Culture At Large

Election and Outsiders in the Work of Marilynne Robinson

Branson Parler

Since I was first introduced to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, I’ve been a fan. Recently, I had the chance to attend the Wheaton Theology Conference, which this year focused on Robinson and her work. I was struck anew by the heart of Robinson’s writing, which is a compelling vision of the radical mystery and uniqueness of each person. Her ability to express this truth through the medium of the novel and to tie it to one of the most controversial theological doctrines—election and predestination—sets her work apart, both as literature and as theology.

Part of what makes Robinson unique is the centrality of the life of faith in her fiction. When I first encountered her work, I was surprised to find that two pastors in small-town Iowa were the centerpiece of her fictional world. That’s not a typical choice. I was even more surprised to discover the complexity with which she presents the characters, both in terms of their internal lives and their relationships to others. This kind of insight is a welcome relief from many forms of so-called “Christian fiction,” which often ends up coming across as preachy and didactic and hardly qualifies as good literature. Although the faith of Robinson’s characters may appear straightforward to those on the outside, she artfully reminds us that a life of faith is never that simple on the inside. This invites us to be properly complex and honest about our own faith.

Though Robinson claims not to be a theologian, her novels wrestle with two of the most enduring theological mysteries: the uniqueness and mystery of each human being and, relatedly, the mystery of election or predestination. These themes emerge in part from the format of the Gilead trilogy (Gilead, Home, Lila). The three novels are told, respectively, from the first-person perspective of Rev. John Ames; Glory (the daughter of Ames’ pastor friend, Robert Boughton); and Lila (Ames’ much younger wife). The lives and events of these characters overlap, so we often hear of the same events in different books. Far from being redundant, this creative repetition leads us deeper into contemplating the mystery of each person and how they perceive and receive the world.

Gilead illustrates this mystery through the interplay of knowing and unknowing that exists between Rev. John Ames and Jack Boughton, the son of his pastor friend. Ames initially believes that he knows his namesake, John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son who returns to Gilead. Ames, a bachelor most of his life, has married the younger Lila, and their young son is the recipient of Ames’ long letter that is Gilead. With Jack back in town, though, the older, ailing Ames is suspicious that Jack has some kind of ill intent or designs on his precious wife and son. To Ames, Jack has seemed bent from the beginning, and Ames rehearses to himself the many wrongdoings the man committed in his younger years. Over time, though, Ames begins to see that there is more to Jack than his suspicious intentions could have perceived.

Ames’ receptivity to this possibility is partly the result of a kind of religious vision he has as he, Lila, and Jack, sit on the front porch. As he meditates on his own tendency to judge Jack, he begins to consider the mystery of who Jack is and concludes:

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

Part of what makes Robinson unique is the centrality of the life of faith in her fiction.

What’s fascinating about Robinson’s work here is that she is not trying to push us to a place of solipsism, a kind of self-enclosed despair about the unlikelihood of ever knowing another person. Far from it. Rather, this mystery, this unknowing, is rhetorically and spiritually useful insofar as it pushes us to a place of humility. Only when I get a glimpse, a mystical vision, of how little I really know of another person can I be in a place to truly receive them, to know them as they are.

This is where Robinson’s angle on predestination comes in as well. This is a hard teaching, the notion that some are chosen and some are not. Robinson’s work is so valuable, theologically, because she has artistically depicted exactly how this doctrine should and should not be used. Any good Augustinian or Calvinist (or Arminian, for that matter—they believe in election and predestination, too) will tell you that sorting out the sheep from the goats is not something that happens in the present time. Our stories aren’t finished. And yet we are constantly tempted to forestall our unwinding narratives by labeling some of us “good,” or the chosen, and some “evil,” or outsiders.

This easy dichotomy needs questioning, and Robinson does it through all of her characters, who cannot be easily separated into the good and the evil, the saints and the sinners. Precisely by muddying the waters in this way, we leave Gilead with a clearer vision of our own world, a world in which Jesus identified with the sick, the sinners, the lost. For even Jesus himself calls us to embrace the mystery of election, the fact that those who hear the voice of the good shepherd are often “not of this sheep pen,” but are outsiders, unlikely sheep. The grace of Robinson’s work is that we may even begin to see the mystery of ourselves as outsiders, and thus find that Jesus is truly with us.

Topics: Culture At Large