The Art of the Novel and the Christian Conversation
In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis says that one of the chief operations of art, and specifically literature, is “to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from solitude.” The practice of reading, which usually starts in solitude, does not end in loneliness. Rowan Williams follows suit when he says that “the novel is in a remarkably good position to show us how much more there is to us than a narrowly individual perspective.” Good fiction takes us out of ourselves and into the lives of the characters of stories, and even further, into the lives of those around us. Balm in Gilead, a book evaluating the fiction of contemporary novelist Marilynne Robinson shows the reader that the dialogue of good fiction brings them into dialogue with fellow readers.
In April 2018, Wheaton College held their annual theology conference where they invited Marilynne Robinson to discuss her fiction. Those that came to dialogue about her novels, such as Rowan Williams and Lauren Winner, submitted their written thoughts to comprise the essays of this collection.
In case you are unfamiliar with the work of Marilynne Robinson, she is a profound Christian novelist and essayist. As a devoted reader of John Calvin, her prose is replete with Reformed theology, and rather than sounding “preachy,” her novels invite readers to dialogue with her concerning humanity’s deepest theological questions. Her novels are dialectic, rather than didactic. She is most famous for her second novel, Gilead, an epistolary novel surrounding the life of Reverend John Ames, as well as his grandfather, father, wife, and young son. Knowing that he will die soon from heart issues, the fictional John Ames writes this extensive letter to his son. All of Robinson’s other novels, except for Housekeeping, inhabit the same fictional universe as Gilead.
Keith and Larsen, the two editors that put this collection of essays together, go so far as to claim that there is “no major novelist working today whose life, thought, and writings more invite a sustained and substantial theological dialogue than Marilynne Robinson.” This is certainly not the only aspect of Robinson’s fiction that deserves praise. Nevertheless, her novels gently and assuredly encounter the discipline of theology, creating a sincere and open dialectical space for readers of all types to encounter the Christian faith.
The Christian Conversation
When reading Robinson’s novels, what do readers “discuss” with the characters, with the author, and with each other? What theological questions does her fiction bring to readers for conversation? There are many examples of serious theological questions that Robinson and her readers examine together—questions that these scholars and Robinson herself considered during Wheaton’s 2018 Theology Conference.
What does it mean to be good?
The reader will find it telling that Robinson’s Gilead novels re-source the story of the prodigal son, or, rather, the parable of the two sons from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 15:11-32). When the reader involves themselves with John Ames, the righteous pastor, and Jack Boughton, the hedonistic wanderer, they see that not only is Jack mysteriously likeable even as a reputed sinner, but also that John Ames himself is not entirely good, despite appearances. In this collection, Han-Luen Kantzer Komline contributes that “Jack Boughton may not be quite the sinner he seems, but nor is John Ames a perfect saint.” Robinson invites her readers into the question, “who is good?”
Are “bad” people wholly evil? Are “good” people free of sin? Of course, every part of each human is tainted by the stain of sin, meaning all of us are bad. However, some people strive toward holiness, however imperfectly, while others pursue their own passions. In this way, the categories of “good” and “bad,” while not entirely accurate, are still descriptive in a moderately helpful way.
However, by using the parable of the two sons as a backdrop for her Gilead narratives, Robinson shows us that Jesus does not simply condemn the prodigal son and laud the older brother. Robinson illustrates that both the prodigal and the righteous son are in need of their father’s grace. Robinson, in and through her fiction, wants her readers to consider with her what it means for “Grace, not goodness” to be “the key to our healing,” as Rowan Williams puts it. Like both John Ames and Jack Boughton, all humans are in need of their Father’s grace. The “good person” is not deserving of salvation and the “bad person” is not unredeemable. Robinson wants her readers to consider what it would look for humans to live with each other knowing this truth and submitting to the grace of God.
How can the Church, with its historical neglect of racial injustice, move toward being a diverse and unified body?
One might criticize Marilynne Robinson for ignoring racial injustice in her novels, especially given that the narrative timeline of Gilead, Home, and Lila span from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. Patricia Andujo, in her essay, notes this lack of awareness concerning racial issues in the novels, while also explaining why Robinson might have excluded a direct treatment of those issues. Andujo clarifies that Robinson’s Gilead novels “accurately [reflect] America’s interaction, or more precisely inaction, with racial strife.” These novels embody the attitude of what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderate,” not as a way to perpetuate racial injustice, but as a way to draw attention to injustice so that it can be discussed and dealt with. Robinson “ignores” the racial dynamics of the 1800s and 1900s, not because she does not care about such issues, but because she wants to punctuate them. She wants to expose the way that Americans have ignored these issues by “ignoring” them herself in her fiction.
Robinson bids her readers to join in this conversation as to why and how the United States and the Church have neglected their fellow brothers and sisters by exposing such disregard of racial issues in this way. She beckons readers to join with her in considering what love calls them to in contemporary America by drawing attention to the main characters’ neglect of racial injustice. Robinson, in her fiction, gives no answer to these questions of love, even though she certainly has specific opinions on American life and U. S. law—prominent in her non-fiction. Rather than posit her own opinions, she gives her readers the space to dialogue about racism and about love.
Can creation tell us about who God is, and if so, how?
Artist and emeritus professor at Wheaton, John Sheesley (whose painting, “Holy, Holy, Holy” is the feature image of this article) writes an essay concerning landscape and creation in the novels of Marilynne Robinson. He calls attention to passages in Robinson’s novels that not only show us the mystery of creation and the mystery of God, but also allow us to see certain characteristics of God in nature. In the Gilead novels, certain characters’ limited visions of reality expand and transform when they interact with nature, namely John Ames and Glory Boughton.
For example, after John Ames has finally forgiven his vagabond godson, Jack Boughton, and blessed him, he reflects on the landscape of the midwestern prairie:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.
In this passage, the reader sees John Ames’ view of grace and nature grow and expand. In discussing these expanding visions of God and reality, Sheesley notes,
The world, in spite of our most intelligent speculation, is essentially a mute mystery to us. We interfere with its purpose, drain its wetlands, pave its meadows, and strip mine its minerals, yet the landscape and its terrific absorptive power abide. It quietly holds within all the curse of humanity. “Cursed is the ground,” Genesis reminds us, “because of you” (Gen. 3:17). Yet embracing whatever pain, the landscape exudes a generous spirit.
In this passage we see that the ground, the landscape, has shown us the person of Christ. We have treated our earth as if it were trash just as we treated Christ as if he were a criminal. Yet, both respond in gracious ways—Christ securing our salvation and the ground waiting patiently for that salvation for us. On both our sins have been pinned. Christ took the whip, whose ends were fastened with shards of glass, willingly for His people. The ground, the trees, the water of this earth have received their own wounds, wounds delivered from our hands, in gracious humility in a manner pointing to Christ.
In this contribution, Sheesley convinces us that Robinson wants her readers to talk with her about how the ground can show us the character of God. The landscape shows us Christ, and Robinson wants to discuss how it does so and why that matters. Gilead is no treatise; it is a novel. Gilead is no lecture; it is an invitation to contemplate and discuss. Balm in Gilead wants to read it as such.
Participating in the Conversation
So significantly characterized by dialogue, novels reward us by allowing us to participate in their dialogue with the characters, with the author, and with those around us. Marilynne Robinson, more so than any other living novelist, invites her readers into a thoughtful space for theological conversations. In addition, Balm in Gilead takes up this invitation and begins a public discussion on one of the most important Christian writers to date. Let us join the conversation.