I gave spoilers in this discussion, I tried to write my post on The Children of God with as few spoilers as possible. 

The Sparrow: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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