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'A Wrinkle In Time' author Madeleine L’Engle offended people with her blend of science and spirituality

Photo caption: Madeleine L’Engle & Charlotte Jones Voiklis in Goshen, Connecticut on June 19, 2003 (c) Jill Krementz.
Photo caption: Madeleine L’Engle & Charlotte Jones Voiklis in Goshen, Connecticut on June 19, 2003 (c) Jill Krementz.
Photo credit: Jill Krementz

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Madeleine L’Engle was an equal opportunity offender.

“Now, there is a story that, after the Big Bang, the voice of God was heard saying ‘Whoops,’” she dryly joked in a lecture at UCSB in 1998. “And I kind of like that, you know.”

L’Engle was very open about her Christian faith, which rattled some people in her New York literary circle. But she was also much more open to mystery and science — and heretical humor — than many conservative Christians would tolerate.
“Well, she did not come out of a conservative background, and so she, in many ways, did not articulate faith the way that people that are perhaps more conservative would,” says Sarah Arthur, a Christian author and speaker currently writing a “spiritual biography” on L’Engle called “A Light So Lovely.”

“But there was just a sort of flock of people in the ’80s and ’90s who really pushed against what they felt was far too much interest in what they called the Occult, or the demonic, or New Age philosophy in her writing,” adds Arthur. “And she had absolutely no background in New Age philosophy whatsoever, so she just found that baffling.”

L’Engle grew up Episcopalian, but didn’t go to Sunday school like other kids, and so she developed her own particular, progressive form of faith. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was very young — but by 1959, married with kids, she was 40 years old and hadn’t found success yet.

“She had been going through an existential crisis, as she called it,” says Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter, who just wrote — with her older sister Léna — the biography “Becoming Madeleine.”

“She had been seeing a lot of rejection as a writer, and she wasn’t good at baking pies or waxing her floors, so she felt that she didn’t know what she was meant to do. She had asked her congregational minister what she should read, how she should handle that, and he recommended German theologians.”

“I don’t much like German theologians,” L’Engle mused in that 1998 lecture. “They’re very useful for one thing: insomnia.”

“And then she began to read scientists like Einstein and Heisenberg,” continues Voiklis, “and she found in them a sort of wonder at the universe. And it was in science that she found a theology that was more real to her than anything she was finding in church.”

That’s when L’Engle had the idea for “A Wrinkle in Time”: a story about a smart, insecure young girl named Meg who goes on an interplanetary adventure to save her missing father.

“She would always say that she was Meg,” says Voiklis, “and she was very much like Meg — full of passion and impetuousness, and stubborn and impatient, but also full of love and strength.”

The book was brimming with ideas L’Engle was pondering about God, science, and the universe, and when she finished it... nobody was interested.

“People were confused about why, in a science-fiction book, there was a female protagonist,” says Voiklis. “There was a lot of religion. ‘Oh, the science is too hard.’ ‘Is it for grown-ups? Is it for children?’ She’d say, ‘It’s for people! Don’t people read books?’ She hated the labels. And then she was prevailed upon by a friend of her mother’s to send it out one more time, to John Farrar of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. And he loved it, but he was also a bit nervous about it, and they sent it out to an outside reader, [who] came back with this note: ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’ And to Farrar’s and Giroux’s credit, they published it anyway.”

“A Wrinkle in Time” was published in 1962, and the next year it won the Newbery Medal — the highest honor for a children’s book — and went on to sell more than 16 million copies. L’Engle’s writing career took off, and she wrote some 60 more books — including three sequels, many other novels, memoirs, and an influential book on faith and art.

“Wrinkle” always remained deeply significant to her.

“It was a way of writing about a universe in which she hoped to believe,” says Voiklis, “that at the center of the universe there is love.”

And yet, the book is one of the most frequently banned or “challenged,” according to the American Library Association. Non-Christian folks complained about its Bible references, and — more often — church folks accused it of celebrating witchcraft and the occult.

Disney has adapted “A Wrinkle in Time” before, in a made-for-TV version back in 2003.

Newsweek asked L’Engle if it met her expectations. She said: “I expected it to be bad — and it is.”

Now the studio has poured way more money and talent — Oprah! Chris Pine! Reese Witherspoon! — into a big-screen adaptation, and made history by giving an African-American woman, “Selma” director Ava Duvernay, a nine-figure budget. Duvernay made Meg biracial, and filled the cast and crew with women and people of color.

The film has pretty much scrubbed all explicit Christian references — but it honors the book, which dared to make a sci-fi protagonist a girl, by blazing new trails of inclusion and racial representation. That, too, was something Madeleine L’Engle believed in.

“Real fantasy pushes us, opens us, makes us more aware of who we are, who the other is — and that the other may be different,” the author said. “We’ve always been frightened by differences. And fantasy, again, awakens us to the possibility of differences being positive. We’re brought up to fear those who are different. And certainly we live on a planet of very varied and different people, of different languages, different colors, different face shapes. And yet we all are one — we are all part of that one creation. And perhaps only as we learn to look at fantasy do we understand that all of this is real.”

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