Is God in Charge? Mary Doria Russell's the Sparrow , Deconstruction, and Theodicy

Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Is God in Charge? Mary Doria Russell's the Sparrow , Deconstruction, and Theodicy

Martin Warren, Assistant Professor

Department of English, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN


Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow leads the reader to wrestle with how evil, pain, and suffering are explained in theodicy and thus grapples with "the risks and beauties of religious faith." The sparrow of the novel's title refers to the insignificant sparrow of Matthew 10:29-31 that is observed and known by God in its fall to earth. In this speculative fiction novel, the Jesuits hear beautiful music transmitted from another planet and send a mission to meet God's other children. The meeting ends disastrously. Russell encourages us, through the device of the mission, to reflect on our understanding of how God's will works in the universe.

[1] "In 1942 the medical service of the Revier [Ravensbruck] death camp were required to perform abortions on all pregnant women. If a child happened to [be] born alive, it would be smothered or drowned in a bucket in front of the mother. Given a newborn child's natural resistance to drowning, a baby's agony might last for twenty or thirty minutes." Germaine Tillion, Ravensbruck, 77.

[2] "You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped;

You were too strong for me, and you triumphed.

All the day I am an object of laughter;

Everyone mocks me." Jeremiah 20:7

[3] "Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. ... So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31.


[4] In providing reassurance to his audience in the face of persecution, the writer of Matthew's gospel offers an image of God's encompassing love in the figure of the sparrow that falls to the ground. The sparrow, common, dowdy, seemingly unimportant even in the world of birds, and certainly insignificant in the world of humans, is noticed, however, by God. Its fall to the ground is a moment worthy of God's consideration. If God can notice the fall of a sparrow, the gospel writer suggests, then surely we humans, made in God's own image (Gen.1:26-27), must be profoundly significant. Certainly we are the ones tenderly watched over by God. The comforting image of the Matthean sparrow reinforces our belief in a God of love. Yet apparently unjustified woes, filled with inexplicable pain and suffering, are imposed on God's children. The opening epigraph concerning babies drowned right before their mother's eyes in Ravensbruck death camp horrifies and disquiets us at many levels, leading us to ask why a beneficent deity would permit such senseless and wanton destruction. Our belief is shaken. David Birnbaum states our dilemma succinctly when he writes: "How can we affirm the validity of a sincere religious commitment in a world where we ourselves have witnessed such prevalence of gratuitous, gross evil?" (1989, xx).

[5] The reality of evil makes us question the belief that God is just. We are forced to ask whether a truly adoring God would make a world where someone we love dies of a terrible disease or where terrorists kill thousands of people as occurred on September 11, 2001 in New York City. If God is all-powerful, are we then just puppets jerked around by a divine puppeteer in a far larger plan whose purpose we do not understand? As we face evil in God's good creation we must wonder, as Jeremiah says in the second epigraph, whether God has duped us. So how do we work with this perception of being duped?

[6] In Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow, we are invited to explore the intersection of human faith and God's will and the existence of evil and suffering in a creation that God in the Book of Genesis declares is good. The novel is not about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather it is about the nature of God as far as we can understand God's plan and purpose not just for the cosmos but also for the individual.

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Is God in Charge? Mary Doria Russell's the Sparrow , Deconstruction, and Theodicy


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