Scientists and preachers

March 31st, 2011

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?


8 Responses to “Scientists and preachers”

  1. bluemoose on March 31, 2011 9:44 am

    Ever read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow? I can’t remember what the sequel was called, but there is a second book, too. I love it.

  2. Elizabeth on March 31, 2011 2:22 pm

    I recommended a very lighthearted book by this author last time, but have you read The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis? I guess it’s not about scientists – it’s science fiction about historians who time-travel in order to study history. But it has some very powerful messages about the role of religion and ritual in our lives in times of stress (among other things). I would recommend it very highly.

  3. bluemoose on March 31, 2011 3:10 pm

    Elizabeth — I LOVED The Doomsday Book! Such a fascinating take on history, as well as science and religion.

  4. Amy R. on March 31, 2011 3:59 pm

    You may enjoy The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel. There’s a good summary here:

    http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=1400033349

  5. Kathryne on April 1, 2011 7:15 am

    I love both The Sparrow and Doomsday Book! For a non-s/f option, add Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition” to the list.

  6. Robin on April 1, 2011 8:37 am

    I’ve read Doomsday Book too, and enjoyed it greatly! I like Connie Willis’s short stories a good deal–I find her novels hard to follow sometimes.

    Kathryne, I did read Intuition last year, or year before, and I read a few of her earlier works, too. To follow up on the science/religion angle, she wrote a few novels (Kaaterskill Falls, I think, is one?) set in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. She’s very good at evoking that kind of inner, hidden world. Amazing Genius Science Girl loved Intuition, said it was the best fictional description of the laboratory world she’d ever read.

  7. Tempest on April 10, 2011 9:44 pm

    Rather late to the game on this! Sorry, you may remember that 6-8 weeks ago I had asked in a Wednesday chat about how to politely hide away from my small office while going on interviews, and I started my new job two weeks ago. I’ve been offline a lot more lately and am catching up on this blog tonight.

    Anyway, I’ve recently read The Sparrow as well, and it’s definitely worth a pass. It’s not long and fairly quick. I’m not a huge fan of flashing back and forward, so I found that a little distracting, but it’s a good read. Also I really think Dan Brown’s books are great on this topic. Particularly The Lost Symbol and Angels & Demons.

  8. Robin on April 11, 2011 9:53 am

    Congrats, Tempest!

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