Book Review: The Sparrow

The SparrowThe Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books, 1996
408 pages (paperback)

Powell’s Books

From the beginning, we learn that the mission to Rakhat was a total failure.  In 2019, a signal unexpectedly reaches Earth and the world is stunned to discover evidence of life on another planet.  Bureaucrats did what bureaucrats do: debated whether they should send a mission to meet their newly-discovered neighbors.  And while they sat on their fingers, the Jesuits did what they have done best for centuries: put together a team to engage in first contact with “God’s other children.”

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow begins in the year 2059, when the once-energized linguist and Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth a destroyed soul and is put on trial. The rest of the book is the tale of an amazing tragedy.

The story moves smoothly back and forth in time, from the period of the mission to the time of Sandoz’s return and interrogation.  The two stories intertwine and come together with greater intensity toward the end, which begs the reader to stay with it.  What also makes this book compelling is Russell’s detailed description of life and society on Rakhat; her background in paleoanthropology helps make this possible.

Despite early revelations in the book, the story is gripping and pulls the reader in quickly, attaching us to characters that are as human as the two alien races of Rakhat—the Runa and Jana’ata—are foreign.  This is not science fiction for science-fiction’s sake.  While science fiction can often deal with complex moral questions, The Sparrow fearlessly engages the issues of theology and philosophy, but more apropos—considering the tragedy—questions of theodicy.

Not all on the mission are Jesuits.  Not all are convinced that there is a God.  They are a complicated sort—sexually active and celibate, engineers and scientists, medical doctors and linguists—connected by profession or friendship, driven by insatiable curiosity or a sense of divine call.  It is this last one that runs headlong into issues of pain and sorrow.

Deus vult, or “God wills it,” is a common theme throughout the book.  If he wills the good, does he also will the bad?  Russell’s journey from her Catholic roots into agnosticism and finally into the Jewish faith helps inform the questions this book asks.  The Sparrow is about the questions, not the answers, and for this it is better.  Emilio’s words echoe these sentiments.

“The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds…If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them.  And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”

Sandoz’s encounter with another world fuels his sense of divine purpose.  Yet the same character whose joyful exuberance proclaimed “I was born for this” later shouts from the prison of despair: “What is a whore but someone whose body is ruined for the pleasure of others?  I am God’s whore, and ruined.”


Watercolor illustration by William Blake (June 1805). Illustrations from the Book of Job. "Job's Evil Dreams" (Wikicommons)

The question of theodicy is unavoidable.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  If God is in charge, why is there pain and sorrow?  Could he not stop it?  Shouldn’t he?  The Buddha would have simply noted the obvious; the one shot by an arrow does not need to know the name of the archer.  Perhaps there is something to learn from that, but for the Christian, a very personal God turns this into a very personal question.

Having spent a large portion of my life in the Reformed faith, I’ve been reminded over the years that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, emphasis mine).  But what about everyone else?

Many answers have been given over the centuries.  Irenaeus recognized that humans were not created perfect.  To be like God was a path toward Christ-likeness, and that path contained plenty of opportunity for evil.  For Augustine, evil is not a substance, but the privation of goodness.  God permits it, but does not create it.  We can point fingers at Adam and Eve and the misuse of free will has left us with the sting of original sin ever since.  When it occurs, we ultimately deserve it.

In the tradition of Augustine, John Calvin would have chalked it up to the mystery of providence.  When good things happen, praise God for doing them, but when bad things happen, remember that God has a purpose and evil is a mystery.  Saying God’s in charge, but shrugging one’s shoulders at the details, does not generally help those suffering at the hands of genocidal rulers or cancer.  We see this come out in a conversation later in The Sparrow.

“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly.
“‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’”
“But the sparrow still falls,” Felipe said.

“God gets the credit,” argues the agnostic Anne, “but never the blame.”  It sounds like the perfect job.

So how do we answer the question?  Process theologians would tell us that God is part of the world and suffers along with us.  The physicist-turned-priest John Polkinghorne adds that it is the natural process of this world; God created it with the potential for its light and shadow sides.  Life requires plate tectonics, but with those shifting plates comes earthquakes, and death.

Whatever the actual answer, The Sparrow reminds us that the problem of evil is not something we can really examine while experiencing it.  We can only ask the questions.  And for now, anyone living on God’s green earth—or even off-planet—is experiencing it.

At just over 400 pages, The Sparrow is worth the read and I wish I’d read it a long time ago.  Winner of several awards, it arouses the soul and engrosses the imagination.  The sequel, Children of God, is now on my TBR list.

Mary Doria Russell
For more on Mary Doria Russell and discussions of faith and God, listen to her interview with Krista Tippett at Speaking of Faith: “The Novelist as God.”

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