Scientists and preachers

Friday before last I mentioned in my Twitter feed that I was looking for recommendations for novels about clergy and/or scientists. (Thanks to those of you who sent in recommendations!)

This particular interest got started when I happened to read Jane Smiley’s Private Life and Ian McEwan’s Solar back-to-back. I hadn’t decided to start off on a jag of reading about scientists, but I like both authors enormously, and there they were on the new book shelf at the Cambridge Public Library. Both books, set a century apart, tell the stories of scientific men, one whose intellectual obsessions pull him further and further out of the orbit of normal life, and one who lets the pleasures of that life slowly and grossly suffocate his intellect and conscience.

Which, after that, re-reading Elmer Gantry seemed an obvious choice. It had been years since I’ve read it, and it’s as engaging as I’ve ever remembered, and surprisingly prescient its portrayal of the use of new media (radio, at the time) by emerging evangelical ministers. There is also a scene at the end of truly gut-churning violence, which I hadn’t remembered. Sinclair Lewis could cut broad, but also deep when he chose to.

Reading these, and thinking to how much I enjoyed discovering “Breaking Bad” this summer, made me realize that the pettiness and wickedness of men (and it is usually men) who have given their lives to science or religion makes for particularly compelling tales. Science and religion are the two great ways humanity has devised to grapple with reality outside itself, the ongoing, hopeless, noble effort of reconciling ultimate reality with flawed human perception. The grandeur of the calling is a cruel background for human folly.

For another, more upbeat perspective, I’m currently rereading Dracula. Okay, that sounded weird, but stay with me: what I wanted to read it for especially was the way the scientist and clergyman worked together to defeat evil. Often, science posited as our savior from the dark superstition of religion; somewhat less often, religion set up as the antidote to the inhuman severity of science. But in Dracula, both science and religion are necessary, and the men who represent both respect and complement each other.

So — with a little more background on why this theme intrigues me, do you have other suggestions?

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