Marilynne Robinson’s novels are meant to become transparent as we read them. The stories are not ends in themselves. They are windows that allow us with a metaphysics, a description of the being of the world and the people within it. To read these novels is to be called to a conversion, not only of the heart and soul, but especially of the mind. Robinson wants us to recognize that we have squandered an intellectual inheritance that took our ancestors centuries to build. She calls us to repent of embracing the wisdom of an age that has left us isolated and fearful. She asks us to come home, to embrace an old way of being, and to recognize that the world and our neighbors are radiant with the love of God. “A person can change,” Lila says. “Everything can change.” . . .
Robinson is more than simply a novelist who converts her readers to a new way of seeing through stories. She is also a theologian who explains what this conversion means. She develops this primarily in her essays. â€” Keith L. Johnson, “The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson,” 66.
In an essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, [Marilynne] Robinson declared that “great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness, because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to the spoken voice.” In Gilead we are indeed listening, or rather overhearing, the dying words of the venerable, ailing, seventy-six-year-old Congregational minister John Ames writing a letter intended as a bequest to his beloved seven-year-old son. As I listened, I was drawn in, captivated by the voice of John Ames.
Bonhoeffer also refers to theology as “a word of recognition among friends.” In reading, or listening to, Gilead, John Ames became a friend. . . .
In 1555, [John] Calvin looked back on his transition from humanist scholar to Protestant pastor and described it this way: “By a sudden conversion, God turned and brought my heart to teachableness.” . . .
Robinson began to read Calvin deeply and seriously, first the Institutes, but then also the commentaries and sermons. And although she does not use the language of “sudden conversion” to describe this intellectual and theological awakening, she comes pretty close when she confesses: “I was astonished to realize how utterly different Calvin is from anything I had ever heard or read about him. It was really moving to discover such a vast and lucid and gracious spirit. It was as if I had just happened upon Beethoven. Much better.” This discovery of Calvin happened for her at midlife, almost like Dante: “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark.” Karl Barth, a theologian who appears a number of times in Robinson’s works, once described Calvin as “a waterfall, a primeval forest, something strange, mythological, something straight down from the Himalayas.” Robinson, like Barth, would make her own pathway through the brambles and brush of the primeval forest that is John Calvin. Her project would be one of retrieval, reclamation, and “resourcement.” â€” Timothy George, “Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin,” 45, 47, 52.
The praise that pours forth from the lips of [John] Ames and Augustine, moreover, is particular. No vague thanks here. There is an earthiness to these confessions: “You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours” [Augustine, Confessions 10.27.38]. This is praise you can sense, on specific streets in specific towns.
At the end of the story Ames suggests, “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded” [Robinson, Gilead, 241]. What does Gilead have to do with Hippo? Well, earthiness, for one. Ames and Augustine speak the language of sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch; of bodily apprehension. But if they are right, all this is the stuff of heaven too. In Gilead and Hippo we do find something truly Christlike, the earthy humility of arms outstretched in a Word of celestial praise: “Great are you, Lord, and greatly to be praised!” â€” Han-luen Kantzer Komline, “Heart Conditions: Gilead and Augustinian Theology,” 42.
All that Gilead puts to us is the plain reminder goodness is not enough. Goodness, self-defined and self-contained, is something which will be poisonous if weâ€™re not careful. Without the wound, the openness, the crack that connects us to reality, to one another, and to God, healing doesnâ€™t happen. The â€œgoodâ€œ can so easily come to believe that healing is natural and simple. But revelation tells us that healing is indeed the restoration of a broken nature, but precisely because our nature is broken, this healing must be more than â€œnatural.â€ . . .
Fiction, if itâ€™s doing its work, will always, Iâ€™ve suggested take us deeper into connectedness. And in a fiction that works with and is inspired by Christian themes we are taken into the deepest connectedness of all; in the light and in hope of which we live and pray for one another. – Rowan Williams, “Beyond Goodness: Gilead and the Discovery of the Connections of Grace,” 166-167.
Here, then, is the clue to our erratic life patterns, our inconstancy, our unfaithfulness, our stupid inability to distinguish between fashion and faith: we don’t rise up early and listen to God. We don’t daily find a time apart from the crowd, a time of silence and solitude, for preparing for the day’s journey. “A very original man,” says Garry Wills, “must shape his life, make a schedule that allows him to reflect, and study, and create.”
Jeremiah had a defined priority: persistently rising early, he listened to God, then spoke and acted what he heard. It was not because there were no other options open to him. It was not because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. He had chosen what Jesus called “the one thing needful” — listening, attentively and believingly, to God.”
The mark of a certain kind of genius is the ability and energy to keep returning to the same task relentlessly, imaginatively, curiously, for a lifetime. Never give up and go on to something else; never get distracted and be diverted to something else. . . . The same thing over and over, and yet it is never the same thing, for each venture is resplendent with dazzling creativity. – Eugene H. Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (InterVarsity Press, 1983, 118-9).