On Being with Krista Tippett

Mary Doria Russell

The Novelist as God

Last Updated

August 20, 2009

Original Air Date

January 29, 2009

Our guest has grappled with large moral and religious questions on and off the page. We discover what she discerned — in the act of creating a new universe — about God and about dilemmas of evil, doubt, and free will. The ultimate moral of any life and any event, she believes, only shows itself across generations. And so the novelist, like God, she says, paints with the brush of time.

  • Download


Image of Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is a retired paleoanthropologist and the author of four novels, including The Sparrow and Children of God.


August 20, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, Mary Doria Russell is a paleoanthropologist turned novelist. She created a universe in her beautiful, theologically evocative science fiction series The Sparrow and Children of God. We discover what she discerned on and off the page about the nature of God and about subjects like evil, doubt, and time.

MS. MARY DORIA RUSSELL: History. Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s responsible and who, you know, who started it? That’s the question. Who started it? It depends on where you start the story. It’s the great sweep of time that allows us to make sense of our lives and the lives of people. God paints on a vast canvas and his brush is time.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


KATE MOOS, MANAGING PRODUCER: I’m Kate Moos, managing producer of Speaking of Faith. This week, we bring you a rebroadcast of Krista’s January 2009 conversation with author Mary Doria Russell on the moral and theological themes in her popular series of science fiction novels.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. We spend this hour with Mary Doria Russell, a paleoanthropologist turned novelist. Two decades ago, she was decoding the stories in ancient bones. Then she wrote two beautiful theologically evocative books of science fiction, The Sparrow and Children of God. The premise of these stories is that life is discovered on another planet by way of transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music, and Jesuit explorers and scientists make first contact — just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s Age of Discovery.

Mary Doria Russell grappled with large moral and religious questions on and off the page as she imagined the conversations and relationships between these Jesuits, the other scientists who travel with them, and the species they encounter. We discover what she discerned in the act of creating a new universe about God and about dilemmas of evil, doubt, and free will. The moral of any life and any event, Mary Doria Russell believes, only shows itself across generations. And so the novelist, like God, she says, paints with the brush of time.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Novelist as God.”

Mary Doria Russell is the author of four novels. Her 2005 work of historical fiction, A Thread of Grace, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is globally known for her best-selling science fiction novels, The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, which continue to find readers a decade after publication. An asteroid has been named after the fictional planet Mary Doria Russell created, Rakhat.

This passage from Children of God illuminates her merger of scientific and religious thinking by way of fiction. Hear through the internal dialogue of a half-Jewish Irish Jesuit who voyages to Rakhat, Sean Fein.

READER: “Humans and their ilk were God’s problem as far as Sean Fein was concerned and the Almighty was more than welcome to them. But if Sean Fein, chemist and priest, rarely found reason to approve the results of his God’s whimsical decision to bestow sentience on the odd species here and there, he could nevertheless admire the mechanics that ran the show. Genesis, for Sean, was literal. Let there be sunlight to power the system and the whole biosphere comes alive. God’s chemistry, with its swimming, dancing, fornicating ions, its tangled profligate undergrowth of plant lignins and cellulose, the matlike hemes and porphyrins, the helical proteins winding and unwinding. … This was a glory Sean Fein could appreciate, this was a glimpse of Divine Intelligence that he could adore unreservedly.”

From Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God.

MS. TIPPETT: Classically trained in linguistics, archaeology, and anthropology, Mary Doria Russell is a polymath with a literary sensibility and a sense of humor. Her first experience of cross-species encounter, as she tells it, was in the ongoing tension between her mother’s Congregationalist and her father’s Catholic families. While she was writing The Sparrow, she converted from atheism to Judaism, though she had always found rich moral substance in her work as a paleoanthropologist, especially in discoveries she made disproving previous theories about cannibalism at ancient Neanderthal sites in Croatia.

MS. RUSSELL: I replaced the global understanding of the human soul that Catholicism offered with the global understanding of the human species that anthropology offered. So it was, for me, a fairly smooth transition away from Catholicism and into anthropology, which was also a sort of universal and catholic with a small “c” …


MS. RUSSELL: … study of humans. And that did OK for me for a good 20 years.

MS. TIPPETT: And then some of your defining work was in this field of craniofacial biomechanics and cannibalism. So tell me if this is right. What you understood is a way to demonstrate that cut marks on bones were not evidence of cannibalism, which was an assumption people had made, but of a different kind of burial.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: And what were the implications of that in terms of how we interpreted Neanderthal culture?

MS. RUSSELL: Oh, they are fascinating, really, because I began with the notion that first of all, you should always question the assumptions. You should always test.


MS. RUSSELL: What was interesting to me is that cannibalism is very, very rare in the human species. Usually, it’s something that people accuse other people of, you know, like ‘We would never be cannibals, but those Neanderthals were.’

MS. TIPPETT: As a way of kind of distinguishing what made us human, right?

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Yes. Distinguishing and distancing and all the rest of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Distancing. Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. And on the other hand, secondary burial is extremely common across the human species, has great time depth.

MS. TIPPETT: And what that means is that the bones were buried in one place for whatever reason, or stored, and then moved. Right?


MS. TIPPETT: And that’s how these cut marks …

MS. RUSSELL: Do you remember when recently they thought they had found the bones of James, the brother of Jesus?

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: Remember that? That’s called an ossuary. It was a stone box.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: And the bones were missing and it turned out to be a fraud. But in the Middle East and in Sicily and Madagascar and all these different places across the world, you bury the bones for maybe a year to three years and then they are exhumed. And any remaining soft tissue has to be cleaned off the bones very carefully, because in all of these cultures there is this notion of a three-part death. First you stop breathing, OK.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: But while the soft tissue, while the meat is still on the bones, your soul wanders. And this is where you get a lot of ghost stories. When all of the soft tissue is carefully cleaned off the bones, then you are dead, dead, dead and your soul is at rest. OK. And then you are reburied. That’s the second burial.


MS. RUSSELL: So what I was able to do was to say, statistically the Neanderthals — there appears to be no doubt at all that in this cave this is secondary burial, which implies that they also had a three-part notion of death, and it implies a belief in the soul. And that implies a lot of interesting things about the way they saw the world.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So here’s something that jumps out at me when I look at this sweep of your work. You started out with Neanderthals as a scientist. The Sparrow and Children of God are works of science fiction. You’ve written about Jews living through the Holocaust and fascism in Italy, the early 20th century in the Middle East. And so I’m fascinated by this sense of time.


MS. TIPPETT: Your sense of time.

MS. RUSSELL: I keep going backwards.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, it seems to me you go backwards and forwards making sense of now. So when I think about that, that’s what you’ve done as a novelist, but I wonder, you know, does that have seeds in your religious worldview that you’ve developed across the years? In your own spiritual evolution, you eventually became Jewish.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Yeah, I converted to Judaism. Yeah. Like I said earlier, I replaced Catholicism with anthropology and ultimately that did fine for me for about 20 years, until I became a mother at 35. And because I was brought up as a Catholic, I was used to religions that had at least 2,000 years of like road testing. And I also discovered, as I thought more clearly about why I left the Church, I began to realize that for me the Incarnation was the insuperable barrier to faith. That was the point past which I could not get. So I began to realize that if I simply traced the roots of my religion back one generation, I reached the religion that Jesus practiced as opposed to the religion that deified Jesus. And a lot of the problems that I had disappeared.


MS. RUSSELL: And the moral and ethical framework that I had really valued in Catholicism, that was all there waiting to be accessed again. Now I picked up the Holocaust. So I lost the Incarnation, but I picked up the Holocaust as a major theological problem — so it wasn’t a give me.

MS. TIPPETT: There was your trade-off. Yeah.

MS. RUSSELL: There was my trade-off. And it was in the process of beginning to think in terms of, you know, first I was reading on my own and then I began studying Judaism with a rabbi and moving towards a formal conversion. And it was in that context that I began to write The Sparrow. But what I discovered as I was writing was that I’m bilingual religiously, but I am a Jew. And to bring it back to the notion of time there is a central notion in Judaism — all of life, all of human life is a good news/bad news story, especially in Genesis. Like, good news, bad news. You know, you have 12 sons, good news. Oh, one of them is killed by robbers. Oh, bad news. Oh, no, wait. He’s still alive. Good news. No, he’s been sold into slavery in Egypt. Yeah. And in a lot of cases what you find out is you don’t know whether something is good or bad until many generations have gone by.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: History. Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy and who’s responsible and who started it? That’s the question. Who started it?


MS. RUSSELL: It depends on where you start the story.


MS. RUSSELL: So the 400 years in the captivity, bad news. But then you’re taken out of Egypt and God gives you Torah and that’s good news.


MS. RUSSELL: So it’s the great sweep of time that allows us to make sense of our lives and the lives of people, and that’s really the underlying theme in both The Sparrowand Children of God — that God paints on a vast canvas and that his brush is time.

MS. TIPPETT: Novelist Mary Doria Russell.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we are exploring Mary Doria Russell’s original merger of vivid storytelling, anthropological insight, and theology in her science fiction series The Sparrow and Children of God. She drew on the class structure of czarist Russia and the predator/prey relationship between cheetahs and Thompson gazelles as she created the two dominant species of the planet Rakhat, the ruling minority Jana’ata and the subjugated Runa. Here an American scientist who travels with the Jesuit delegation to Rakhat describes the appearance of the Runa.

READER: “They were bipedal. with forelimbs specialized for grasping and manipulation. Their faces also held a similarity in general, and the differences were not shocking or hideous to Anne; she found them beautiful, as she found many other species beautiful, here and at home. Large, mobile ears, erect and carried high on the sides of the head. Gorgeous eyes, large and densely lashed, calm as camels’. The nose was convex, broad at the tip, curving smoothly off to meet the muzzle, which projected rather more noticeably than was ever the case among humans. The mouth, lipless and broad. They were covered with smooth dense coats of hair, lying flat to muscular bodies. They were as sleek as Siamese cats: buff-colored with lovely dark brown markings around the eyes, like Cleopatra’s kohl, and a darker shading that ran down the spine.”

From The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, when I was studying theology in the 1990s, which is in the years in which you were writing these books, or these books were published, I remember talking about metaphors of God. You know, God as father. That’s one that’s just so universal. But just from the little bit of writing that I’ve done, I mused on this idea of God as author.

MS. RUSSELL: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: And what we can learn if we’re thinking theologically about the nature of God through writing. And so it seems, I mean, what I was going to say is you didn’t just write about Jesuits and this captivating Jewish figure of Sofia Mendes. You created a couple of worlds.

MS. RUSSELL: I created a world. Yeah. Male and female I made them, even.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, exactly.

MS. RUSSELL: I separated the dry land from the water. Yeah, exactly. I was recapitulating Genesis. Yeah.



MS. TIPPETT: I mean, so you created a couple of species. You created the inner lives …

MS. RUSSELL: Species, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: … of individual people. You created a planet with flora and fauna and …

MS. RUSSELL: Fauna and …

MS. TIPPETT: … an ecosystem.

MS. RUSSELL: I had meteorology. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.

MS. RUSSELL: Geology, paleontology. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: So if I ask you the question this way, what would you say you learned about the creator God of Genesis through this experience?

MS. RUSSELL: I learned something really both horrible and really interesting. If God is an author, as devout readers of the Bible are encouraged to believe, then I know why there’s evil. I’ve solved the problem of evil. It makes a better story. You’ve got no conflict if there’s no evil.

MS. TIPPETT: Isn’t there some Talmudic saying that Elie Wiesel likes to quote — that God made man because he loves stories?

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah. Or you could turn it around and say that people made God because they love stories too.


MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. While I was writing this, especially in the second book, in Children of God, I have brought my main character, Emilio Sandoz, home. And he is a damaged, angry man.

MS. TIPPETT: He’s a Puerto Rican Jesuit.

MS. RUSSELL: A Puerto Rican Jesuit. Yeah. And he believes he is the sole survivor of this Jesuit mission to another planet. And his relationship with God is what the Catholics call — he’s a bridal mystic. It is an intensely personal, emotional love story for him.

MS. TIPPETT: Love story with lots of falling-outs too.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. But what happens to him feels like a personal betrayal by God. It’s like it’s a spousal relationship. It’s the anger that a spouse feels upon discovering infidelity.

MS. TIPPETT: And that is when this, again, not to give away the plot or to go into details people don’t know, but when this mission that he goes on, which comes to feel like the meaning and purpose of his life, which is …

MS. RUSSELL: Absolutely. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: … incredibly important and thrilling and historic, but then things go terribly wrong.

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s that betrayal you’re talking about.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. And it’s as though he comes to God from a very great distance, Emilio does, and he feels as though he has been led by God to love God in this personal and deeply emotional way. And when it all goes to hell, he has to face up to the question of either it has been blind dumb luck what happened to him from start to finish — there is no meaning to it — or he has to believe, he thinks, that God is vicious. And he doesn’t know what to do with that. He just doesn’t know where to go with that dilemma. What do you do with an irreversible tragedy, with a catastrophe that simply cannot be undone? And Emilio tries all the ways that people try. I mean, he tries burying himself in work. He tries forgetting it. He tries drinking. He tries drugs. He tries everything and can’t. And so he’s forced into this need to go back to this planet and to see from the span of life that Moses had.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that?

MS. RUSSELL: Well, for example, you know, because of the relativistic effects, Emilio does not …

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I see.

MS. RUSSELL: While he was in transit he does not age at the same rate that he would’ve if he had …

MS. TIPPETT: All right. So that extended span of life.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. So when he goes back, you know, he’s 120 years old like Moses.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. OK.

MS. RUSSELL: And so he can see this span of four generations and what has happened on the planet.

MS. TIPPETT: So, again, there’s that theme of yours — that it is only across the generations that we can begin to see what the moral of the story was, or whether, in fact, it was tragic.

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: And as it happens, at the very ends he finds that all of this can be made sense of, that there was something that God needed these three species to be together in order to accomplish. That they are more together than they are apart. That there is a kind of sort of music that can only be heard if all three species come together. You know, is that God doing that? Is that something that we find by looking hard enough? Do we impose meaning or is it there to be discovered? Those are the kinds of questions that I find enduringly interesting.

MS. TIPPETT: Novelist Mary Doria Russell.

KURT WALDHEIM: As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organization of 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet Earth, I send greetings on behalf of the people of our …

MS. TIPPETT: A team of NASA scientists led by Carl Sagan also made music an essential part of the Golden Record, a phonographic LP of sounds designed to introduce alien civilizations to the planet Earth. Sent into space in 1977, the Golden Record includes greetings in 55 languages, the sounds of weather, animals, machines, and a kiss. And music, ranging from pygmy and Peruvian songs to Bach and Chuck Berry. One copy of the Golden Record was placed on each of the two Voyager spacecrafts, and they have now traveled to the edge of our solar system, farther from Earth than any human-made object in history.

[Sound bites from the Golden Record]

MS. TIPPETT: You can hear many more of these sounds on our staff blog, SOF Observed. We’ve also posted our senior producer’s separate interview with Mary Doria Russell about her intense love for music, including Chopin but especially Def Leppard. Find links to SOF Observed in our e-mail newsletter and on the home page of our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.

After a short break, the impossibility of micromanaging one’s creation for the novelist and possibly for God. Also, what kind of character is God in the narratives humanity has crafted?

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “The Novelist as God.” Paleoanthropologist-turned-novelist Mary Doria Russell was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her work of historical fiction A Thread of Grace, about the rescue of Jews in Holocaust-era Italy. She’s best known for her theologically evocative, morally complex science fiction novels The Sparrow and Children of God, which we’re discussing this hour.

These books pursue themes of social evolution and explosion, of the impossibility of controlling the results of intentions, both good and bad. In this passage from The Sparrow, the ethical complexity of encounter with the other is embodied in a character named Hlavin Kitheri. Kitheri, a cruel and visionary figure at once, is the originator of gorgeous music that leads the novel’s Jesuit-led scientific delegation to the planet Rakhat. Here, this aesthete from a species with an exquisite olfactory sense is given a crystal flask of coffee beans brought from Earth to smell for the first time.

READER: “In a culture walled in by tradition and heavy with stability, Hlavin Kitheri had created a new subtlety, a delicacy, a new appreciation of raw experience. There arose a generation of poets, the children of his soul, and their songs, propagated through space on unseen waves that reached a world they could not imagine and changed lives there as well. It was to this man, Hlavin Kitheri, the Reshtar of Galatna Palace, that was sent in a strikingly simple crystal flask seven small kernels of extraordinary fragrance. Opening the flask, breathing its vacuum, Kitheri was met by a plume of sweetly camphoric enzyme byproducts, giving off notes of basil and tarragon, by chocolate aromatics, sugar carbonyl and pyrazine compounds carrying the suggestion of vanilla, by hints of nutmeg and celery seed and cumin in the products of dry distillation created during roasting. And overlaying all, the tenuous odor of volatile short-chain carbons, the saline memorial of an alien ocean: sweat from the fingers of Emilio Sandoz. A poet with no words to describe organic beauties whose origin he could not possibly suspect, Hlavin Kitheri knew only that he must know more. And because of this, lives were changed again.”

From The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, another theme that is so much there in your writing in your stories is a sense I have that there’s something, at one in the same time exquisitely sacred and also kind of treacherously primal.


MS. TIPPETT: In what happens between and among human beings and especially the people they’re closest to, whether that’s family or friendship or the communities we end up in, whether we planned it or not, you know, you’ve used this term “spiritual kinship.” And on Rakhat it’s different species, in fact, encountering and then working out new ways of living; in fact, thrown together. But it’s also these people, this funny mixture of a Jesuit and a linguist and this Jewish — I don’t know what you’ll call her — expert in artificial intelligence or just the brilliant woman, and scientist who travel together, who end up living for years, right, who end up just inhabiting …


MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder, do you have a sense, like, I’ll just say it this way. I’ll be kind of personal. In the long sweep of time, if you can look across generations, you can sometimes make sense or you can see a sense there that’s not immediately obvious.

MS. RUSSELL: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: In terms of these intimate, messy, often seemingly coincidental relationships that define our lives, is your understanding of God — is God intimately involved in that, connected to that, or are we kind of left …

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Does God micromanage us?

MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.

MS. RUSSELL: That’s what my husband says. I hope not. Because that makes it even worse. You know, oh my god, is he doing this on purpose?


MS. RUSSELL: No. I personally do not believe that God micromanages things. I believe that we find meaning. And a lot of people do find that they can tolerate ambiguity and anxiety and big overwhelming emotions are somehow more tolerable if they can step back and say, ‘Well, it’s God’s will.’

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: Or, ‘I’m going to step back. Let go and let God.’ You know, it helps a lot of people. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that. My theology — oh, boy.

MS. TIPPETT: Go on. Go on.

MS. RUSSELL: Well, I find it — I’ll give you an example.


MS. RUSSELL: Up until now the Big Bang has been the cosmology that has been working for most cosmologists for a long time. But there was this point at which the mathematics break down, and they can’t quite make the leap from there was nothing and then there is the universe. Recently, there is a new cosmology that indicates that the universe both expands, as it did after what we’ve been calling the Big Bang, and also mathematically we can see a way in which it would then contract and it would continue to do this. It would expand and contract and expand and contract. And so over and over again. You’re talking about really unimaginable stretches of time. Now, the visualization of that idea in science news was to show a diagram that to me looked like, OK, now I’m going to ask you to visualize Steve Martin making a balloon animal. OK?

MS. TIPPETT: All right.

MS. RUSSELL: And he’s got one of those long balloons and he twists it …


MS. RUSSELL: … and makes it into a series of, like, sausages.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: Expanded, contracted, expanded, contracted. When I looked at that diagram what came to my mind unbidden — I wasn’t trying for this — I thought, “It’s the breath of God.”


MS. RUSSELL: That God breathes in and God breathes out. And when he breathes in, the universe is contracting, and when he breathes out, the universe is expanding. And I immediately was charmed by the metaphor. I liked that a lot. And then you get also that notion of God breathed over the face of the waters. Oh, poetically I really, really loved that. And so for me, I guess what it comes down to is that God is the largest, most complex, most inclusive, most explanatory idea that human beings are capable of imagining

Now, that said, we’re primates and our brains are like two and a half to three pounds. You know, we’re doing the best we can.

MS. RUSSELL: But I would hate to say that we’ve got a lock on the universe and deity at this point.


MS. RUSSELL: I am willing to say, well, that’s the best we can do and it’s kind of good. It has a lot of truly satisfying elements to it. But whether it bears any resemblance to what’s really out there, I don’t know.

MS. TIPPETT: What’s the origin of the title The Sparrow? Is that from the reference in the New Testament?

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Yes. Not even a sparrow can fall without your father knowing it.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And that’s that micromanagement that I thought you were trying to get away from.

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And I have often thought — that’s something that’s usually said to people when they are in moments of extreme stress.


MS. RUSSELL: When somebody is very ill or some terrible thing has happened, and it’s supposed to make you feel better.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: Not even a sparrow can fall without your father knowing it. God’s eye is on the sparrow. There’s a hymn.


MS. RUSSELL: But, as one of my characters points out, the sparrow still falls. God may be watching, but it doesn’t do the sparrow a whole here of a lot of good. The sparrow still hits the ground. And to say that God’s eye is on the sparrow, it can be a terrible indictment of God too, can’t it? That he sees what’s happening and does nothing to prevent it or does nothing to deflect it. So that’s why I say the idea that God is micromanaging things is a real dangerous notion theologically. I think.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: In a category of what I thought of in my notes as irony but, really, I don’t think irony is the right word. I think let’s just say maybe it’s just reality. I was thinking about a couple of the characters in The Sparrow and Children of God. There’s Sofia Mendes. You wrote at one point early on when we get to know her, you said the Torah taught choose life. But the story of Sofia Mendes’s life at that point …

MS. RUSSELL: Right. In order to live …

MS. TIPPETT: … especially when we first meet her, yeah, she chose life and survived.


MS. TIPPETT: She sold her body. She sold her mind.

MS. RUSSELL: Right. She becomes a prostitute, because it was that or starve.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And then you have on a lighter note, but really no less poignant, you have a Jesuit named D.W. Yarbrough.

MS. RUSSELL: Yarbrough. Yeah, D.W. is a doll.

MS. TIPPETT: And he’s describing himself. He’s been talking to one of the women, very formative woman in the novel, and he says, “And the good lord decided to make D. W. Yarbrough a Catholic, a liberal, ugly, and gay and a fair poet, and then had him born in Waco, Texas. Now I ask you, is that the work of a serious deity?”

MS. RUSSELL: Is that the work of a serious deity. Yeah. Yeah, D.W. sees God as a cosmic comedian.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You are dancing across this line, because on the one hand I think — and as much the scientist in you as anything else …


MS. TIPPETT: … loves to think about the breath of God, but not so much the micromanaging God, and yet I think you are fascinated with the curious and beautiful and tragic details of real life.

MS. RUSSELL: Oh, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Which also, even in their tragedy and irony seem too amazing not to matter, you know, not to have some kind of creativity behind them.

MS. RUSSELL: Well, they matter to us. They matter to us


MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. And I wonder, I’m just thinking of this for the first time, but maybe it is that need to make those small things matter that we tell one another about them. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the origin of storytelling, is that need to communicate clearly. I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going with that but …

MS. TIPPETT: Well, if you think about it theologically, I mean, if you think is that also in telling …

MS. RUSSELL: I mean, do we need God to know about us in order for our stories to matter?

MS. TIPPETT: Or do we reach out to God with our stories?

MS. RUSSELL: Or do we — yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, I’d have to think about that for a while. I don’t think that our need to matter necessarily implies God.


MS. RUSSELL: I can’t make the arrow go in that direction. Just because we need something or we would like something doesn’t necessarily mean that it exists.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, running through your fiction and especially through The Sparrow and Children of God, there are agnostic doubters or atheist doubters who are tempted by faith.


MS. TIPPETT: Because of what they’re experiencing. And there are all these Jesuits who’ve made vows.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. And there are people of faith who’s …

MS. TIPPETT: Who are tempted by despair and a lack of faith.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: I wanted to read — let me just — I thought I would read something from Anne. She and I are on a first-name basis. What was her last name again?

MS. RUSSELL: Anne Edwards. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Anne Edwards. Yes. “There was part of Anne Edwards that was thrilled about the discovery that gloried in being this close to history in the making, and deeper in a place she rarely inspected there was a part of her that wanted to believe as Emilio seemed to believe, that God was in the universe making sense of things. Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or as history, she’d decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal. A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.” I mean, that’s actually — that’s a more — in some ways that’s a more lighthearted passage.


MS. TIPPETT: But there are lots of very earnest discussions in here and …


MS. TIPPETT: … she also says at one point to one of the Jesuits that she does not require heaven or here to scare her into acting like a decent person.

MS. RUSSELL: I don’t need here to scare me into behaving decently or heaven to bribe me.

MS. TIPPETT: But I think that Christianity — and you really see this in the discussions that happen between these Jesuits, and certainly in Emilio Sandoz goes through this huge experience internally, the relationship between doubt and faith and Christianity is organic, but it’s fraught.


MS. TIPPETT: And in Judaism, it’s also organic and I think less scared of that. And I’m curious about — you said you were exploring Judaism as you were writing the first book.

MS. RUSSELL: And I made a formal conversion when I was about two-thirds of the way through it.


MS. RUSSELL: But I had started studying about it years earlier.

MS. TIPPETT: Was that something that also evolved in you and in the way you, as the author participant in those discussions, took part?

MS. RUSSELL: Well, I was probably reflecting the kinds of ideas that I’d had over the prior years of studying Judaism and clarifying what I thought and what I was bringing to that study. What I wanted to do — and I think one of the reasons that this book, The Sparrow, remains as widely read as it is — and believe me, nobody is more surprised than I, that the Jesuits in space have done this well — but I think that the reason that people still respond to it so strongly is that no matter where you are on that spectrum of belief, from flat-out atheism to bridal mystic, there is always somebody in The Sparrow who is there to articulate for you what you might be thinking. You are both exposed to the thinking and the belief of someone whose notion of religion is very different from your own, but who does so in a way that makes you understand where they’re coming from. And then as clear and poetic a description of that person’s understanding can be, then there’s somebody who will make a joke out of it in another line. And so my own — I guess my own theology is all of the above.

MS. TIPPETT: And I guess what I’m saying also is I think Judaism allows you that scope.

MS. RUSSELL: Yes. Yeah. You’re not supposed to study the Torah by yourself. There’s actually a rule against it. You have to have at least one study partner, because there should always be somebody there who can say, ‘Yeah, but consider it this way.’ Argument is built into Judaism. The Talmud is basically a …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: … multicentury argument. The welcoming of argument and the insistence on thinking of things in more than one way. The absolute rejection of the idea that there’s only one way to interpret anything is certainly what drew me to, what made me feel at home, in Judaism. Plus, I like the stories.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Novelist Mary Doria Russell. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Novelist as God.”

MS. TIPPETT: There’s this line of a very intriguing character who comes in kind of in the Children of God book, and she’s from this species, the Jana’ata who …

MS. RUSSELL: The predator.

MS. TIPPETT: The predators.


MS. TIPPETT: Right. So in shorthand, they are the predators. In fact, they kind of undergo this evolution and they then become the prey themselves. But she’s talking to Sofia, who’s the Jewish character, and she’s talking to her about how enchanted, how inspired she’s been by Sofia’s message that Sofia herself is doubting, that we are all — she means all species — children of a god so high that ranks in differences are as nothing in his far side. And she says, “If it is a mistake to hope for such a world then it is a magnificent mistake.”


MS. TIPPETT: Is that a thought of yours?

MS. RUSSELL: That’s mine. Yes. Yeah. That was one of the few places where I just stepped out and said what I think. In another place in Children of God, D.W. Yarbrough is remembered as saying, “Maybe it’s only poetry, but it’s poetry to live for.”

I also think that even if God is, as Emilio comes to think or suspect or fear, even if God is only a remarkably persistent character in a bunch of old folk tales — let’s say that God is only a fictional character, that he only exists in Torah and in the New Testament and in the scriptures of various faiths. Let’s say that that’s the only place he exists. I tend to think that fictional characters are in some ways more real than biological human beings. And I’ll tell you why.


MS. RUSSELL: I’m going to give you an example.

MS. TIPPETT: All right.

MS. RUSSELL: All right. Think of Victorian England. How many people from that era can you remember? Everybody knows …

MS. TIPPETT: Everybody’s read …

MS. RUSSELL: … Sherlock Holmes.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: I would say that Sherlock Holmes is more real.

MS. TIPPETT: Or Charles dinkens’ characters.

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah, exactly. Those fictional characters are more real than the anonymous people who came and went and lived and died in east London.

MS. TIPPETT: Or that they endured to teach future generations about …

MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Yeah. There was a reality to them that I think is not to be sneezed at. To be a fictional character like that is not such a bad fate.

MS. TIPPETT: And I guess all fictional characters don’t survive. So, I mean, there is a bit of a selection process that goes in there.

MS. RUSSELL: That’s right. That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s value in what …

MS. RUSSELL: Just as we go, you know, Zeus not so good anymore, Mithras, he hasn’t been big for years, there’s a lot of theological characters that have slowly fallen away, but others that seem to be more enduring. And even if their fate is only that they are figments of human imagination and that they are only literary constructs, not so bad. Still magnificent, I think.

In Judaism, at the end of every Passover meal, there’s a folk song that we sing and the refrain is “Dayenu,” which means “it would have been enough.” And it’s a wonderful song. It’s great fun to sing. And I will not inflict my voice on you, but it’s like “If God had only brought us out of Egypt, Dayenu, it would have been enough. If God had only given us the Torah, Dayenu, it would have been enough. If God had only given us the Sabbath, Dayenu, it would have been enough.” And so I’m a great believer in Dayenu. I believe even if it isn’t more, this is enough. Even if it’s only poetry, hey, poetry is a lot. Poetry is enough.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said that you’re Jewish and also still agnostic. Is that right?



MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. But the God I almost believe in is a Jewish god.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Having played the role of God in writing fiction, in that — through that experience, do you think of God as a sympathetic character?



MS. RUSSELL: Yeah. Hmm. Hmm

MS. TIPPETT: What kind of character is God?

MS. RUSSELL: Well, this is something that Jews talk about every Saturday morning at Torah study, because there are some really — Harold Bloom calls it the uncanniness of God. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. And as you read through the Torah, you are confronted with absolutely inexplicable and very disturbing things. Just take the binding of Isaac.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: God is an uncanny character and not altogether sympathetic.


MS. RUSSELL: You know, there are many times when I think if this were a parent, I would not be impressed by the skills that are being shown here.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: But I also have this sense that God’s character changes. This is something that’s very true in the Torah. God learns. God changes. For example, God changes his mind.


MS. RUSSELL: He forgets things. “And God remembered.”

MS. TIPPETT: And God remembers. Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: Rachel.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. RUSSELL: Maybe he’s omniscient. Let’s say for argument that he is omniscient.


MS. RUSSELL: It’s one thing to know that the terrible twos are going to be difficult, OK, when you’re a parent; it’s a whole other thing to live through them with a child.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. RUSSELL: OK. And maybe the fact that he knows that having children with free will is going to be difficult, that’s different from actually experiencing it as the species grows up. You know, he gives us like one rule: don’t eat that fruit. And then of course we do. OK. So he says, ‘All right. Let’s try seven.’ All right, so we get the Noahide commandments. Eh, that doesn’t do the trick. So he says, ‘OK, here’s 10 commandments.’ He keeps trying.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. RUSSELL: But we keep thinking up more ways to be bad than he ever anticipated that we would do. And he gets more and more clear on how we need to be raised. As a parent, he learns as we also mature. As the Bible goes on, you see God less and less immediately involved with the story. And at the end of the Torah, he’s almost silent. And it’s like a parent who’s decided, ‘OK. I’ve done everything I could for you. I’ve raised you. Good luck. I’m going to watch.’ And here’s where you can have God desperately caring, truly involved with our stories. But as a parent watching an adult child, it is your job now to step back and let them live their own lives. So for me, that’s kind of the theology that I work with.

MS. TIPPETT: Mary Doria Russell is a retired paleoanthropologist and the author of four novels, including The Sparrow and Children of God. She’s currently writing a novel set in the late 19th century about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. And here in closing is a reading from The Sparrow. A Jesuit scientist, Marc Robichaux, delivers a homily at the gravesite of the first member of the Earth mission to Rakhat to die there, suddenly and inexplicably.

READER:“‘The voyage was not without reward for Alan,’ Marc said. ‘But we are left with Anne’s question. Why would God bring him all this way only to die now?’ He paused and looked at Sofia before continuing. ‘The Jewish sages tell us that the whole of the Torah, the entirety of the first five books of the Bible, is the name of God. With such a name, they ask, how much more is God? The Fathers of the Church tell us that God is Mystery and unknowable. God himself in Scripture tells us, “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts.’

“The noise of the forest was quieting now. Siesta was the rule in the heat of midday, when three suns’ aggregate light drove many animals to shelter. They were all, priests and lay, tired and hot, and wanted Marc to finish. But Marc waited until Anne lifted her eyes to his. ‘It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s last night and to receive no plain answers,’ he said. ‘Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable.’

“Marc continued, ‘The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when his children defeat him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of animal behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up his answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.'”

From Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: The curiosity and verve of Mary Doria Russell’s approach to writing and to life were on display in our nearly two-hour conversation. We spoke about her fascinations behind her historical novel about Jewish refugees in Holocaust-era Italy and how she is currently channeling the intellectual scope and musical skills of her next novel’s protagonist, Wild West dentist and gunman Doc Holliday. To hear what was cut, download a free MP3 of that unedited conversation and this produced program through our podcast, e-mail newsletter, or Web site, speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our technical director is John Scherf. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.


Subscribe to On Being with Krista Tippett