Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

An "Eye on the Sparrow?" Joan Didion and C. S. Lewis Read the Prayer Book

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

An "Eye on the Sparrow?" Joan Didion and C. S. Lewis Read the Prayer Book

Article excerpt

At the book's core is a recurring motif, a credo, a statement of anti-faith: "No eye was on the sparrow." Against this I set the memory of my mother and grandmother in church, singing a duet: "His eye is on the sparrow." As Pascal says, we make our wager.

--John Wilson, (First Things, 43)

In the months following its publication in October 2005, the critical reviews for loan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a chronicle of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her own crushing personal grief, were overwhelmingly positive, at times to the point of near absurdity. The New York Times ran three glowing reviews in succession, the first two by renowned critic Michiko Kakutani and former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, and the third featuring an extensive author profile written by Rachel Donadio. That was followed two months later by at least two articles mentioning producer Scott Rudin's plan to bring the story to Broadway (McKinley, Downes). In addition to the Times coverage, three of the four biggest names in book-review publications--Publishers Weekly (Rev. of "The Year"), ALA Booklist (Seaman), and The Library Journal (Kochis)--all gave it laudatory starred reviews. Only Kirkus Reviews ("Didion, Joan:") was lukewarm. John Leonard, writing in The New York Review of Books, was effusive with praise. "I can't think of a book we need more than hers," he wrote; then, in an echo of Didion's own incantatory style: "I can't imagine dying without this book" (12).

As winter turned to spring in 2006, however, lengthier and more equivocal analyses of Didion's memoir began to appear in a handful of publications (for examples, see Gurstein, Nelson, Schulman, and Skloot). Few reviewers criticized Didion's prose style, usually agreed to be "lyrical" (Review, Publishers Weekly), "achingly beautiful" ("Briefly Noted" The New Yorker), and "lacerating, yet peculiarly stirring" (Yardley, Washington Post). But what several less charitable reviewers noticed--some within religious contexts, such as Wilson's review in First Things quoted above--is that for all of Didion's descriptions of Christian faith and practice, particularly the rituals of the Episcopal Church, and her repeated references to scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, the conclusions she reaches on the far side of her grief are profoundly skeptical of religious belief.

For example, she mentions in an offhand way her (and Dunne's) disbelief in the "resurrection of the body" (Year of Magical Thinking 149-50). But though this view is manifestly unorthodox, directly denying the Apostles' Creed Didion quotes on the same page, it is not the one that her religious critics most seized upon. Perhaps the contradictory nature of the passage itself held her critics in check--Didion says just a few lines later that her way of thinking "was so muddled as to contradict even itself" (150). The passage also holds out the possibility that Didion does not reject all hope of life after death--after all, she leaves intact the next phrase in the Creed, "and the life everlasting, amen" (149). Rather, what most religious critics found more disturbing was Didion's revision of a well-known proverb from the Gospel of Matthew, and the subject of a popular early 20th-century American hymn: "No eye is on the sparrow."

The original title of the hymn, written by Civilla D. Martin in 1905, is "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." The lyrics of its three stanzas offer spiritual encouragement to those who are, in turn, lonely, doubtful, and tempted by sin. The central two-line phrase is repeated twice in every verse and again in the refrain: "For His eye is on the sparrow / and I know He watches me." The Gospel passage which inspired the hymn is often considered part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, though technically it comes afterward, as Jesus draws his disciples aside to prepare them for persecution-filled missionary work:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. …

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