Despite protests and warnings from friends and family, author Madeleine L’Engle, at the age of seventy-four, embarked on a rafting trip to Antarctica. Her journey through the startling beauty of the continent led her to write Penguins and Golden Calves, a captivating discussion of how opening oneself up to icons, or everyday “windows to God,” leads to the development of a rich and deeply spiritual faith.
Here, L’Engle explains how ordinary things such as family, words, the Bible, heaven, and even penguins can become such windows. She also shows how such a window becomes an idol–a penguin becomes a “golden calf”–when we see it as a reflection of itself instead of God.
I read this book in the 90s, but I didn’t remember much of it so when I was offered a review copy I thought it might be good to read it again.
I knew when I picked up this book that Madeleine L’Engle and I hold some vastly different theological views. I also knew that L’Engle was a woman who loved Jesus, thought deeply about life and has things to teach me through her writing.
This book in particular, helped me wade through the vast differences in our opinions, because it was laid out in a rambling, conversational manner. Instead of thinking of Penguins and Golden Calves as an author’s attempt to teach me something in particular I opened each chapter as if we were having a chat over a cup of coffee. This is exactly what the book felt like to me. L’Engle would say something I’d nod my head to, then she would say something startling and then she would continue on explaining her thoughts and pondering their context and implications for life. It’s exactly what happens in good conversation. Along the way someone says something that causes you to raise your eyebrows and then you ask, “tell me about that,” and sit back and listen to their heart.
I think this book was a good exercise for me in conversation, even though that was not its intent. In today’s world many “conversations” happen over social media or in some type of print rather than sitting face to face across a cup of coffee. I think it is infinitely harder to have a conversation over print, because I expect something written to be precise, thought out and an overall representation of a person’s thoughts. I don’t expect something in print to be an exploration the same way that I expect a conversation to be a journey of discovery. Learning to listen to Madelaine in her writing, whether I agreed or not, to hear her heart for the Lord and her heart for people became a fruitful exercise for me. I would say that if you can’t do that, if you can’t wade through some of her non-evangelical viewpoints with grace while gleaning some very real wisdom from her writing then you should probably skip this book.
If you do, however, sit down to read Penguins and Golden Calves you will find some deeply challenging insights on the windows/metaphors/icons we use that help us grow in relationship to God as well as some very apt warnings of how the very things that we think are icons can become idols. I also found her observations of how culture had changed over her lifetime and now looking back twenty two years to when she wrote this book another fruitful exercise.
Some of the most meaningful wisdom that I gleaned came in a random sentence or paragraph that was quickly past, but not expounded upon. The book does ramble throughout many subject and opinions, yet it always comes back to a daily, living and active relationship with God.
I received a free digital galley of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.