Talking (theological) shop with Marilynne Robinson

Review of "Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson"

“It’s exhilarating and consoling to read a book in which the lustre of the Christian faith is revealed with such sympathetic polish and God’s sovereignty delineated with such gravitas,” I wrote in my 2015 CC review of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Lila gets the “last say,” I asserted boldly. I was wrong. Not the first time. At the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference Marilynne Robinson announced a fourth installment of her Gilead series. One presenter, Tiffany Eberle Kriner, confessed something kindred to my own glee: “I have, I admit without shame, made the author’s ability to complete a fourth Gilead novel a subject of personal prayer.” After John, Glory and Lila, Jack gets his turn! In her instructive essay, “Space/Time/Doctrine: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels,” Eberle Kriner pinpoints the theological benefit of these multiple perspectives: “Her narrative thought experiment in the Gilead novels layers types of time into the novels, dilates them in multiple ways, and entangles scenes and characters to make the doctrine of God’s sovereignty both more mysterious in scope and usable in orientation. Robinson thus renders God’s sovereignty more thinkable, more loveable.”

Eberle Kriner’s essay is one in a substantive collection entitled Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson edited by Wheaton profs Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Robinson herself contributes a chapter, “The Protestant Conscience,” and participates in two interviews. The volume covers topics such as the theological world of John Ames, the efficacy of preaching (Lauren Winner),  goodness versus grace (Rowan Williams), parallels between Augustine and John Ames (and further parallels between John and Jack), and, not unexpectedly, considerable commentary on John Calvin.

Robinson is a singular voice in the intellectual public arena, brave enough to declare, “I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity.” Even more remarkably she identifies as a Calvinist. She acknowledges an “odd sort of social pressure as often as I have mentioned him. Calvin seems to be neglected on principle.” Against such negativity, she responds, “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 such a vast, lucid and gracious spirit.

Predestination, a “complicated issue” according to John Ames, occupies a prominent place in Robinson’s work. In “Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin,” Timothy George contends that predestination is not, in fact, Calvin’s key dogma. The heart of his theology, says George, is “union with Christ” and our election is simply a mirror of Christ’s own as head of the church. Robinson herself, George reminds us, regularly observes that election did not originate with Calvin, but emerged from the writings of Luther, Augustine and the Apostle Paul himself.

The weightiest essay in the anthology is “The Metaphysics of Marilynne Robinson” by Keith L. Johnson. He notes, “The fact that Robinson even has a metaphysics makes her countercultural.” He lauds her luminous essays for confronting the materialistic assumptions undergirding our culture. She exposes how our societal capitulation to Darwinian and Freudian presuppositions has led to a data-driven methodology in all aspects of life. Only what is scientifically observable and measurable has value. This reductionism chips away at the worth of human rationality and human experience. Human beings are just another animal, products of evolutionary processes. Such empiricism, warns Robinson, deprives us of any moral imperative. This modern myth of the Fall, she continues, is one in which we banish God, “reason and science being the flaming swords that make the expulsion final.”

Johnson carefully demonstrates that Robinson’s metaphysics is deeply rooted in Calvinism. He objects, however, to her “distinctive” view about what happens on the cross. Robinson prefers to see the crucifixion, not as atonement, but as the ultimate revelation of God’s love for his creation and his creatures. “This is an interpretation,” she says, “I find more beautiful and more consistent with my understanding of the nature of God than the thought of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice.” Robinson’s concern, explains Johnson, is that the atonement suggests that “God’s love for us is contingent, as if Christ’s death for our sins enables an angry God to love us again.” He counters, rather convincingly, “But the Bible does not say that God loves us because Christ died for our sins: it says Christ died for our sins because God loves us.”

Johnson argues that the sacrificial death of Christ is integral to a Christian metaphysics because he is Saviour as well as Creator. He cautions that Robinson’s interpretation would leave us believing that God’s love “is prompted by the worthiness of the human who is loved rather than by the nature of the one who loves.” However, (I jump in boldly) Robinson is quoted in the same essay as saying, “God’s first act of grace toward us was to make us worthy of his attention and loyalty and love,” which clearly locates the origin of our worth in God’s own divinity. Augmenting Robinson’s idea that God’s love is revealed on the cross, Johnson proposes that we also learn how to love from the cross, namely, sacrificially, like Jesus. Gracious and generous, this is theological dialogue at its best, with Johnson respectfully describing his critique as a “refinement” rather than a refutation of Robinson’s thought.

Artist Joel Sheesley contributes a treatise on aesthetics, “Heaven and Earth: Reading Gilead Through the Landscape on the Fox River.” He traces the function of landscape in the Gilead novels and beyond, detailing the influence of place upon us all as “geographical beings.” In Gilead, says Sheesley, the landscape “partners” with John Ames on his pilgrimage to forgiveness. As Ames awakens to the grandeur of creation, he invariably encounters transcendence: “My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his little mortality patch was glorious.”

“Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience” by Patricia Andujo is a provocative indictment of white Gilead for its complacency. She rightly charges, “Noticeably, Jack is the only person who is not Christian, yet he is the most morally outraged concerning the lack of social justice for African Americans.” Her assessment of Ames, Boughton and similar Christian leaders is harsh: “They cower from meaningful direct action, they miss the opportunity to use their authority effectively, and they retreat into a world of vast oblivion.” She has kinder words for Ames’s militant grandfather though his abolitionism swung “too far” into violence. She concedes that “Robinson would have to write an entirely different novel” to satisfy her longing for a Gilead without racial marginalization. My own prediction (“Boldly go” as my default setting, apparently) is that Robinson’s upcoming novel will explore race relations more directly, particularly in light of some strong words she has for self-righteous Christians in “The Protestant Conscience.”

Balm in Gilead is an erudite guide to the literary and theological vision of a consummate author and thinker. Robinson’s spirited defense of Christianity remains, yes, “consoling” in this postmodern era when the faithful can feel beleaguered. From “The Protestant Conscience” comes this final encouragement: “One thing we have forgotten is that Christianity, intrinsically, is very beautiful. There is a virtual sea of art, music and literature as proof of this fact. It has left a splendid testimony we cannot wholly or finally obscure.”


  • Cathy Smith

    Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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