How Fiction Formed the Faith of Madeleine L’Engle

Story, at its heart, is one of the primary modes in which God speaks to us, which means it’s one of the main vehicles for God’s truth. It’s also formative truth: The best, most ennobling stories have the power to shape our actions and play a vital role in moral and spiritual formation. “Rather than taking the child away from the real world,” wrote Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, “such stories are preparation for living in the real world with courage and expectancy.”

In other words, our faith is formed not just by propositional truths but also by the narratives of Scripture, the tales of Christian history, the great works of fiction, and other art forms. L’Engle’s own childhood was steeped in story and offers us a model for the power of moral imagination on the life of faith.

In writing about her growing up years, L’Engle claimed that “the greatest gift my mother gave me, besides her love, was story. She was a wonderful storyteller, especially about her childhood in the South. . . . ‘Tell me a story,’ I would beg, and my mother would take me in imagination back to her world so different from mine.”

Before leaving for the opera, her mother would pause at bedtime and give L’Engle a bit of herself, a memory to treasure. Those stories significantly shaped her sense of family identity and sometimes later resurfaced, fictionalized, in her novels. As a child, they helped her feel less alone.

At boarding school she was miserable and even “psychologically abused” by inept and cruel teachers, which is why, “possibly as a defense against the troubled, everyday world of my childhood, for nourishment I learned to rely more and more on the private world that I discovered in books.” Madeleine’s maternal grandfather, who lived in Europe, regularly sent her English children’s literature. Books by E. Nesbit (The Railway Children), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Little PrincessThe Secret Garden), and Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) all nurtured her imagination, along with the Scandinavian fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and works by North American authors like L. M. Montgomery.

“I’m particularly grateful that I was allowed to read my Bible as I read my other books,” she wrote in Walking on Water, “to read it as story, that story which is a revelation of truth. People are sometimes kept from reading the Bible itself by what they are taught about it, and I’m grateful that I was able to read the Book with the same wonder and joy with which I read The Ice Princess or The Tempest.

Her engagement with these books—Scripture included—was deeply formative. They nourished “the same hunger in me, the hunger for the truth that is beyond fact, the hunger for courage and hope in a difficult world, the hunger for something more than ordinary vision.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Sarah Arthur