Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
I’ve never thought before about how nicknames can be so affectionate, but name-calling and slurs are terribly hurtful. I mean, I have, but I haven’t considered why. According to author Madeleine L’Engle, it’s because both are a form of identification - but one is Naming and the other is Labeling.
We are named in many ways. L’Engle believed that storytelling was inexorably wrapped up in this. She posits, “To write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more named… To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name.”
L’Engle contemplates this idea and many others in her revealing, unapologetic book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, a recollection of this prolific artist’s most profound ah-ha moments.
I remember reading Madeline L’Engle in grade school; her work A Wrinkle in Time is a Newbery Medal-winner. In Walking on Water, she writes at length about the frustration she felt as a female author in the 1960s. Her manuscript for Wrinkle was rejected some thirty times before the decision was made to market her as a “Christian children’s writer.”
She writes, “When I am grappling with ideas which are radical enough to upset grown-ups, then I am likely to put these ideas into a story which will be marketed for children, because children understand what their parents have rejected or forgotten.”
However, she despised being labeled a ‘Christian writer’. She cries, “Christian art? Art is art; painting is painting; music is music; a story is a story. If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion.”
She was a cipher, L’Engle, professing a deep love for both Christianity and modern science, a paradox whose very existence is denied by society. But they appeared to live quite happily in this funny, creative woman, in tandemic harmony no less.
On top of her existential musings, L’Engle says what needs to be said without actually saying it. She knew before she passed away in 2007 that we were headed into a dangerous era for artists. Walking on Water drops balm on these wounds.
She writes, “For the past several generations we’ve forgotten what the psychologists call our archaic understanding [sic], a willingness to know things in their deepest, most mythic sense. We’re all born with archaic understanding, and I’d guess that the loss of it goes directly along with the loss of ourselves as creators. But unless we are creators, we are not fully alive.”
Need another reason to read it? In the book, she hates on Martha Finley, the overtly pious author behind sniveling, Mary Sue-esque literary heroine Elsie Dinsmore, a figure I have always despised. It isn’t quite as good as Mark Twain’s gleeful rant on Fenimore Cooper, but I’ll take it.
If you are a story junkie, a music-lover, a novelist, any varietal of what society likes to call a ‘creative type’, you should own a copy of this book. It is challenging, interesting, complex. Religion happens to be important to me, but were it not, I would still read Madeleine L’Engle.