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The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)
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2015 Reads > TS: The Religious Theses (Full Spoilers)

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message 1: by Rob Secundus (last edited Jan 20, 2015 08:44AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments Trigger Warning: Rape

Throughout like 80% of the book, I was pretty disappointed with the discussion of religion in the book. It wasn't only pretty standard stuff ("evil exists so how can God even?!") it was almost totally divorced from the plot ("hey gang, let's sit down and chat about God, because we're hanging out with Jesuits and that's what one does when around Jesuits"). These two things certainly made the content believable, but if I wanted believable mediocre discussions about religion I'd hang out outside freshman philosophy classes.

Then, in the hypercharged ending, neat and nuanced stuff started being said! So these are my takeaways about what he book was trying to say about religion:

1. There's stuff going on with semiotics and sacramentality. Traditional Catholic stuff would say that the universe is like a book written by God, just like the bible, for us to read about Him. Sandoz is a genius linguist, and (just like many devout religious) thinks he can easily interpret this word. For a long time, he reads every coincidence or encounter as a love letter from the divine. Then, when disaster strikes, he reads it all as a darkly humorous farce, a bad joke sent by a malicious ex-lover.

I think there is one key scene before the ending to think of here- Sandoz realizing what Supaari was asking of him, when pointing to the ivy. Sandoz had the sign, had the signifier, but was unable to discover what it truly signified. Even though he had all the knowledge necessary, and all the genius skill. The concept was too complicated, and it would take years and light-years for him to figure it out.

The ending, the discussion of the Sparrow that does not fall without God's knowledge but still falls, of the God that receded partially from the universe but is not totally distant, makes me think that this novel is arguing that IF God exists He is neither the Clockmaker of Deists nor the Omnipresnt Nice Jeanie of mainstream Christianity, neither totally benevolent nor totally uncaring, but something complex and alien, something that is so far removed from our experience that both and neither of these conceptions begin to grasp His reality. He's something like if HP Lovecraft had written The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.

2. What surprised me most was the stuff going on about sexuality. Now, let's set aside for this thread how excellently this book handles the psychology of rape victims and the awful victim-blaming that surrounds them.

Sex seems to be intimately connected to the divine. Celibacy and rape act in the novel as opposite ends on a spectrum, between which is properly ordered sex. Celibacy, inherently unnatural, is able to lead people to some real, personally valid experience of the divine. Removing oneself from the natural world is the way to have some kind of religious experience. Rape, also inherently unnatural, seems to offer tangible proof of the nonexistence of that kind of divine relationship.

Ordinary loving sex, however, doesn't seem like it can lead to anything transcendent. Anne and George sustain each other, but we never see them in any kind of transcendence; Sophia and Emilio both are sustained by the Anne/George relationship, and healed by the Sophia/Jimmy relationship, but no one actually involved in those relationships ever experiences anything mystic. (Neither do DW or Marc, but remember, Emilio is the only one who we know didn't compensate for celibacy in *ahem* solitary ways)

It doesn't seem like sex= bad in this novel, but it certainly seems like not sex= only way to God, which is a bit gnosticy and kind of troubles me.

3. Looking at 1 and 2, and adding in other Material World Stuff:

food and sex in general are related to evil: murder turns the innocent into food for the murderers, sex precipitates that murder, sex is used to control a slave class, etc. Even visual and musical pleasures are caught up in this: the art show is paralleled with public executions, the songs are about Sandoz' rape.

So. In the end here's what I conclude the novel is arguing, as a whole:

We might be able to get some understanding of God through the world we live in (that is, through empirical science), but personal rejection of that world is the only way one could experience the divine? I don't know. 1 and 3 seem to be in opposition to me, with 2 also kind of in opposition to 1.

Does any of that make sense? Does anyone disagree? I feel like most people got way more of a Deistic attitude from this book than I did.


message 2: by Robyn (last edited Jan 20, 2015 12:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robyn | 115 comments I don't have a lot of my own to add to this (my brain, it is half-dead from lack of sleep), but I thought you might be interested in this quote from Russell from when she did a Q&A over at the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club Discussion, and it fits with some of the things she says in the author Q&A in the back of my own copy.

[NB: This quote has been edited to remove a potential spoiler for the second book. My edits are in brackets and ellipses (though she uses them too); otherwise I haven't messed with it. Because I think it has a lot of meaning for the first book as well as the second, I've edited it rather than put it under a spoiler tag. If you want to see the full thing, click through to the link.]

"The whole point of The Sparrow is to grapple with Emilio's bitter and angry conclusion that God is either a character in a lot of old folktales, in which case Emilio is nothing but an unemployed linguist with a lot of dead friends, or that God is vicious: inflicting suffering or indifferent to it, in which case Emilio refuses to worship such a being, however powerful. This is theodicy, not eschatology.

As for abuse making us stronger... Well [this book is a] treatise on PTSD ... Emilio .... survive[s] abuse, but lives with the damage and [his life has] been blighted by it.

Victims of abuse have to devote a great proportion of their mental and emotional energy to coping with the aftermath. Energy that might have been used in creativity and joyousness is employed instead to claw out a "normal life" that now features sickening nightmares, flashbacks, and depression. This doesn't make you stronger. It expends your strength on something ugly.

As for "divine hazing," if you inflict harm on someone and if they managed to "overcome" it, you don't get credit for making them stronger. Nothing justifies or excuses the harm when the perpetrator is a stranger, but for the victim, abuse is even more devastating when inflicted by someone the victim loved or respected. Direct harm is compounded by the betrayal of trust and by the way the harm echoes through every other relationship for the rest of the victim's life.

For Emilio, God may be the perp and as Anne says, "Either God's in charge or he's not." Omnipotence and omniscience cut both ways. "

I think this idea of God as an abuser (because she's intensely interested in how you reconcile the Holocaust with a god existing at all, in part because of her own conversion to Judaism) is certainly at play in the theology of the book (which I agree, in the first half it totally reads like Theology 101), and that there's certainly a hint of the plight of Job in the plot events. That would work against a Deistic interpretation of the book.


Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments That is a very useful quote indeed. Also I do not know why I never thought of Job, that's clearly very relevant.

One thing, could put the spoiler for the sequel in tags?


Robyn | 115 comments Spoiler for sequel? I haven't read it!


message 5: by Robyn (last edited Jan 19, 2015 11:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Robyn | 115 comments Aha ha. I just reread the quote and since I've spoiled the second for myself a bit I get it, though I never read it that way to begin with! Sorry!


message 6: by Rob, Roberator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob (robzak) | 6782 comments Mod
I'm kind of tempted to change the title of your thread. You don't really know he's raped until the end of the book, although that seemed kind of obvious to me much earlier in the book..


message 7: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (johntaloni) | 3947 comments Rob wrote: "I'm kind of tempted to change the title of your thread. "

Sounds like a good idea to me. I love the discussion here but when I clicked in the first time my first thought was "can we avoid title spoilers?" It looks like that may be inadvertent, but even so, changing it would make sense.


message 8: by Rob, Roberator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob (robzak) | 6782 comments Mod
I changed the title drop Rape from the title. Maybe update your OP if you want to warn people you plan to discuss the rape stuff (I'm assuming that's why you had it in the title?)

I'll admit I mostly skimmed your post as it's very long/detailed, so I apologize for stepping on your toes.


Rob Secundus (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments Ack, I should have had it in the first line, my bad. Tumblr has made me overzealous in trigger warnings.


Joanna Chaplin | 1175 comments Rob Secundus wrote: "Trigger Warning: Rape

Throughout like 80% of the book, I was pretty disappointed with the discussion of religion in the book. It wasn't only pretty standard stuff ("evil exists so how can God even..."


So a couple thing spring to mind in response to your well thought-out post. One is that I'm pretty sure that the conversation between Emilio and Jimmy implies pretty heavily that Emilio is accustomed to masturbating. They says something along the lines of 498 priests out of 500 admit to masturbating, and the last two probably don't have arms. Whether he does that much on Rahkat is unclear. They didn't have tons of privacy, at least at first.

Lots of folks focus on Emilio's religious journey, but I think Russell intended Sofia's quiet personal reemphasis on Judaism to be important too.


message 11: by Alan (new)

Alan | 534 comments Rob Secundus wrote: "Trigger Warning: Rape

Throughout like 80% of the book, I was pretty disappointed with the discussion of religion in the book. It wasn't only pretty standard stuff ("evil exists so how can God even..."


Rob - thanks for that take; it's helped me put a context to how I felt about the book, which I liked and admired but it still bothered me. As Science Fiction, it wasn't really sitting well because I don't expect/like books where smart characters do dumb things. As religious parable it wasn't working for me because every Rabbi I've ever met was much smarter and more nuanced about God than these characters and the Priests I've met seemed just as savvy. But, as a story about sexual assault and its effect on someone's faith placed in a science fictional setting in part to distract the reader, the story both falls into place and explains why my subconscious liked the book very much while my critical faculties were going "come on" so often ...


Lindsay | 593 comments I approached this from a very different "religious" angle as an atheist and a humanist. Big 'F' Faith is something I find deeply mysterious, so a story that seems to me to be all about the uses and perils of Faith is fascinating.

Without Faith in the form of the Jesuits Emilio would likely not have survived to adulthood. The Jesuit order shapes him to be a genius in a field he would probably never have come into contact with without them. Faith is an overwhelming positive aspect in his life up to this point, even if he doesn't have the passionate belief in God that some priests do (at this point anyway).

I don't believe that Sophia plays into the religious journey here, but even so she is Sephardim, a background that is shaped by two different manifestations of Faith.

When the alien signals are detected and the mission is being prepared, Emilio falls into the trap. He sees the mission as a calling from God and then associates every beneficial event as an affirmation of that (note that none of the setbacks get similar import - classic confirmation bias). All of which deepens his Faith and gives him the passionate belief he lacked beforehand. His Faith becomes so strong that his fellow priests think of him as a nascent Saint and starts the whole group of them on this "mission from God" fallacy.

So when they get to Rakhat, they are recklessly overconfident. How could they do wrong with God on their side? Contaminate an alien biome with Earth microbes? No problem when God meant you to be there! Leave someone in orbit just in case something goes wrong? God wouldn't let anything bad happen! Flit about with untried pilots in the literally most accident-prone type of aircraft? Sure! God won't let you fail!

But of course, things start to go badly almost immediately. And things just keep getting worse, with meaningless deaths, genocidal culling of intelligent species, "cannibalism" (I doubt we have a word that describes eating the young of a sentient alien species), maiming and eventually, systematic brutal rape over a period of months. Not to mention the revelation of an entire intelligent species as domesticated meat animals to another intelligent species.

All of this is horrible. Objectively horrible. But when you have Faith, and it has been reinforced in the way that Emilio's was by a set of fortunate coincidences and a cognitive pitfall, that horrible experience becomes multiplied by a deeply personal betrayal. It destroys him.

The 2060 storyline is the irony here in that the compassionate actions of people of Faith is what puts him back together again.


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