Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
Madeleine L’Engle
North Point Press
1980

This year marks the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time. While I have vague plans to reread that marvelous book (again), I thought it might be interesting to discuss L’Engle “behind the scenes” as it were. L’Engle has written several nonfiction books; Walking on Water primarily focuses on her own writing process, her understanding of what it means to write as a Christian, and her reflections on how anyone’s faith intersects with art (visual, literary, etc.).

L’Engle and I differ in our theology, but I firmly agree with so many of her statements on the nature of art and how we both create and perceive it. I think I underlined at least half of this book (or used some other marginalia like exclamation points, brackets, stars, etc.). It took me a while to read because it’s the sort of book you need to digest as you read along. In answer to questions regarding her identity as a “Christian writer,” she says something along the lines of, “I am a Christian. I am a writer. Therefore, I am a Christian writer.” In other words, we cannot divorce our beliefs from our art–whether or not we produce art for a particular subculture or label. Along the same lines, she maintains that true art that brings cosmos out of chaos (instead of merely revealing chaos) is Christian at some level despite the professed beliefs of its creator.

I particularly appreciated her discussions of the reader/viewer as co-creator with the artist, the nature of fantasy and fiction (and associated comments on what is “true”), the “definition” of children’s literature, and pretty much most of the book! If you’re interested in philosophical questions regarding art, faith, and why we create/consume artistic products, then you will probably find this book rewarding to read. It is more esoteric in its appeal than something like Lit! or Honey for a Child’s Heart, but it is definitely worth reading for those who like to mull over art and its many permutations in light of our Christian faith.

Some quotations to whet your appetite (I tried to narrow it down, really I did ☺):

  • “If it can be verified, we don’t need faith…. Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys” (p. 22).
  • “We think because we have words, not the other way around…. We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles–we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are'” (38-9).
  • “A children’s book is any book a child will read” (114)
  • [on the few differences between grown-up literature and children’s] “A child wants to read about another child, a child living in and having adventures in a world which can be recognized and accepted. As long as what the protagonist does is true,* this world can be unlimited, for a child can identify with a hero in ancient Britain, darkest Africa, or the year two thousand and ninety-three.” (115; *L’Engle makes a distinction between that which is true and that which is merely “factual”)
  • “Children don’t like anti-heroes…. I think we all want to be able to identify with the major character in a book–to live, suffer, dream, and grow through vicarious experience. I need to be able to admire the protagonist despite his faults, and so be given a glimpse of my own potential….We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination” (116).
  • “A Christian children’s book must have an ultimately affirmative view of life. So a children’s book must be, first and foremost, a good book, a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and a book which says yes to life” (121).
  • “…there is much that we cannot understand, but our lack of comprehension neither negates nor eliminates it” (94).
  • “That’s probably the chief difference between the Christian and the secular art–the purpose of the work, be it story or music or painting, is to further the coming of the kingdom, to make us aware of our status as children of God, and to turn our feet toward home.” (163)

Book cover image from goodreads; book itself is part of my home collection, but I know it is also in my public library (just don’t make marginalia in a library book!)

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