Barbara Nicolosi

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

Madeleine L'Engle: Yes, there are essential faith elements in 'A Wrinkle In Time'

When her children were young, author Madeleine L'Engle used to take them on nighttime visits to the top of Mohawk Mountain, not far from the family's 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse.

The goal was to glimpse the mystery of God.

"If you need one image of God, then go outside on a clear night and look straight up at the stars. That's about as good as I can do," L'Engle told me, in 1989 during a two-hour interview before some Denver lectures.

The wonders of science and heavenly light are at the heart of her classic novel "A Wrinkle In Time." However, she said she knew that she needed to include some specifics to clarify her central message -- without clubbing young readers over the head.

"It's a work of fiction, not theology. I didn't write it expecting to get challenged on every last detail," she said.

However, she was willing to state one fact for the record, offering a variation on a quote she repeated through the years. Yes, she loved stargazing, she said, but ultimately, "I can understand God only as he is revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”

L'Engle died in 2007 at the age of 88, after publishing 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers. Her work is back in the news because of debates about Disney's $103-million version of "A Wrinkle In Time," which removed the book's religious images and biblical quotes.

At the time of the 1989 interview, L'Engle was already involved in talks about bringing "A Wrinkle In Time" to movie theaters -- a process that led to a low-budget, made-for-TV flop in 2004. That film downplayed her Christian imagery, as well.

It would be hard, explained L'Engle, to grasp this book's cosmic war between life and death, good and evil, darkness and light without two crucial passages.

Time for another rant about Lent

With Ash Wednesday behind them, online friends of Hollywood screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi braced themselves for what has become a Lenten tradition -- fasting-day manifestos from the witty former nun. "It's a Friday of Lent dear Catholic brethren. And you know what that means," she wrote on Facebook. "Corporate Sacrifice Power Activate! No meat. No braised oxtail. No venison medallions. No veal short ribs. No rabbit sausage. NO MEAT. No Muscovy Duck. No Turkey jerky. No Kangaroo Loin Fillets. nO mEAt. No elk flank steaks. No Wagyu beef. No Chicken Kiev. No MeAt. No meat. No meat. NO MEAT."

In case anyone missed the point, Nicolosi has strong convictions about the tendency these days among Sunday Mass Catholics to assume that centuries of traditions about fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Lent have been erased from the church's teachings and canon law.

Yes, skipping that Friday cheeseburger may seem like a symbolic gesture for many Americans, she said, reached by telephone. Nevertheless, these kinds of small sacrifices add up and they can help believers focus on bigger questions about this life and the life to come.

"The attitude among way too many people these days is that there's no real sin in anything, anywhere, anymore," said Nicolosi, who leads The Story Institute at Azusa Pacific University. "Everyone has taken in the idea that God loves them and then decided that the whole idea of sin and repentance and sacrifice and punishment and hell just doesn't make any sense. ...

"It's like there are no bare minimum membership requirements for being a Catholic and there's no bare minimum requirements for Lent. There's no eternal accountability. Everyone thinks they're basically OK and that everything they want is basically OK."

Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, it seems that more Americans are talking about the 40-plus day penitential season before Easter. And Lent isn't just for Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox anymore. Lent is for bookish evangelicals and all kinds of liberal mainline Protestants, not just Episcopalians. Ministers in a variety of churches are distributing Lenten meditation booklets, planning special retreats and even adding midweek services for truly die-hard worshipers.

But at the heart of this modernized version of Lent is a popular concept that has little or nothing to do with ancient church traditions. This is, of course, the idea of each individual believer choosing to "give up one thing" for Lent and then, apparently, sharing this choice with the world through social media.

A recent glance at the 2014 Twitter Lent Tracker found that the Top 10 items to sacrifice during Lent were school, chocolate, Twitter, swearing, alcohol, soda, online social networking, sweets, fast food and, wait for it, Lent. Giving up meat came in 11th and surrendering coffee was the 14th choice. Those in need of guidance may turn to WhatToGiveUpForLent.com for help.

"To the extent people avoid 'real Lent,' I would suppose it's because of our society's difficulty with the idea of religion making claims on our lives and obligations," said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics for the Catholic.com website.

"To the extent people embrace this 'do-it-yourself Lent,' I would think it's because of two factors: first, our innate religious impulse seeking a way to express itself and, second, the therapeutic, self-help current in our culture."

Meanwhile, the updated online resources in what Akin calls his annual "Lenten rant" continue to note that Catholics are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and Good Friday. He added: "The law of abstinence binds everyone who is 14 years old and up unless they have a medical condition that would interfere significantly with abstinence from meat."

Meanwhile, Nicolosi noted, it may be a good thing that the spiritual curious are at least experimenting with the "give up one thing" Lite Lent concept. The problem is that so many Catholics have settled for this radically individualized take on a crucial season in church life.

"Come on, people! It's Lent," she said. "We are supposed to believe in the power of corporate prayer and sacrifice and we should be hearing about that from our priests and bishops. ... It totally frosts my cookies that I have heard more about Lent this year on Fox News than I have from the pulpit of my own church. That's just not right."

'Juno' and pro-life Hollywood

Every year or so, a Cinderella movie leaps into the ultimate Hollywood A-list -- the Academy Award nominees for best picture.

The sleeper this time around was "Juno," the sweet but edgy story of Juno MacGuff, a geeky teen who gets pregnant after a sort-of-bored sexual encounter with a friend. The movie also drew Oscar nominations for Canadian Ellen Page, 20, as best actress, for director Jason Reitman, 30, and former stripper turned screenwriter Diablo Cody, 29.

Now it's time for the winner-take-all round of campaigning, which often includes behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the tradition of Niccolo Machiavelli. Do not be surprised if rival studios try to hurt "Juno" by circulating shocking rumors that many religious conservatives who oppose abortion have praised this movie.

It helps that the rumors are true.

Take former Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, for example. He has listed "Juno" among recent hits -- including "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" -- that suggest American popular culture is "awaking to the reality of life in the womb."

While these films come from the heart of the "bawdy mainstream," they include images and themes that will surprise traditionalists, argued Santorum, in an essay written as a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

"Ultrasound images awakened characters and audiences to the humanity of the unborn. Having a baby, even in the most challenging circumstances, became the compelling 'choice,' " noted Santorum, a devout Catholic and author of the book "It Takes a Family," written during his unsuccessful 2006 bid to stay in the U.S. Senate.

"Adoption was held up as a positive alternative to abortion. And, unlike the news media's portrayal of pro-lifers, protesters outside abortion clinics were authentically depicted as warm and concerned. This stood in contrast to the indifference of the staff within."

In a pivotal scene, Juno calls the "Women Now" clinic -- a parent's signature is not required -- and bluntly tells the switchboard operator she needs to "procure a hasty abortion." But when she approaches the facility, Juno discovers that a high school friend is staging a solo protest outside.

This scene is played for nervous laughs, with the Asian girl chanting, "All babies want to get borned!" But when she realizes that Juno is headed inside, the friend urgently adds, "Your baby has a beating heart! Your baby can feel pain! Your baby has fingernails!"

This last line sticks and, in the waiting room, Juno is haunted by the sound of the other patients around her tapping, clicking and chewing their fingernails. As she flees the clinic, her friend calls out, "God appreciates your miracle!" The pregnant teen chooses -- with strong support from her loving father and stepmother -- to endure the public ordeal of her pregnancy, surrender the baby through adoption and then move on with her life.

The key is that "Juno" is about people struggling to make real decisions in the real world, according to screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi of Act One, a group that trains Christians to work in the Hollywood mainstream. This isn't a connect-the-dots sermon targeting true believers. The movie doesn't preach, because it wasn't created by preachers.

But "Juno" can be called "pro-life, in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about pregnancy is pro-life," wrote the former Catholic nun, at her "Church of the Masses" website. "I would say 'Juno' is a cultural message movie without being a political one. Certainly, that will be an inscrutable nuance in contemporary Christendom in which almost everything is politics. ...

"The movie is also anti-divorce in the way that just about every Gen-X movie about family is anti-divorce. And people with faith are here too, in a decent and gritty way that shows mere secularism to be selfish and shallow."

The bottom line, said Santorum, is that a mainstream movie like "Juno" has a chance to connect with mainstream audiences. Secular critics have, so far, even responded with "thumbs up" reviews.

The most hopeful possibility, he added, is that these movies symbolize a kind of power shift as one Hollywood generation is exposed to the hopes and fears of the next.

"They are ... chronicles from the children of our divorce- and abortion-oriented culture," Santorum added. "There is lived experience, emotional understanding, hard-earned authenticity at the heart of these scripts. And pain."