Let me be clear up front: this is not a book review. I love Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and do believe it is a wonderful book, well worth reading, but it speaks to me in a way that renders me unable to look at it simply as a work of literature. So really, what this is, is a meditation on the book, and my reaction to it.
Here's the thing. I'm Catholic. Possibly not a very good Catholic, in the eyes of my Church. First, I'm divorced. I believe in birth control, and the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality makes me weep. But I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life of the world to come. I believe, because I would rather live in a world with miracles.
I'm also really well educated. I was a science major as an undergrad. I have a J.D., and a Ph.D. When I told people I was writing about Joan of Arc for my dissertation, the question I was most often asked was, "what do you think was wrong with her?" My response was always, "I believe in the truth of her experience of her voices." My favorite reaction to this was being told that "You shouldn't be able to think that, and get a degree from a state university." (Yeah, the first amendment is my favorite for more than just the speech clause...) But most often, I was met with a stunned, "But you're smart." Smart people, apparently, don't believe in miracles.
The Sparrow is a book that believes in miracles. And it does this in the context of science fiction, which is something that is particularly meaningful to me. (Look, if as a genre we're going to wrestle with the big ideas, we should wrestle with all of them.) And it addresses, head on, the problems and difficulties of faith:
"'Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,' Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'"
"'But the sparrow still falls,' Felipe said."
And that is part of the dilemma that I struggle with myself, when it comes to belief. That if God knows, why does the sparrow fall? I do not know the answer, and I will not pretend that I do. But I love the fact that a book exists that asks this question, that asks why God always gets the credit for the good, but never the blame for the bad. That directly addresses the fact that sometimes to be beloved of God is also to be used horribly. Joan of Arc was burned, remember.
And I particularly appreciate the fact that this is a book that allows the characters in its pages that are people of faith to be actual people, not plaster saints, holier-than-thou caricatures, or part of a shadowy Catholic Menace. (It's that last one in particular that drives me bats. I mean, we're supposed to be creative writers. Can't we come up with a more creative Evil Religion than one called the Magesterium, presided over by a Pontifex?) It speaks to the fact that faith is a struggle, not a given, that miracles happen, and the sparrow falls.