'I Dare You'

On Monday, ABC will air the first movie version of Madeleine L'Engle's classic book, "A Wrinkle in Time,'' which was originally published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. According to the author's family, the project—in various incarnations—was 25 years in the making. L'Engle is 85 now and has published more than 50 books, including several volumes of reflections on faith. In a rare interview held in the apartment on Manhattan's West End Avenue where she has lived for decades, L'Engle talked to NEWSWEEK's Melinda Henneberger about her God, her work and her competition.

NEWSWEEK: So you've seen the movie?
Madeleine L'Engle:
I've glimpsed it.

And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.

What are you working on at the moment?
A book about aging: enjoy it, you might as well. And it's not all bad. I can say what I want, and I don't get punished for it.

Such as?
Such as I sometimes think God is a s--t--and he wouldn't be worth it otherwise. He's much more interesting when he's a s--t.

So to you, faith is not a comfort?
Good heavens, no. It's a challenge: I dare you to believe in God. I dare you to think [our existence] wasn't an accident.

Many people see faith as anti-intellectual.
Then they're not very bright. It takes a lot of intellect to have faith, which is why so many people only have religiosity.

Have you read the Harry Potter books?
I read one of them. It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it. I don't want to be bothered with stuff where there's nothing underneath. Some people say, "Why do you read the Bible?'' I say, "Because there's a lot of stuff underneath."

I ask about the Potter books because, like "Wrinkle," they have Christian themes yet have been criticized by some Christians, for similar reasons.
Well, the Fundalets [fundamentalist Christians] want a closed system, and I want an open system.

What were the specific objections to "Wrinkle?''
Oh, the Happy Medium, that terrified them. And Mrs. Which, who is not a witch at all but a wise old woman. I felt like I was really "in'' because people were condemning it right away. But they were Christians, mostly, and that made me very sad.

Because "Wrinkle'' is a Christian story, isn't it?
So is "Winnie the Pooh." Is King Arthur a Christian story? Yes ... One reason I stay in the Episcopal Church I was born in is it's got the best language.

You know Andrew Greeley's argument that a lot of people stay Catholic for the poetry?
If you want the poetry, the Episcopal Church is better. It has the great writers of the 17th century.

You're such a prolific writer; what's your routine?
I just write whenever I can, catch as catch can. I get too nasty if I don't get enough time to write, so I have to take it.

Like a runner denied his runner's high. So what are you reading these days?
I just read "The Da Vinci Code," which had some fascinating things in it. I liked that whole central section about Christianity when it postulates that Jesus was a very strong character and that he and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child.

So you don't avoid best sellers on principle?
I usually let them hang around for at least six months, and if they're still there, then I'll read them. I'm reading a book on mathematics, too. I usually try to read two books at a time, one for fun and one to educate myself. "The Da Vinci Code" is fun.

Did you see there are several books coming out refuting "The Da Vinci Code"?
That's silly. It takes too much energy to be against something unless it's really important. Now if you're against evolution, that's important.

What are you against?
Narrow-mindedness. I'm against people taking the Bible absolutely literally, rather than letting some of it be real fantasy, like Jonah. You know, the whole story of David is a novel ... Faith is best expressed in story.

If the Bible is not literally true, does that mean we don't need to take it seriously?
Oh no, you do, because it's truth, not fact, and you have to take truth seriously even when it expands beyond the facts.

So when you call the Bible a book of stories, you're not diminishing it?
Anything but. Right from the beginning, from the story of Eve. Eve has gone on to be considered far worse than she is in the direct Bible story—and David far better. I love the story of Jonah; I think it's very funny. And I like the story of Esther, as long as you stop about a quarter of the way through, before she turns into a real bloody girl.

I always felt sorry for Vashti, thoughthe first Mrs. Ahasuerus. All she did was refuse to dance.
Yes, she gets forgotten. But that was a very big thing she did, refuse to dance. Enormous.

A couple of the characters in "Wrinkle," have what you call a "compulsion'' to do something, for reasons they can't explain. Do you think we're all a little psychic in that way?
Oh, yes. Society has taught us to repress it, but it's there.

"Wrinkle'' was rejected repeatedly before it was published. Were you confident then you'd have a breakthrough?
No, there was a period when I thought I never would. But I kept on writing because that's what I had to do. I was compelled not to stop.

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