There never was a “Christian” message in A Wrinkle in Time.

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.

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Back to the Future breaks its own rules.

In the genre of time travel, the Back to the Future trilogy stands as one of the best examples. But it still has its share of logical inconsistencies. The first movie stands pretty well on its own, but logic goes out the window at the beginning of the second movie.

A few times in the trilogy, Doc attempts to explain what’s happening by talking about multiple timelines. This is fine as far as it goes. The whole point of science is to attempt to explain the observed facts. They observe some rather strange facts and Doc attempts to explain them. But they skip the next part of the scientific method, which is to design an experiment which tests your explanation. I suppose we could excuse this because of Doc’s fear of destroying the space-time continuum. But this fear seems to be misguided. Doc says that knowing too much about your own destiny could endanger your own existence. This is a bizarre claim that seems to have no basis in the observed facts.

What threatens Marty’s existence isn’t knowledge of the future, but making changes to the past. Specifically, he prevents George from getting hit by the car, which he knows is the moment that causes Elaine to fall for George. This is an example of the classic Grandfather Paradox, which I discussed in my last post.

I say again, Doc is completely wrong when he says that Marty endangered his existence by knowing too much about his future. On the contrary, the more Marty knew about the future, the better equipped he was at trying to avoid damaging the fabric of the space-time continuum. Marty was able to repair the damage because he knew that his parents first kissed at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. If he’d had the presence of mind to remember the car accident story, he could have avoided the disruption in the first place. Knowledge of the future is helpful, not hurtful. Doc is wrong. However, BTTF would hardly be the first movie where a character reaches an incorrect conclusion. This is not my complaint.

Doc apparently changed his mind when he put on a bullet-proof vest after reading Marty’s letter. Perhaps he realized his previous mistake and figured out that the universe would sweep under the rug minor paradoxes. He went to a great deal of effort to make the smallest possible change. He didn’t seek an alternate source of Plutonium. He didn’t tell the police about the Libyans. He didn’t even try to jump into the DeLorean with Marty and escape before the Libyans arrived. He merely wore a bullet-proof vest under his radiation suit, allowing Marty to film a video which looks identical to the one he saw in 1955. Clearly, Doc still believes that big paradoxes are dangerous. He only permits himself the smallest possible paradox, and then only when his own life is in danger. Why would he throw caution to the wind, upon discovering that Marty Jr. goes to jail in 2015? Assuming that Doc wanted to repay Marty for saving his life, his logical course of action would be to kidnap Marty Jr. on that fateful day in 2015. Griff goes to Cafe Eighties and Marty Jr. simply isn’t there. Problem solved. Instead, Doc decides to go back in time to 1985 and kidnap Marty so that Marty can impersonate Marty Jr. It’s a reckless plan. This is not my complaint either.

My complaint is that BTTF2 doesn’t play by the same rules that BTTF did.

In the first movie, every time anyone jumps forward in time, the timeline continues on in their absence and they arrive to find everything is just as you would expect it to be, given the way things were before the jump. In other words, jumping backward in time creates a new timeline but jumping forward does not. It just continues the existing timeline. We see this three times: Einstein the dog jumps forward one minute in 1985, Marty jumps forward from 1955 to 1985, and Doc jumps forward from 1985 to 2015. The time traveler always arrives to find a world that follows logically from the one they left as it continued on without them. Einstein arrives to find Marty and Doc anxiously waiting for him, because they saw him disappear at 88 mph. Marty arrives in 1985 to find that the mall is called Lone Pine, because he ran over one of the pine trees in 1955. And Doc arrives in 2015 to find that Marty and Jennifer have kids, because they were teenagers in love back in 1985. All that is logical. Then the logic goes out the window at the beginning of BTTF2.

Doc goes back in time to 1985 and finds Marty talking to Jennifer. He convinces both of them to get into the DeLorean and travel to 2015. What will they find when they get there? By the rules of BTTF, they should find a 2015 where Marty Jr. does not exist because he had no parents. Marty and Jennifer were kidnapped in 1985 and were never seen or heard from again. This new timeline would be caused by Doc going back in time from 2015 and changing the past by kidnapping Marty and Jennifer.

Logically, they should arrive in 2015 and be unable to find Marty Jr. They should seek out George and Elaine, only to discover that George and Elaine haven’t seen Marty or Jennifer since 1985. George and Elaine think Biff killed Marty and Jennifer, then hid their bodies. After all, Biff was the last person to see them alive and his story is that he saw a flying DeLorean disappear in a fireball. Add to this the fact that George and Elaine remember that Biff tried to rape Elaine in 1955. But Marty and Jennifer’s bodies were never found and there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Biff. Doc should sheepishly admit that he made a huge mistake and return Marty and Jennifer to 1985 so they can stay there and get married and have kids. But that movie would stink. So the film makers changed the rules. That’s my complaint.

And then we see Biff create major paradoxes with no apparent bad consequences. He doesn’t erase himself from existence. The fabric of the space-time continuum doesn’t tear. It seems that Doc was completely wrong and the universe can tolerate quite a large amount of meddling. The writers seem to have gone back to option one regarding the Grandfather Paradox. Just accept the weirdness.

But it’s still a really good story, better than most time travel movies.

The Grandfather Paradox

In time travel stories, we can imagine scenarios where going back in time and changing something might prevent you from building the time machine in the first place. For example, you might go back in time and shoot your own grandfather, while he’s still a child. Would you cease to exist? If you don’t exist, then who killed your grandfather? This is the classic Grandfather Paradox. There are many variations of this paradox, such as going back in time to kill yourself before the time machine is built.

There are several ways to resolve the Grandfather Paradox. One option is to just accept the weirdness of having an effect with no apparent cause. Your grandfather is dead, killed by you, and that’s not a problem. In the original timeline, you existed. In the new timeline, you killed your grandfather. You continue to exist as an effect with no apparent cause. But you did have a cause. It’s just that the cause has been erased.

Another way to resolve the Grandfather Paradox is say that it simply can’t happen. Your attempt to kill your grandfather will fail in some way. This sounds a little glib but it actually works. Imagine someone handing you a script of everything you will say and do, and everything that will happen, today. But suppose there are millions of possible scripts and you get to choose which one you want to follow. Now imagine that some of these millions of scripts lead to paradoxes. Let’s put those into the trash. Put the remaining scripts in a stack on your desk. Pick one from the desk, and you avoid a paradox. What if we reach a point where every single script ends up in the trash and there are none on the desk? Believe it or not, scientists have worked on this question. They considered a simple case of a solid round rock passing through a wormhole. They found that, in every possible scenario, there was always at least one way to avoid a paradox. Perhaps 99%+ of the scripts might end up in the trash but there will always be at least one script remaining on the desk. Now here’s the tricky part. There might be a very small number of scripts on the desk. And it might be true that all of them contain something that seems extremely unlikely. But one of those things has to happen because the alternatives were literally impossible. To misquote Sherlock Holmes, once you discard the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how unlikely, must become the truth. For example, if the only way to avoid killing your grandfather is that the gun will jam, then that’s exactly what must happen. The gun must jam.

A third option for resolving the Grandfather Paradox is with parallel universes. You are born in universe A, travel back in time into universe B, and kill your grandfather. There’s no paradox because your grandfather remains unharmed back in universe A. The two universes had been identical; both contained exact copies of your grandfather. In universe A, your parents were born and had you, you grew up and built a time machine, then you disappeared forever. In universe B, your grandfather was killed in his childhood (by you) and no time machine was ever built. There’s no paradox. The only unsettling aspect of this is that your unexplained appearance in universe B seems to be an effect that has no cause. But that’s not the case. You had a cause. It just happened in a different universe. If you decide to jump back to where you left, you’d find that your grandfather is still alive in universe A. It would seem that your attempts to meddle with the timeline had no effect at all.

A fourth option for resolving the Grandfather Paradox is to say that we can stretch the fabric of space-time without tearing it. This seems to be the option which Back to the Future opted for. Minor paradoxes (such as the name of the mall) can be swept under the rug. But major paradoxes (such as Marty’s parents never hooking up) must be avoided at all cost. In the movie, Doc is afraid that they might destroy the universe. But the universe fights to preserve itself by eliminating Marty. In the new timeline, Marty will never be born, because he changed his own past. And the universe will continue on without him. His unexplained appearance in 1955 becomes a minor detail to be swept under the rug and forgotten. That’s why his picture fades in the photograph and his hand turns transparent. He’s fading away.

But then (for no apparent reason) George suddenly kisses Elaine and Marty’s existence is restored.

It’s interesting to note that the second or the fourth option (or some combination of the two) could explain why Marty seems to have such amazingly good luck at catching the lightning bolt at just the right moment, despite the fact that the DeLorean’s engine stalled for several seconds and he is behind schedule. It could be just another example of impossible paradoxes being eliminated, leaving behind (unlikely as they may be) events which avoid major paradoxes.

This fourth option is discussed in the Robert A. Heinlein book The Door into Summer. But they don’t clearly establish whether that’s the case in that story. In the Harry Potter novels, the time turner seems to rely on the second option; paradoxes simply can’t happen. Whatever you do in the past must be 100% consistent with what has already been observed in the present.

The unsettling thing about the second option (where your choices are limited) is that it seems to eliminate free will. But we don’t really know that free will exists anyway. It might just be an illusion. In that case, we aren’t so much eliminating it as we are recognizing that it never existed in the first place.

In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Back to the Future.