The novelist, Marilynne Robinson, has garnered an impressive array of accolades (Pulitzer Prize for Gilead in 2005, National Humanities Medal in 2012, Library of Congress Medal for American Fiction in 2016, to name a few), but I would wager that posterity will judge her even more generously and bestow upon her even greater praise. I believe she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison among the literary giants of America. As a Christian writer she is unparalleled. Her grasp of theology is deep and subtle. It is rarely moralistic, although many critics read her thus. What she manages to offer in her extraordinary trilogy: Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014) is an illumination of the Christian faith refracted through the lives of its entirely unique characters: Rev. John Ames, the eminently decent minister of the small town of Gilead, his best friend’s daughter, Glory Boughton, and his young wife, Lila. Throughout these novels, Robinson both affirms and challenges America and its religious traditions. And it is because of the depth of her insight into the myths that make America that she can sound the most subtle yet thorough warnings over its coarse cheapening and increasing xenophobia.
I once had a very wise theology professor who used to muse about the fraught task of creating theological systems: each theological system, no matter how beautiful and wise, has embedded within it an almost equally powerful flaw. Robinson struggles with the deepest of Calvinist and Protestant America’s theological flaws: its confident doctrine of providence. Such a view assumes that the workings of God’s grace are transparent to the elect and that prosperity can be taken as an assurance of one’s salvation and, conversely, its lack a sign of (usually others’) damnation. It is this doctrine that runs like a fault-line through American history, from colonization to slavery; from Manifest Destiny all the way to the blithe and obligatory refrain at the recent Republican and Democratic National Conventions alike that the USA is “the greatest country on earth.” It is also a doctrine that even Gilead’s gentle clergy take for granted—there are those who are within the fold of grace and those who are outside it.
Robinson’s rejection of this theology is worked out through the figure of Lila, a consummate outsider—poor, uneducated, a former prostitute—who ends up on the doorstep of Gilead, and who eventually marries the elderly Rev. John Ames. Abandoned as a child, traveling endlessly with the fiercely protective and indigent Doll, who stole Lila from her abusive family, Lila lives her life on the run with other vagrants through the Great Depression. When Doll is arrested for killing a man who is possibly Lila’s father, Lila tries to make a life of her own, doing anything that will enable her to survive another day in a lonely and heartless world.
Lila eventually takes refuge in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, and finds herself drawn to the church and to its even stranger stories of faith. Read through the lens of Lila’s horrific past, the conventional and consoling versions of the Good Book fall away like scales from the eye. We are left with stories such as Ezekiel and Job, read with all the realism and trauma that their terrible words declare:
Well, this Job was a good man and he had a good life and then he lost it all. And behold here was a great wind from the wilderness that smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men and they are dead.
Lila wrestles with the arbitrariness of a God who would smite the four corners of houses, or cause children to suffer, and she is particularly suspicious of a God who would close the doors of salvation to her beloved, Doll, and all the countless others who did not know God. One day, well before she marries Rev. Ames, she musters the courage to ask him, “Why things happen the way they do.”
To his credit, Ames does not offer a pat or easy response, but Lila remains unconvinced by his concession that a good God can cut off those who have rejected him. Through Lila’s narrative we learn of the desolation that destroys hope and suffocates every possibility of faith, and we begin to discern that beneath the wholesome God-fearing community of Gilead lives a community no less loved by God, no less chosen, perhaps even more so. No shining city on the hill, this community is the dank hovel where poor girls become prostitutes just to stay alive:
It came over her, before he had even closed the door behind him, the thought of that house in St. Louis. It was just poor misery. Misery must have been what she was looking for, because she felt it the minute she walked in that door. The twilight of the parlor made her feel as if she has stepped into deep water with her eyes open. Breathing came hard and sound reached her a heartbeat after she should have heard it. She could hardly speak. Nothing was the way it was in daylight, but the place had its own ways and you got used to them. Like death, if something comes after it. (Lila).
This, too, is America. This, too, is a world under a loving God’s providential care, even though it hardly seems possible. Through Lila, we see the workings of grace through the transformation of the smallness, and even the meanness of things, by the gentle hand of human love, a love that imperfectly, but assuredly, reflects its maker.
And so, through Lila, Robinson reworks the doctrine of providence radically—subverting it from within. Lila sees the interdependence of all God’s creatures in her final (and stunning) musings on resurrection and eternity. Eternity means a stretching beyond the bounds of righteous and unrighteous, saved and damned, to embrace those at the farthest reach of grace. This is not through a bland and abstract universalism, but is worked out through the power of God’s mercy that is comprehensive enough to make even the worst sinner irreplaceable for one person, and to make heaven incomplete without her/him. Eternity is that quality of life that insists that, without the lost coin, sheep, or son, salvation is thwarted altogether:
In eternity people’s lives could be altogether what they were and had been, not just the worst things they ever did, or the best things either. So she decided that she should believe in it, or that she believed in it already. How else could she imagine seeing Doll again? Never once had she taken her to be dead, plain and simple. If any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy, it couldn’t be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn’t even like them, and who would probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good. (Lila).
How different a version of providence this is, and yet is providence all the same, for it still maintains that God is the ruler and keeper of all things, while it refuses to concede that there is even a tiniest sparrow or most inveterate sinner who is not cared for by God:
Calvin says it is the Providence of God that we look after those nearest to us. So it is the will of God that we help our brothers, and it is equally the will of God that we accept their help and receive the blessing of it. As if it came from the Lord Himself. Which it does. (Home).
Gently, Robinson points America to a better version of itself—one that depends utterly on helping and being helped by others, on blessing and being blessed. Such a view of providence explodes any confident walls that we may wish to erect between outsider and insider, between reprobate and elect. And thus Robinson does not create a new myth of America so much as she corrects and redeems the old one. It is a myth that may yet offer America, even in these fraught times, not the assurance of its greatness, but the courage to be better.