The Fallibility of the Foundling’s Savior: Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Jonathan Edwards

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Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes fiction and non-fiction with complexity and narrative skill, because the thinkers who have moved her most deeply “did some justice to the complexity of things” and spoke of salvation as “a revolution of consciousness that opened on an overwhelming sense of the beautiful” — people like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. In other words, she’s complex, because reality is. And she pursues skilled craftsmanship, because reality is beautiful.

She just published her fourth novel, Lila, and an essay about Jonathan Edwards in Humanities: Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Both publications carry a similar message about the unacceptability of hell, and the good effects of rejecting it, and the ultimate mystery — and wonder — of human life.

Yes, the novel has a message — as much as the essay. For some, this is anathema in serious fiction. But that is a relatively new notion. It would have been unintelligible to Dante, Dickens, Melville, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Tolkien. The difference between this kind of message-bearing fiction and fictionalized sermons is the complexity, profundity, indirectness, beauty, and story-telling skill of the writing.

Robinson is good at every artistic level. And more.

Lila is pastor John Ames’s uneducated, ungrammatical, uncouth, bluntly honest, totally likeable, second wife. The book tells her story from the days of her mysterious abandonment as a child, and rescue and rearing by Doll, in a band of tramps. She finds her way as a young, homeless vagrant to a shed outside Gilead, the town where two of Robinson’s previous novels take place.

Calvin-reading pastor John Ames is old. His first wife died with their only child in childbirth years before. Stunningly, and with fully intended, inexplicable abruptness, the old preacher meets and marries Lila. She becomes pregnant with the son who will be the recipient of the letter from his father that constitutes Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead. The book ends with this utterly unexpected child, still a baby, in the arms of his unlikely and mystery-awed parents.

Five Artistic Successes

At numerous artistic levels, the novel succeeds. I’ll mention five.

First, the diction — the phraseology — of the book, from beginning to end, is shaped by Lila’s unschooled English. “I don’t know nothing about it.” Doll managed to get Lila one year of schooling, where — because she is smart — she learned how to read, a little. The way Robinson keeps the narration in this orbit of blunt, untutored language is one of the most remarkable things about the book. Robinson, the narrator, transformed herself into Lila, without leaving her place as creator of Lila. It is a wonder to watch this happen.

Robinson is good at every artistic level. And more.

Second, the pretzeling of the storytelling has the effect of moving the book forward quickly while circling back over and over to Lila’s previous life to illuminate who she is, and why she acts the way she does. In other words, while taking us from Lila’s childhood to marriage and motherhood, the narrative does not do it in a straight chronological line. It loops back on itself (hence the pretzel) picking up a part of her story we missed, as Lila relives it in her thinking. The effect of this narrative pretzeling is to press the past into the present in ways that are more illuminating than if we had to recall the relevance of some past event ten chapters earlier (hence, perhaps, there are no chapter divisions in this book).

Third, Robinson, with little attention to personality description per se, creates unforgettable characters. John Ames is the greatest and most admirable and wonderful. Robinson clearly loves this man. In Gilead and Lila, he is the hero. And we know him not because of long, analytical paragraphs from the author, but from what he says and how he responds. The same goes for Lila. She is loveable, simple, deep, frank, caring, seemingly fragile (always ready to leave), but probably not. And it’s the way she talks that reveals all this. Doll, the mysterious, scar-faced, knife-wielding protector of Lila (till she disappears in a snowstorm), and Boughton, the neighbor-pastor, so much stricter than Ames, but his best friend — these minor characters are only a little less memorable.

Fourth, every good story is interwoven with suspense. Predictability is unreal to life, and is therefore, usually, boring. John Ames is unpredictable because he is so kind and patient, you simply can’t guess his responses. Lila is unpredictable because her roots are as dysfunctional as possible, and she is always on the brink of bolting, maybe. She never loses Doll’s knife. She carried it, for a season, in her garter — to keep us always on edge.

Fifth, and perhaps most unlikely and initially undetectable, Robinson subtly creates a subplot. Probably more than one. Lila is fascinated by Ezekiel 16, where Israel is portrayed as a bloody, disgusting foundling that God finds and rescues and beautifies and marries. Lila comes back to this passage repeatedly (in difficult, Elizabethan English).

And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee Though thou art in thy blood, live. (Ezekiel 16:4–6)

The Beautiful Subplot

In accord with this biblical vision of God and Israel, John Ames overlooked all of Lila’s horrible background as a tramp, all her prostitution, and who knows what else. He simply, out of the blue, married her. In the end, when she is trying to comprehend why he would do this, she said, “Maybe he saw it the way he did because he had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was. Ezekiel. The Bible was truer than life for him.”

The subplot is that Lila is the undeserving foundling, Israel. John Ames is God, who finds her and inexplicably (that is, graciously) marries her, and by his incomprehensible kindness, without a single word of judgment, transforms her. The book, at that level, is about the unfathomable grace of God meeting the unfathomable brokenness of man.

Marilynn Robinson is, as I said, good at every artistic level.

But the sad thing about this book is that John Ames moves from being the sometimes perplexing lover of God’s grace, whom we meet in Gilead, living in awe of mystery, to being a man in Lila with astonishing certainty, and clear pronouncements, about the morally eviscerating effects of the biblical teaching about hell.

Wrathless-Grace and Empty Hell

Robinson has moved from raising questions about ultimate issues, to putting her understanding of wrathless-grace and empty hell into the mouth of her hero, with more force than he has ever spoken about anything.

I do want to say one more thing. Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)

He called my belief a “grave sin” and a “great presumption.” This strains a relationship.

This leads him, on page 142, and Lila, on page 258, to pronounce about their unbelieving friends waking up in heaven because, “the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure he is” (142).

John Ames’s words are no longer questions in the face of mystery. They are convictions. Strong ones: “Thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin.” “Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption.” One is not even allowed to think that someone “might” perish.

A Glitch in Edwards?

The article that Marilynne Robinson just published in Humanities, “Jonathan Edwards in a New Light,” confirms that the fictional John Ames is speaking for the non-fictional Marilynne Robinson.

The article is a paean to Edwards’ metaphysical vision of a world created by God at every millisecond of life, which liberated the young Robinson “from Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest.” Edwards’s “intuition is sound . . . It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. . . . It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.”

But there is a glitch. The great metaphysician “does insist that the damnation . . . is good and just.” How can this be, since it does not fit Robinson’s preferred vision of reality? Her answer: Edwards was “too readily assimilating this doctrine to a divine nature, which seems by his own account of it entirely incompatible with it.”

Too readily? Edwards got hasty in his labors to see coherence in the divine justice with the divine love? Why would this happen to such a meticulously careful, and laborious thinker? Her answer: It is “an instance of a familiar effect of system on vision.” Edwards could break free from the orthodox vision of how the world is held in being, but not from the conviction of God’s justice and wrath. Result? He just couldn’t spot the problem that hell was out of sync with the love of God. “Damnation is not inconsistent with Edwards’s epistemology, though it is profoundly at odds with his vision of God as absolute love.” She sees it. He didn’t.

A Disappointing Position

This is all very disappointing. Personally and theologically. Personally, because John Ames had become a very helpful friend to me. Yes, he had a higher tolerance for mystery on some points than I do, but I admired him. I believe that I am a better husband today because of meeting John Ames, and watching him love his wife. So when he turns from mystery to pontificating, with no greater authority than his own instincts, on how hell and grace don’t mix, I feel like I am losing a friend. He called my belief a “grave sin” and a “great presumption.” This strains a relationship.

And, just as sad, he says that if we hold the orthodox view of hell, we cannot live the way we should. In other words, the reason I am a better husband is that I am being drawn into a sphere where hell has no place.

Which leads to the theological sadness of Robinson’s assertions. Not only is there no theological or biblical argument in her essay, or her novel, for these assertions about the unacceptability of hell, but Jonathan Edwards stands as a monumental obstacle, both theologically, and biblically, and personally.

Realizing the Real Choice

He was not facile or precipitous. His belief in hell was not owing to the bondage of his system, but to the authority of his Bible. And personally, contrary to John Ames’s assertion, belief in hell did not make Edwards an arrogant, unkind man, but the contrary. Those who knew him bore witness that the vastness of God, in the glory of his redeeming work, and in the fullness of his perfections, led, in Edwards’s case, to great humility and meekness and kindness. This is the life Edwards saw and lived:

All gracious affections, that are a sweet odor to Christ, and that fill the soul of a Christian with an heavenly sweetness and fragrancy, are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is “unspeakable, and full of glory,” is a humble, brokenhearted joy, and more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to an universal lowliness of behavior. (Religious Affections, Yale, 339f.)

If our choice were between whether Edwards “too readily” held on to the doctrine of hell, or whether Marilynne Robinson too readily, and sadly, turned John Ames into a kind, old liberal, I would choose the patiently-wrought grandeur of Edwards’s vision. But, of course, this is not the choice. The choice is: Has God spoken reliably in the Bible?

Edwards’s belief in hell was not owing to the bondage of his system, but to the authority of his Bible.