Marilynne Robinson’s God

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 28 2014 @ 3:34pm

Reviewing Robinson’s new novel Lila, Linda McCullough Moore wants to see a bit more judgement from the author’s deity, claiming Robinson portrays a “God who, as far as I can tell, just wants us all to be happy, if not in this life, then certainly in the next”:

I venture to suggest that Lila is a polemic, and a brilliant one. If we engage the novel at this level, surely it is at Robinson’s express instigation. No matter that the art is heavenly; no child could mistake the conclusions: The Conclusion, Eternal Glory for us all. No questions asked. But also, no questions answered. Are we to be faulted for scratching our heads about this sermon later on a Sunday afternoon? Puzzling out where any God of Holy Writ might recognize himself in the story that she is telling?

Lila’s favorite book in the Bible is Ezekiel, written by the same prophet who says God will separate the sheep from the sheep, a far finer distinction even than the sheep from the goats. But Robinson is having none of it. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Some readers ask what kind of preacher is John Ames. We can only surmise, but we do know what kind of preacher is Marilynne Robinson. Convincing, in a word. Her nonfiction makes a reader think. Her fiction converts the heart. In Robinson there is a balm in Gilead, and it is surely sweet. I’m just not sure where it comes from.

Robinson writes that much is mystery, even as she is spelling out without confusion the ways of eternity and holiness and judgment. She claims the unknowable, even as she specifies God’s ways to man and womankind.

Gracy Olmstead rises to Robinson’s defense:

First, many of the quotes pulled from [McCullough Moore’s] review are Lila’s internal thought processes, as she grapples with the fear that many of those she once knew and loved will not be saved. Thus, these thoughts are not declarative truth statements being made by Robinson. They are all in the voice of Lila, who, as she reads Scripture, wrestles mightily with these questions. They aren’t meant as Robinson’s Gospel: they’re Lila’s still-being-formed-and-sanctified conceptions of the Gospel.

Second: Robinson here is writing to people from Lila’s world, and that is one of the reasons I appreciate this novel so deeply. Gilead was a lofty, lovely book, full of the wizened thoughts of a preacher. In it, Ames struggles with conceptions of grace and redemption, but he does so from a position of wisdom and maturity. Lila presents something different: a soul-grappling that is very raw, intimate, and personal. Moore, in her review, quotes a particular passage by Ames, in which he says, “If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine … then your Doll … is safe, and warm, and happy.” It may sound heretical or evil to some, but really, I think it’s a deeply important statement. Ames is noting that we are fallible humans, and God is mysterious. We do not know the heart of man, nor do we know the plan of God in its entirety. Salvation and redemption are not ours to give, nor are they ours to judge. And so Ames offers this truth to Lila—that God is good, more gracious and loving than the human mind can ever conceive or imagine. And he invites her to rest in that truth, using words that she will understand.

Previous Dish on Robinson and Lila here and here.