Theology and Story: Marilynne Robinson

A version of this piece was published in Disciple, February 2015.

If you know me (or just glance through the “about” page), you know that I am an unrepentant bibliophile of the highest order. You’ll also discover quickly that I freely recommend books to friends (and the odd stranger) across genres and generations. Yes, my wife and I even attained the recovering English major’s dream of launching a book club. All of this should be roughly as surprising as rain in April. “A writer who reads all the time? Gasp!”

Of the mountain of paper and ink (or e-ink—no hate for the Kindle here) that passes my eyes each year, novels make up a healthy proportion. I thoroughly enjoy well-wrought nonfiction on almost any subject, but the best fiction brings me back time and again. I seldom re-read nonfiction; good novels, like last night’s lasagna, are always better the next time around.

Why? The best fiction is true even in the made-up details—novels, short stories, and poetry plumb the depths of thought and  experience, giving them voice, teaching, reading you back. Aristotle said that poetry (a broader term then than now—we get our word “poem” from the Greek “poiēma”, which means “workmanship”) was better than either history or philosophy alone because it could articulate a principle (like philosophy) by showing an example of how it is lived out (like history).

I write a lot of book reviews in my day job, but I usually refrain from reviewing works of fiction there. Our readers expect recommendations to equip them for preaching and ministry, making literature a low priority. Taste is also a consideration, as the quality of such works is somewhat “in the eye of the beholder” and it can take decades for the cream of a generation’s literary crop to rise.

Recently, though, I made an exception for a collection of books from one author because 1) her work has been widely read and influential in Christian circles in recent years, 2) I find these books excellent and I would recommend them (and have) to friends, and 3) to illustrate the power of story to teach, both truth and error.

Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, and has written numerous essays and articles through the years while teaching at various colleges, most recently at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 2004, she published Gilead, a unique work bringing together historical and theological threads through the lens of family and community. It is narrated from the perspective of an aging Congregationalist pastor (John Ames) in a small Iowa town writing a lengthy letter to prepare his young son for life in his anticipated absence.

Gilead found much success, winning the Pulitzer prize, and Robinson has followed it up with two other novels. Home (2008) covers much of the same ground as Gilead (with events taking place concurrently in both stories), though told in a traditional third-person narration focusing on the family of Ames’ lifelong friend, Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton. Lila (2014) tells the backstory of the woman who quite unexpectedly burst into Ames’ life and became his wife (as related in Gilead).

This trilogy of works stands out among modern American fiction in that it is overtly and thoroughly Christian (in themes, tone, and phrasing) while finding a firm foothold in the larger secular literary world. Robinson’s work is unabashedly metaphysical, framing the characters and the story in Scripture, theological reflection, and spiritual realities.

Taken as a whole, the Gilead trilogy represents some of the finest American literary work in more than a generation. Gilead and Home together have become two of my favorite novels, the kind of works one returns to year after year with fresh eyes. The vagaries of parenting, personality, and the difficulties of fleshing out an intellectually understood faith underscore these quietly beautiful stories, and their piercing phrases of recognition move me to reflect on my own life choices and family in new ways.

Then Lila came along, doing to the story the same thing its title character did to John Ames, upending settled realities and causing reflection on and reinterpretation of past events. The story of this third book is undeniably beautiful, this time told in a stream-of-consciousness style that manages kinship with the two previous books while striking a tone all its own. Lila’s “cornered-animal” psyche (and her slow growth into trust and hope) that is only hinted at in Gilead and Home is explored more fully, explaining her without squelching her mystery and strangeness.

Lila, in my view, falters at the end, as Robinson’s characters succumb to a mushy universalism that seems forced, coming more from the author’s own liberal tradition than from authentic character development. Because of the spiritual nature of this story, the problem of her statements in the last three pages of Lila snatches the humble, worshipful significance she had previously developed from the whole collection.

As insightful and polished a thinker as Robinson is, she has the weakness so common to American Christians of believing her particular theology more than she believes the Bible. Lila is a story of unsought, unmerited grace (with John Ames playing the part of redeemer) with themes flowing from John Calvin and the Protestant tradition. By the end, though, that grace becomes so sloppily irresistible (pouring down even on those who completely reject it and the God who gives it) as to be utterly meaningless. In this way, the hard-fought faithfulness of Ames, Boughton, and their loved ones that she has labored to create over a decade of writing is reduced to pitiful farce.

The theological sleight-of-hand might slip past us because of the overarching beauty of the story told, but it is not accidental—in fact, the door to this conclusion was left open from the beginning of these works, as Ames recounts his troubled relationship with his atheistic older brother and confesses his love (because of his brother’s influence) for the work of philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Even this thread of the story has great potential to teach us how those we love (or don’t) subtly bring us to our theological understandings.

Read Robinson’s work and be blessed, but read with both eyes open. Stories are tools of personal and cultural transformation, and Robinson is greatly to be commended for helping revive the novel as a central art form in our distracted, media-saturated age. However good a story, though, read it by the light the one great and true Story of which all others are but a faint reflection.

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One thought on “Theology and Story: Marilynne Robinson

  1. Pingback: The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction | Hardscrabble

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