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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

May 9th, 2014 (11:58 am)

The other day, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for the first time. I’d read the first three books in the Time Quintet, but when I was a kid I started Many Waters and was really bored almost immediately. Reading it as an adult, I wasn’t bored, but I was confused, because she decided to take on the topic of Noah and the flood and yet dodged all the challenging parts of the story. It’s not just that she doesn’t explore in any kind of depth the consequences or, really, any of the disturbing aspects of the idea of God wiping out the entire world. The characters who are fated to drown are drawn as not very nice people, but they’re not drawn so harshly as to make it seem okay that they’re all getting axed by God. But she basically passes that over without making the reader feel like the flood is anything particularly cruel. And then she sets up this thing where Noah’s daughters are not allowed on the ark, only his sons and their wives, which, I mean, is a seriously fucked-up detail. And she spends a lot of time painting one teenage daughter of Noah who is expected to drown in the flood. Which I liked, because it made the point that the flood was both capricious and cruel in drowning at least some people who weren’t dominated by evil. Except L’Engle, IMO, totally chickens out in the end and has the girl get beamed up to heaven before the flood starts. Seriously? You set up the play and then just walk away?

(Another issue: the twins remark several times that the flood was pointless because people are as evil now as they were then, but L'Engle doesn’t get into that in any depth either. And dude, that is such a good point.)

I know that a core aspect of L’Engle’s faith is that God is kind and merciful. Which is a vision of God I’ve always liked, but it’s also a vision that involves tossing out most of the Old Testament. And that’s fine by me, because I’m not someone who thinks the Bible is some sort of incontrovertible history/biography of God. My understanding of God casts a wider net, draws from different traditions. But if that’s not how L’Engle’s faith works, fine, cool. What I don’t get is her taking on one of the cruelest stories in the Bible and then refusing to address its cruelty. Why would you choose to write about the flood if you’re not going to engage with the emotional and moral implications of the story?

I saw the movie Noah in the theater and was actually kind of impressed by it, though Lord knows it wasn’t perfect (rock monsters, srsly?). But it didn’t pull its punches too much in confronting the horror of God’s killing everybody on the planet except for half a dozen people, and Noah’s single-mindedness in refusing to question the morality of every dictate he (thinks) he’s hearing from God is an interesting and, I think, illuminating take on the story. It wasn’t a movie that I was super-impressed by in the theater, but I find myself still thinking about it months after I saw it, so I guess it was doing something right. And I think the something was its willingness to face all the aspects of the story of the flood, including the troubling ones, honestly and thoughtfully.

I’m curious as to whether anybody reading this has read Many Waters and what their (your) thoughts are on it. I thought it was surprisingly facile for a Madeleine L’Engle novel, which was disappointing. But maybe I’m missing something.


Posted by: Beautiful Disaster (pennywhistle)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 06:19 pm (UTC)

Many Waters was my FAVORITE of the whole series, but you do bring up some good points. I think I liked it because I was in to fictionalizations of Old Testament stories (also reading and loving The Red Tent around that time). I haven't read it in maybe 5 or 6 years, but it is one that I've reread several times and remember enjoying.

Posted by: electric misfit love machine (eyelid)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 06:20 pm (UTC)

I disagree with your conclusion that G-d is cruel in the Tanach. I think it's kind of offensive for you to say so. But I'm not really interested in arguing about it- you're not Jewish, for one, and you have already made up your mind, for another.

I have read Many Waters. My main discomfort with it is that having sex with nephilim was this huge evil thing, while remaining virginal got you beamed up to heaven, apparently. I really don't like books that imply that sex is evil.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 06:22 pm (UTC)

OK, perhaps generalizing about the Old Testament overall was not cool, but I feel strongly that the flood was a cruel thing. The story of Job isn't great either.

Posted by: Heidi (sioneva)
Posted at: May 11th, 2014 07:10 pm (UTC)

I, for one, feel that there's a lot of cruelty in the Old Testament. My inability to believe in and TRUST a God who would permit that is part of the reason I've moved away from Christianity.

The flood *was* a cruel thing. The notion that killing babies and toddlers (who are innocent, NOT evil), as well as however many hundreds of thousands of people who were basically doing only what they'd learned to do (God wasn't speaking to them, God was only really chatting with Noah, hello), is, frankly, genocidal. Same with Sodom and Gomorrah, unless I missed the bit where the children were saved.

As for Many Waters, it's not one of my favorite of her books, it's true. I appreciate that she gave Sandy and Dennys their own adventure but I wish it had been a little different...

Posted by: Heidi (sioneva)
Posted at: May 11th, 2014 07:12 pm (UTC)

Also, process theology: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Process_theology

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 06:26 pm (UTC)

And -- hmm, I read the thing about sex with nephilim being evil more as being about the nature of the nephilim than the nature of sex. But I guess the only sex we actually see in the book is sex with nephilim, so I suppose that could be taken to imply that all sex is evil. I liked the line where Dennys said sleeping with Tiglah was "not worth losing the ability to touch a unicorn," but I wanted to see a sexual relationship that WAS worth that.

Posted by: Brandoch Daha (ticktockman)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 08:39 pm (UTC)

Oh hey, I'm Jewish, and I'm perfectly willing both to rebut and to risk offending you. You must get offended pretty darn often on the internet, since you're setting the bar that low.

If you start with the assumption that the Bible is about a superpower who did everything that God did, but isn't all-wise, then it would be pretty hard to read the story of Elisha and the bears and not think about that superpower as cruel. If Elisha had been my servant, and a gang of children had teased him about being bald, and I responded by releasing two bears which then killed 42 of the kids, you would think me to be cruel, and also to be a criminal, an asshole, a sociopath, and a madman.

It's only when you start with the assumption that God is infinitely wise that you can make an argument that God's slaughter of the 42 boys was justified, and the reason it was justified was because God did it, and God is wiser than we are.

Likewise, God slaughtered 7000 sheep and goats, 3000 camels, 1000 oxen, and 500 donkeys in order to win a bet with Satan. The animals had done nothing wrong, it was just that they were the property of a man God had chosen to torment in accordance with the bet. Likewise God slaughtered a large number of men and women because they were servants to Job. Likewise God slaughtered 3 more women and 7 more men because they were the children of Job. And so it goes.

If this were done by any man, or any old garden-variety superpower, we would deem him cruel. But because we define God as not-cruel, therefor this slaughter perpetrated by God was not cruel. And because you hold that God is not-cruel, you are offended by anyone who doesn't see it your way.

Go ahead and be offended. And then go ahead and say that you COULD find it offensive, but that you're not going to argue the point, because, um slammerkinbabe isn't Jewish, and has already reached a conclusion, and by not-arguing you are terminating the conversation and having the last word.


Posted by: electric misfit love machine (eyelid)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 09:11 pm (UTC)


I'm talking to SKB. I don't know you and don't care what you think one way or the other. Arguing on the internet is stupid- you're a case in point. ("Daha"? Seriously?)</p>

You may now have the last word! Maybe someone else will read it.

Posted by: Brandoch Daha (ticktockman)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 09:15 pm (UTC)

Right. You've just done the typed equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying "Nah nah nah I can't hear you."


Posted by: Morgan (banshea)
Posted at: May 9th, 2014 07:15 pm (UTC)

The last time I read Many Waters I was probably 12, and then I read An Acceptable Time and basically haven't read any of the series BUT An Acceptable Time since then. I think I came across the series at about the time or just after I started rejecting Christianity, and the less overtly Christian the book, the more I liked it.

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: May 10th, 2014 03:19 am (UTC)

I love ML, and I loved that book, but I read it in my early 20s or even younger (at any rate, a long time ago!), and it is definitely one of her less sophisticated efforts. I've read her religious non-fiction extensively, and it's actually what kept me in Christianity and led me to seek out mainline Protestant traditions when I was running screaming from Catholicism. That book and A House Like a Lotus definitely have some major flaws, even with these shining moments of goodness in them. She handles the difficult stuff far better in An Acceptable Time, which follows Meg and Calvin's daughter on a time-travel adventure.

L'Engle's take on the Bible, from what I've gleaned from her other writings, were actually pretty close to your own. She wasn't averse to drawing from other traditions, and her philosophy is that God is the ultimate good, that Christ is for all of us, and that the Bible is the living word of God, meaning that we have the opportunity to re-create what it means every time we read it. She writes several places that she thinks the Bible is "real" the way Scout Finch and Emily of New Moon and Mary Lennox are "real."

I think her underlying philosophy is one of a big-picture God. When we encounter difficulty, her pat answer is that we're only seeing one small part of the issue and that if you zoom out something very different could be going on. That's a feature I see in just about all her work, including all the Time books and especially A Wind in the Door. She claimed not to be a universalist, but then went on to clarify that she thinks that ultimately God will reconcile everyone and everything in time, but that it won't be on a timeline we can understand.

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