“Miasma” — it was a word I had never heard before. As soon as I could sneak away from my fifth grade desk, I went to the book shelf at the back of the classroom and looked it up. I found something like this: “an oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere which surrounds or emanates from something.” I desperately wished I could use this word in casual conversation, but the opportunity rarely arose. That’s probably for the best for all involved.
Later I would discover the “miasma theory” of illness. Up until the advent of germ theory, physicians thought that some illnesses were caused by a miasma — “bad air” or “night air.” The theory was that rotting plants and animals produced noxious emanations that would drift in our windows and make us sick. It was only later in life that I recalled how my mother would not allow me to have my windows open at night. So sometimes I wonder…
I experienced my miasmatic epiphany as Mrs. Ulrich read to us from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s one of the books I return to with regularity and recommend to young people who want a good story that’s worth the bother. The word appears just twice in the book, but it describes the shadowy fog of evil that threatens to engulf people, planets and perhaps the entire cosmos if left unchecked. As I was awakening to the ubiquity of bad things in the world, it was a word that resonated with me.
Mrs. Ulrich read it a chapter at a time, so we experienced the story as a weekly serial. I lived twelve miles from the nearest public library and had never entered such a building. So it didn’t occur to me that I might get the book and read ahead. I waited breathlessly each week as Meg Murry, Charles Wallace, and Calvin made their way through the universe toward their confrontation with IT. As the story unfolded, so did the events of 1967-1968. Miasma was a term for the times.
Wrinkle was still a fairly new book in those years, having been published in 1962. It has won the Newberry Award in 1963, although that wouldn’t have impressed me much in fifth grade. The book reflected the concerns of the time. It was a meditation on the oppressions of the authoritarian state — Fascist or Communist. But it was even more a critique of the McCarthyan conformity of the 1950’s. L’Engle had observed the cruelty and personal devastation of that time up close and personal through her connections to the theater and literary world of the time. There is much of Joseph McCarthy in her fictional antagonists. And those antagonists have their acolytes in our own political circumstances.
L’Engle’s book gave me so many gifts. I became a fan of science fiction and fantasy and have never stopped in that fandom. Because of L’Engle, my taste runs toward the big, deep, social-analytical stuff — the Dune and Foundation series are sources of endless reflection for me. I was immediately assured that this sci-fi stuff was not just men’s work, so I could embrace Ursula LeGuin and travel in Earthsea. I was instructed from the beginning that the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy were permeable and that the disciplines were complementary rather than competitive.
I didn’t think of any of this in fifth grade, of course. L’Engle wrote a smart coming-of-age story that kept my attention and helped me to feel less odd about being bright, introverted, and modestly angry most of the time. I was grateful to hear the stories of people who were regarded as outsiders and were bullied for their differences. As those things became bigger issues in junior high, L’Engle’s work became more valuable to me.
I did notice in that fifth grade experience that there was something more than vaguely “church-y” about the book — and not in a bad way. I hadn’t been completely put off from church yet by my experience of Lutheran boot camp (aka confirmation instruction). But I had had enough instruction on Saturdays AND Sundays to recognize what I was hearing. “We were sent here for something,” Meg’s father tells her late in the book. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” I couldn’t have told you where to find that in the Bible, but I knew it was something important.
The direct New Testament quotations rang some distant-sounding bells for me, and that was interesting. I started wishing that Sunday sermons might begin to resemble L’Engle more and Luther less (but that didn’t happen). L’Engle taught me to begin to love questions more than answers. “But you see, Meg,” her mother told her at one point, “just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean that the explanation doesn’t exist.” So, I studied history and philosophy. Of course, I still don’t really understand.
What I know now in hindsight, however, was that the cross vibrated in and through the pages of the book. The last became first and the first last. Strength was made perfect in weakness. Faith, hope and love were all necessary, but love was certainly the greatest and most needful of the theological virtues.
And of course there was one of the high moments of the book — one that reverberated through the racial struggles of the sixties. “For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. ‘No!’ she cried triumphantly. ‘Like and equal are not the same thing at all!’” Unity in Christ does not dictate sameness in creatures. Diversity is strength, not weakness.
I wouldn’t have been able to put any of that into words then. It’s hard enough now, after fifty years of reflection. More important, all this theology was put in the form of a great adventure. The work of God was not some sort of cosmic banking transaction — which was the way it sounded often enough on Sunday mornings. God’s mission was a journey for heroes, a struggle for the life of the universe, an existential epic in both personal and cosmic terms. I began to think as I reread it in high school that I could get interested in that kind of adventure. I’m still interested.
I loved “miasma.” But what I learned through the reading and re-reading was “epistemic humility.” L’Engle didn’t use that phrase but she taught it on almost every page. One of the big speeches quotes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “Listen, Meg. Listen well,” said Mrs. Who. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” If I had embraced that understanding more fully, I wouldn’t have spent quite so much time dealing with the miasma in my own life.
Thank you, Madeleine. And thank you, Mrs. Ulrich. It’s been fun to tesser to you for a few moments today.