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Book Review: The Sparrow

Why is it absolutely essential that you read two books about Jesuits encountering aliens? I will begin to answer that question in part one of this (largely) spoiler-free review.

Deus Vult? A Review of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

The Sparrow’s opening pages describe a Jesuit mission to an alien world gone horribly wrong. We hear the story from Emilio Sandoz—the book’s protagonist and the sole survivor of a small group who first visited the planet Rakhat. When we encounter Emilio, he is a man broken in every way. Physically, his hands have been flayed to shreds by a grotesque alien ritual (to which he had consented under the mistaken impression that his hosts were bestowing honor upon him). Mentally, he is shattered and barely capable of coherence. Emilio has just endured the months-long journey from Rakhat back to earth alone, with nothing to occupy his thoughts save the death of his friends and their mission’s horrific end. Spiritually, he has passed through the valley of the shadow of death and experienced the darkest night of the soul. What had once seemed a divine commission (the phrase Deus vult is repeated by members of the landing party every step of the way) now appeared to be a cruel joke. God, Emilio concludes, is either a capricious sadist or a nonexistent figment.

Academic-turned-author Mary Doria Russell unravels this chaos piece by piece, jumping between the present-day inquisition of Emilio by his superiors and past accounts of the mission as it progressed. This shift in perspective leaves the reader constantly guessing as to whether The Sparrow’s arc is ultimately comedic or tragic. Emilio’s redemption, and that of the species he represents, may not be possible. But spinning a martyrdom myth with clear-cut heroes and villains is not Russell’s purpose. In the tradition of Endo’s Silence, The Sparrow details the human cost of total devotion to God and subverts images of religion as nothing more than the key to prosperity or happiness. Russell’s work probes the depths of theodicy by asking—in a manner reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s masterful sci-fi work The Divine Invasion—how God can allow the most well-intentioned and fully-alive hearts to be crushed under the weight of injustice, their innocence mauled by harsh realities they cannot comprehend.

As the story unfolds, readers begin to see that the mission’s failure didn’t result from the usual suspects: corrupt motivations, character flaws, and other human mistakes. Emilio and his companions acted carefully and always kept the interests of the other in mind. Playing with this ambiguity, The Sparrow takes shape as a meditation on whether truth can be communicated. Just as there is a tremendous ontological gap between God and creation, so there is an (insurmountable?) “species gap” between the sentients of one planet and another. Perhaps even the most profound Divine truths are doomed to be lost in translation.

By highlighting the tragic aspects of Emilio and his mission, Russell challenges readers to consider whether we really want to hear God’s voice. Isn’t it more comforting not to see God at work in this messy universe? Shouldn’t we instead desire to live a normal life—a “good life” of love and service—by sidestepping the inexplicable demands of the Transcendent? In other words, is a life without suffering our aim?

I think this is one of the most important questions a Christian can ask. And Russell is uniquely equipped to probe its depths, given her own biography as a convert from Catholicism to Judaism. On this theme, she writes: “God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people found refuge in the banal.” Taking a hard look at ourselves, The Sparrow challenges us to ask, “Would I be able to love God if everything I did to serve Him were ruined? What if this love appears to have caused more harm than good? What if my body were destroyed or martyred—would I still see this as a manifestation of God’s desire that ‘all things work together for good?’ (Rom 8:28)” Would this, then, be “how He loves me?”

These are not questions I can even pretend to answer. But meditating upon them is a strikingly good use of your time. Through the power of its narrative, The Sparrow forces us to face our own hypocrisy—especially those of us who have never really suffered for our faith—and to reexamine exactly what this “faith” in the God of Abraham implies. It is a book of interest not only for linguists and anthropologists (given its brilliant portrayal of alien-human cultural interactions), but for all lovers of truth who seek to understand why God allows those He loves to suffer. Or even, why God chooses those he loves for suffering.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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