Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Sparrow and Science, Religion, and Pop Culture

The Sparrow, written by novelist Mary Doria Russell, is a book that, I believe, is written in a manner that forces the reader to learn to love it. The story starts out dense and rather slow, and, if you promise to devote it its due time and cognitive capacity, will attach itself to your mind and heart, and feed off human's basic desire for understanding and explanation. At times, I found myself getting caught up in its beautiful use of lengthy descriptors, or dense paragraphs surrounding the complex science behind the methods employed in the discovery of and journey to Rakhat, but if you were able to look past that and instead focus on the core themes of the text, it was easy to identify some major themes that we previously discussed in class.
One of the first works we analyzed for homework, and in class was Ian Barbour's "Ways of Relating Science and Religion." This work talked about the four approaches to dealing with science and religion: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration, some of which are represented in The Sparrow. The first one I picked up immediately is Integration. Jesuits are inherently in favor of integration, as demonstrated in Emilio, the Jesutit priest's interest in the Aribeco telescope. Integration is also present in Emilio's idea that the mission to Rakhat was to meet and learn to interact with "more of God's children," and the somewhat uncommon crew came together through God's selection and good will. Are any more of these lenses present? In what ways? Is integration present in any other circumstances?
Even larger, however, I believe is the way in which Russell's characters are made to find, question, and lose their faith throughout the novel. While this class was not intended to be a class in which we discover our personal faith, I believe each one of us would be lying if we did not incorporate personal belief and experience into our class contributions, and the challenging material we were given to read and analyze in class did not succeed in shaping or refining our own view of religion and what it means to be religious. In The Sparrow, there are characters that find their faith (like Anne Edwards,) and people who question their faith, and come close to losing it all together (Emilio Sandoz.) These characters are faced with incredibly taxing situations, both mentally and physically, that stretch the boundaries of what is and isn't conceivable by God's hand. Can you think of any instance, whether in class, for homework, or during research where sometime seemed so inconceivable, but could be proven in some way by God? I know when researching for my WPII, I was looking into the possibility for panic attacks to be controlled using belief in a higher power. While the case in my film was an exaggerated extreme, my research led to the conclusion that the perception of a slowed, controlled reality was in fact possible. Also, throughout the novel, Emilio admits to believing that the circumstances leading up to the arrival on Rakhat, and the events that took place there were determined by God. Has this book, or any other readings we went over in class, made you believe that events that may seem circumstantial can in fact be very targeted acts from a higher power?


  1. My dearest Calle,

    I love that you brought up the integration question in your original post. One of the reasons that I adore this book is because of spectacular way Russell depicted faith. Throughout the entire novel, so many perspectives are presented that it becomes a question to the reader - where do YOU stand? From a writer's perspective, I was astonished by her ability to present the situation so realistically! Anne's discussion of commitment and vows struck a cord with me personally, when she discussed her forgiveness of, essentially, breaking vows. "I honestly don't know if the world would be better or worse if we all held ourselves to the vows of our youth." To me, this is the entire conversation of the book wrapped up into a single line.

    In this line, Anne suggests that commitments (and by extension, faith) can, and do change; then, she suggests that this might be a good thing. What would she say to Emilio regarding his crisis of faith? While her characterization suggests she'd spurn God, it also suggests she has no desire to rob Emilio of his faith. I believe, based on this statement, she'd probably encourage Emilio to embrace his rapidly changing understanding of God.

    To your last question, no, I don't think that this book has made me wonder if circumstantial events can be attributed to a higher power. But the class, as a whole, has made me consider my own stance in regards to God. But, in the end, that wasn't really the question. The book, when you finally turn the last page, is just a book. The conversation it started was real, but the events were not. Mary Doria Russell is the only "higher power" who targeted events and led the Jesuits to Rakhat.

  2. I completely agree with Calle's sentiments about our own journey of faith while reading this back. The emotion elicited by the characters in this story prompted a visceral reaction from me; I was deeply invested in the outcome of Emilio's story. I identified with his struggle to compromise the God he loves, and the God that allows terrible things to happen. I think for almost every religious person, there comes a time when they have to reassess their faith in light of the events in their life, and thought Emilio's ability to remain faithful illustrated a powerful bond between his faith and his entire being. The characters in this novel, for me, redefined what it means to be religious, especially devoutly.
    In regards to what we've learned in class, integration of science and religion is also one of the first concepts that come to mind, but it still relates to my previous point. Emilio is able to integrate his religion with the science he now knows to be in existence, and continues to remain faithful even after. However, the integration seems to put a heavy burden on his soldiers; he seems torn between how he should worship and how he used to worship in light of everything he has witnessed.

  3. I also agree that the character Emilio evokes an emotional response from the reader because of his hesitance towards faith and the acceptance of God as an authority figure even given his position as a Catholic priest. When the author describes the moment Emilio steps onto the planet of Rakhat and that he instantly found God was extremely thought provoking. This book focuses on the problem of evil, and how God could let suffering and pain happen, and how this relates to each characters level of trust and assurance in religion and God himself. The novel also brings the loyalty to God and religion into question with the scientific developments that allow the characters to travel to this new planet with the integration theory, as the Jesuits want to integrate and learn from the new creatures on the newly discovered planet, and they are not scared of the consequences and repercussions that this interaction may bring.

  4. The Sparrow is a very intense reading to me because it makes me completely review the way I used to see religion. Before I stated in this class, I saw religion pretty much only as a cultural aspect of life. I felt like it was almost foolish to keep believing in a God that would guide our lives, when our modern society is so focused on proving everything through science. With the class, I started to understand how diverse religious people's relationships to God could be and how differently science and religion could be related. However I still had never personally had a close relationship to a religious person and with the Sparrow, I felt connected to the characters and the way they feel about God. The way Russell tells the story makes us almost feel as if we were part of the group; it makes us question our own faith and the way we relate science and religion in Barbour's terms, as theirs evolve. However I think Chase had a really good point by saying that "the book, when you finally turn the last page, is just a book," and that we have to put what happens in perspective so we can understand the way we interpret life in relation to God.
    To get back to what you were saying Calle, I think you are right about setting Emilio as an example of "integration" of religion and science. He is the one who proposed the whole adventure, so he is curious about what other intelligent forms of life could look like. Once he is there, as he discovers this whole new world and species, he is in direct relation with science's proof that humanity is not alone under the eyes of God, but he sees all of this as part of His work. This can best be seen when Sofia says "you are drunk on God, Sandoz:" whatever he sees, he cannot dissociate it from the beautiful work of God (until something happens to him and makes him change his point of view...)

  5. The Sparrow obviously showed aspects of integrating science and religion. This is only the surface of the connections between The Sparrow and class. Another connection is how Jimmy Quinn was losing his job to a robot and how Emilio met with a vulture so that a robot could learn his way of leaning languages. We spoke about this in depth in class with a radio lab. It begs the question could robots actually gain as much knowledge as humans? This novel was really meant to discuss the idea of closing faith and finding faith. Emilio definitely lost his faith, which really caused me to question a priests role in society, which we discussed in class in our discussion about The Sparrow. The fact that a pious priest would lose his faith is one of the more interesting points the novel introduces. Is a priest allowed to lose his faith? This novel really put into perspective that priests are real people too. They go through tough times where they lose their faith and deal with struggles like the rest of us. In reality, they are judged much more harshly than they should be. The Sparrow showed that there really is less of a gap between real people's lives and priest's lives; Emilio even met Jimmy at a bar. I agree that this book made me question if a higher power is maybe the cause of certain events. The novel made me further question the quote we read in class that if God made the lion and the gazelle, what does that say about God. In this novel it is along the lines of if God is good and not evil, why would he put anyone through this mission, especially a Jesuit Priest who gave his life to following God's word. This novel was an excellent way to sum up the entire course. Also, it was nice how many different perspectives on science and religion were shown through different characters, it is reflective of how our class has so many different perspectives.