I wonder about atheist messages in disguise ...

When I was in the sixth grade, a nun called Sister Maxine (Sister Max) - who had to be a hippy lesbian in disguise - read Madeleine L'Engle's iconic book A Wrinkle in Time to us. I was totally blown away by that book. At the time I was sure she thought it was a secret take on Christianity. Nevertheless, it inspired me to go to the library and look for more ... science fiction.

I picked up a piece of preteen pulp by a guy named Robert Heinlein. It was about a kid who won a used spacesuit in a commercial essay competition. In a far-fetched series of events, he ends up going on an adventure in space. It was called Have Spacesuit Will Travel. I proceeded to read everything RH ever wrote. He was, of course, a notorious atheist and poisoner of children's souls. Oh, and freer of children's minds. I owe him a great deal.

So, in reading A Wrinkle in Time to us, Sister Max inadvertently pushed me four square onto the path to atheism.

Last night, my fourteen year old daughter and I watched a film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time that was fairly well done. It had come that day from Netflix. The story is a kid's story for sure - even my daughter is a little too old now - but it was fun to watch it because I had read it to her when she was younger. It's basically about how love conquers all - or, more accurately, how love cannot be conquered, and about how everyone is different and has their own unique thing to add to the mix. It might have been a cold war book about American individualism vs. Communist sublimation of the individual. It might have been about Nazi Germany.

But, then it suddenly occurred to me that it might have been a cautionary tale about how dogmatic religion attempts to get us to believe only what we are told and do things only a certain way and, by doing this, we will achieve happiness.

And, now, I find that so many books and movies can be read and watched for this theme. I'm certain most people see the obvious references to 'Evil Empires' like The Third Reich, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, etc. But now I clearly see they can just as easily be warning us about The Pope, Jihad, or any other theocratic tyranny. I'm sure few see it. But it's there.

No wonder the fundies want to burn books. They did help save me from god, after all. Thank you, Sister Max.

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Comment by Jason Spicer on June 1, 2010 at 2:43pm
Cat o', I have no problem with Mr. Elliot's 'stache. I just wish it would be cast against type once in a while.

UDFG and Loren, Heinlein's schizophrenic soldier-worshipping libertarianism deserves mockery. The movie, while not as good as the trailer starring the Blur song, was indeed a subtle satire, lapped up straight by brownshirts and NRA yahoos but given away with lines like "It sucked his brains out!" and by the casting of NPH as an SS colonel. I suppose it's just barely possible that Heinlein meant it as satire in the first place, but it certainly reads like an earnest political manifesto.
Comment by Loren Miller on June 1, 2010 at 5:52am
Apparently, I'm not the only Heinlein purist around here ... but then, "Ginny" wasn't too thrilled with Starship Troopers, either. Quoting IMDB:

After seeing an advanced screening of the movie, Virginia Heinlein denounced the movie and requested unsuccessfully to have her late husband's name removed from the movie, stating it made a mockery of his classic book.
Comment by Jason Spicer on June 1, 2010 at 3:42am
Cat o' Name of the Week Club, I read Christopher Milne's autobio at our parents' behest as well. I also couldn't figure out why they recommended it. I think the idea was to be exposed to the unpleasant thinking of an atheist, and all I got out of it was what a level-headed chap he seemed to be, even as a child.

Howard, the battle suits were what made the first and last chapter fun. And now that you mention it, the Wrinkle In Time fascist society very well matches up with that depicted in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. I read the books and watched the movie, though I have to say they came across as rather dreary. And for fuck's sake, will everybody please stop casting Sam Elliot's moustache as the Marlboro Man? The only time that really worked was when he played the actual Marlboro Man in Thank You For Smoking. He was jarringly out of place in The Big Lebowski. Holy crap, he graduated from Clark College here in Vancouver. I didn't know that. Well, maybe I did and forgot. Cat o', do you know if he ever took a class from Dad? Seems like he could have, just after Dad started teaching there.
Comment by Tak G. on May 31, 2010 at 3:03pm
I loved L'Engle's books as a kid, they were WAY better than Narnia (I read both around the same time). I got kind of a christ-y vibe from them but kind of ignored it. I think they're where I got my love of sci-fi mixed with fantasy.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on May 30, 2010 at 5:55pm
John - it left out the coolest tech - the battle suits - and totally amped up the camp - though Heinlein deserved that.
Comment by Tom Thompson on May 30, 2010 at 11:13am
I read A Wrinkle in Time as well. I must have been around 10. It had a fairly defining effect on my young mind as I recall. I still have this book, among a very small selection of books from my youth.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on May 30, 2010 at 10:39am
Jason - Spacesuit was just a gateway. Heinlein's biggest problem was the inability to write an ending. Trooper was good in that it pointed out that the survival of the race could supersede the survival of the individual even while it should never supersede the value of the individual (like the bugs - later ripped off by Orson Card and Star Trek - the Borg.)

The Chronicles of Narnia comes out of Wagner's Ring Cycle and, while Lewis was a Christian, his use of pagan mythology leaves it wide open to other interpretations. I had t read about it being a Christian allegory too.

I was kinda creeped out by A Wrinkle in Time, actually. The lockstep society depicted just warn't no fun. That's what I'm talking about. Religion's lockstep society is depicted as unbearable - that's the new interpretation I'm talking about. I could use that book to point out how stultifying, massively manipulative, and tyrannical large-scale religion is.
Comment by Jason Spicer on May 30, 2010 at 2:14am
I'm afraid I wasn't looking for deeper meanings when I read both A Wrinkle in Time and Have Spacesuit Will Travel. I enjoyed them both as adventure stories, but no more. Then again, I utterly missed the pageant of Christian obviousness that is The Chronicles of Narnia. I read all of these as a pre-teen, so I have some excuse, but I have to say I've been generally alarmed at my extreme obliviousness on a regular basis for most of my 48 years, so I'm not so sure I'm off the hook on that score.

I never read any of L'Engle's other books. I was kinda creeped out by A Wrinkle in Time, actually. The lockstep society depicted just warn't no fun. I did enjoy Have Spacesuit Will Travel, though of course I had no idea the title was a reference to a Western show. I read a few other Heinlein books after that, though he never really grabbed me. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was cool, but Starship Troopers had a good first and last chapter with ten chapters of crap in between. The movie was infinitely superior. And I made the mistake of reading the "author's cut" of Stranger in a Strange Land. Yikes on speed. Heinlein desperately needed an editor. And his assertion therein that humor derives solely from the infliction of pain seems more revealing about Heinlein than about human nature. Mostly that's my recollection of Heinlein--humorless. Nothing is more lethal in an author.

I'm sorry to say that my path to atheism wasn't so poetic as yours, Howard. Sometime late in my college career I grew increasingly fed up with the nonsense until I realized the most likely explanation was that there just wasn't any there there.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on May 30, 2010 at 2:02am
Keep in mind that I don't think that the intent of the author is necessarily the potential message of the book. And I didn't see AWiT this way until last night.

Heinlein - on the other hand - was definitely a subversive atheist. Many great authors were.

It's just that - for instance - I just saw a dumb little comedy ditty on Netflix play instantly - Answer Man - about a guy who turns everyone on for 20 years with a book about him asking god questions and getting answers called Me & God. ***spoiler*** (dumb movie anyway) he admits that he 'made it all up.' Now, it seems to me that if everyone had been turned on by those answers when they thought god was giving them, then they should realize that we don't need god for insightful answers when we find out that god didn't give them. That appeared to be a possible interpretation of the film. Sis an atheist (or agnostic) write this thing? I actually think so - even though it feels like a hallmark card for god most of the way through. And even if the author is a Christian - the message is still there.
Comment by qıƃ ɟ ǝıɔɐɹʇ on May 30, 2010 at 1:34am
I read A Wrinkle in Time also at age 11. I commented about it in a short essay, ten years ago, here:

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