#CBR7 Review #133: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

There are points in a person’s life when a book crushes her very core, and she is left reeling. There are moments when a book’s impact is felt too-closely based on an event or circumstance in a person’s life. In my life, The Book Thief fits that former category, a book that left me curled up in fetal position around a box of Kleenex, sobbing until I couldn’t breathe. The latter kind of book is The Fault in Our Stars, which I read for CBR5 a mere few weeks after my friend K was diagnosed with a Stage 3 malignant brain tumor. It was difficult to sort apart the book from my life, and it was both painful and cathartic.

But then there’s that moment when a book crushes you AND hits too close to home. For me, that book is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which left me hurting in ways I still cannot describe.

Like The Book Thief, you know the outcome of The Sparrow before it even ends. Disgraced Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz returns from an unsuccessful mission to the planet Rakhat, the sole survivor and completely out of his mind. His body is wrecked, and his hands are mutilated beyond all recall. At a series of hearings with the Society of Jesus, Sandoz begins to confront the past, from the mission that brought a series of individuals together in a united purpose, to the expedition that is foreshadowed to its disastrous conclusion, to the present moment in which other Jesuit priests try to reach out to Sandoz. The truth is more wrenching and devastating than any of them can understand. At first, I was too crushed to cry. And then, the end came, and I cried and cried and cried.

I finished this book last Wednesday, when my worldwide church voted NOT to let its regional continental divisions have the authority to ordain female clergy. [Sidenote: female ministers can be commissioned, but only ordained ministers can marry or baptize without another pastor’s signature. Also, only ordained ministers can be promoted to administrative positions, and ordination of course comes with a pay raise.] While I was not surprised, I was greatly disappointed and disheartened in my fellow believers who voted no and claimed “biblical truth” as the basis for denying equal pay and equal recognition in our pastors. While I’ve had my moments of spiritual doubt, these are NOTHING compared to the serious doubts I have about the body of Christ. How can a fellow believer truly say that I am disobedient to God’s will when all I want is for my sisters in ministry to be treated as equals in God’s eyes? The sort of spiritual doubt I’ve been rolling around came at the exact same moment I finished reading The Sparrow, and at this moment in my life, it was just a little much.

It’s this exploration of spiritual doubt that left me most raw. While another reader will probably have a different take on this novel, it’s the theological that I latched onto for myself. I’m going to read the sequel, but I very much need time to distance myself emotionally. I highly recommend this book, but…be sufficiently warned, and read it when you’re in a good place.

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