The latest movie adaptation of Madelein L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time is in movie theaters now. I read a review which complained that the book’s “Christian” message was removed for the movie. That’s not accurate. There never was a Christian message in the book to begin with.
What does “Christian” mean, anyway? People sometimes blur the lines on the use of that word, such as in Carl Sagan‘s book Contact, where the main character Ellie says that she considers herself both an atheist and a christian. She says she’s an atheist because she doesn’t believe gods exist but she’s a christian because she believes in following the teachings of Jesus. Carl Sagan knew when he wrote this that it would be confusing and this isn’t what the word “Christian” really means. A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, a unique divine incarnation of the all-powerful god Jehovah. There are many religions that recognize Jesus as being something other than the christ. Judaism says Jesus was a great Rabbi, although not as great as Moses. Islam says Jesus was a great prophet, but not as great as Muhammad. And then there’s Deism; Thomas Jefferson (perhaps the most famous Deist) said that he doubted the divinity of Jesus. And there’s the Baha’i faith, which lists Jesus as one of several divine incarnations, alongside Moses and Muhammad. None of these religions recognize Jesus as THE christ, and the people who follow those other religions are not “Christians”. And this is not a complete list.
Within Christianity, there are many branches and denominations. Nearly all of them insist that Jesus has a unique god-like status. Most would agree that Jesus and Jehovah are actually the same person. The gospel of John implies that Jesus and Jehovah (being the same person) were both present at the moment of creation itself. What makes a person a Christian is their belief that Jesus is the only path to salvation. Simply put, if you want a ticket to heaven, you have to get the ticket from Jesus.
Nothing remotely like this appears in the book A Wrinkle in Time. There are several religious references, but every single one of them is just as consistent with Judaism or Islam or Baha’i as they are with Christianity. I will take them one at a time.
In Chapter 1, Charles says “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”, apparently quoting Saint Bernard of Clairvaux . This saying is common outside of Christianity, used frequently by people who don’t even believe that hell is a real place. A Christian might use this saying to bolster the argument that Jesus is the only path to salvation. But it could just as easily be used by a Muslim who believes that submission to the will of Allah is what earns you a ticket to heaven (not mere good intentions) or even by an atheist who believes that actions speak louder than words.
In Chapter 3, Charles asks Calvin to read him a bedtime story. He chooses the book of Genesis. There’s nothing here to indicate that Charles thinks the book of Genesis is anything more than a bedtime story. It’s a fairy tale, not to be taken seriously. Also keep in mind that Mrs. Which later reveals her age to be more than 2 billion years, which is not consistent with the creation story in the book of Genesis.
In Chapter 4, the children hear some aliens singing and Mrs. Whatsit attempts to translate the song lyrics into words the children can understand. She struggles, finally saying “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!” Keep in mind that the aliens aren’t actually singing these words. These are the words that Mrs. Whatsit translated with great difficulty. She chose words that she thought the children could understand. It’s not at all clear whether the “Lord” the aliens are singing about is Jehovah, or whether Mrs. Whatsit intended for the song to be taken seriously. In any case, there’s no specific mention of Jesus the Christ and, here on Earth, the word Lord is usually taken to mean Jehovah, not Jesus. The lyrics have a 17th century flavor to them, which brings to mind church hymns and the King James Bible. But this begs the question of how Mrs. Whatsit would have translated the lyrics if she were talking to children who spoke Arabic. Would she have used language that sounded vaguely like the Koran? If she had been talking to children who spoke Hebrew, would she have used language that sounded vaguely like the Tora? There’s nothing here that is specific to Christianity.
In Chapter 5, Mrs. Whatsit talks about “a grand and exciting battle” being fought “all through the universe”, and she says “some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet”. Then she invites the children to guess who the fighters were. The first one they suggest is Jesus. Then Mrs. Whatsit prompts them by saying, “There were others. All your great artists.” The children then come up with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, and Copernicus. Mrs. Whatsit doesn’t object to a single name on their list. Mrs. Whatsit is implying here that Jesus is no more divine than Pasteur or Euclid. I don’t see how anyone could call this “Christian”. It’s placing Jesus on an even lower pedestal than where Islam places him.
In Chapter 11, Aunt Beast says to Meg, “We are the called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies.” This is apparently a quote from Romans 8:30. When Paul wrote those words about 45 years after Jesus died, it was clear to Paul’s readers that Paul was talking about Jehovah. But it’s not at all clear in this context whether Aunt Beast is also talking about Jehovah. It may have been L’Engle’s intent that we would infer from this that Paul was another fighter, alongside Jesus and Euclid. Paul was notorious for quoting the Old Testament and not quoting the teachings of Jesus; he rarely talked about Jesus at all except when discussing the resurrection.
A moment later, Meg asks who helps them in their fight and Aunt Beast replies, “What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.” Frankly, that sounds more like Gnosticism than Christianity.
Also in Chapter 11, The three children are talking to Aunt Beast about Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, trying to figure out what words to describe them. Calvin suggests “Guardian angels” and then “Messengers of God”. But Aunt Beast immediately replies that this description is “not clear enough”. People from almost any religion could suggest that angles are messengers from God. There’s nothing here that specifies Christianity.
Throughout the entire book, there is no mention of heaven or salvation. There is no mention of sin or forgiveness. There is no mention of any of Jesus’s teachings, let alone his unique status as the messiah. A Christian could read this book and say “Yes, I recognize those words” but then so could a member of just about any religion other than Christianity, or a person who follows no religion at all. One could argue that L’Engle is proposing here a whole new view on life, the universe, and everything. This new view shares a few pieces in common with the dominant religions of Earth but it has a vastly different perspective and shares none of the dogma. Calling this view Christian is absurd.
On the other hand, L’Engle may have personally held quite different views from those discussed in the book. Other science fiction authors have described new world-views that didn’t necessarily fit their personally religion. C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind, such as in his book Out of the Silent Planet, where Lewis talks about angels but makes no mention at all of Jesus or his teachings or his divine status. Yet Lewis himself was a Christian who famously said that Jesus must have been either a Liar, the Lord, or a Lunatic. Of course, Lewis overlooked the obvious fourth option which is Legend. But I digress. He specifically rejected the notion that Jesus might have been merely a great rabbi but not the messiah.
L’Engle herself was known to say that she believed in universal salvation. She believed that Jesus was the path to salvation but becoming a Christian (or even knowing about Jesus) was not necessary in order to receive salvation. This view put her in a tiny minority of Christians, which caused many Christian book stores to refuse to carry her books because they felt she wasn’t a true Christian. Conversely, some secular bookstores considered her books too religious. But I say that anyone who claims A Wrinkle in Time has a Christian message is reading more into it than what’s actually in the book. The most you can say is that it seems to be promoting belief in a god, although the book offers no proof and doesn’t even specify which god.