Christian Science

  • Marilynne Robinson. Home. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. September 2008.

Christianity is the science of forgiveness. So many critics speak of religion as if it were without content, one branch as crazy as the other, at best merely different brands of ineffective analgesic for the afterlife, whose specific worldly demands more often cover for intolerance than rise to an even basic level of morality. But reading Marilynne Robinson, you see how intensely this-worldly religion can be as well as how impoverished much of today’s moral conversation appears in comparison with the Christian rhetoric of forgiveness. Here is one example, from Robinson’s new novel, Home:

There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. … If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace.

Robinson’s work has long stood for me as the best repudiation of Nietzsche’s famous remark: “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” Her new novel, a story of prodigal sons and Lear-like fathers, at times as beautiful as anything she has ever written, makes this defense even stronger.

Home returns to the same people, place, and even the same time as Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead. Not a sequel, rather a companion or counterpart, Home tells the same story of 1950s Iowa family life, its scene shifted only a few miles from the dreary old home of John Ames, the dying Congregationalist minister of Gilead, to that of his best friend, Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton. His wife long dead, Boughton relies on his daughter, Glory, a former schoolteacher returned home after a disastrous affair, to clothe the old house with care. Glory occupies herself with straightening and sweeping. Her greatest fear, as she approaches forty, is inheriting the ungainly ancestral home, “both austere and pretentious,” that her siblings would no doubt demand she keep in pristine nineteenth-century condition until the end of days. The real drama, or what little there is of it, soon turns up in the form of Jack, the black sheep long exiled from his father’s flock of eight children. Glory plays dutiful, embittered sister to Jack’s prodigal son, while Boughton attempts to welcome the prodigal home with a feast. But if the Biblical echoes feel all too obvious, Robinson shifts their weight from the penitence of the prodigal to the forgiveness of the parent. Ames, writing in Gilead, gives voice to the impossible moral demands of the parable made real, the earthly father forced to take the role of the heavenly one:

Old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound, and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having. If Boughton could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come, whether or not it was a transgression in fact or his to pardon. He would be that extravagant. That is a thing I would love to see.

Old Boughton might once have dreamed of fulfilling those extravagant demands, but he has long since entered his dotage. His constant refrain: “Christ never had to be old!” Rather than forgiveness and succor, Jack finds a father more Old Testament than New, tottering, jealous and, despite his attempted welcome, unforgiving, vengeful.

There is a persistent critical narrative according to which Robinson’s characters are too good, barely capable of drama, let alone comedy. After a few hundred pages of pious complacencies, most secular readers simply can’t give credence to the self-condemnations of Robinson’s earnest old preachers. Boughton says, “Maybe I’m finding out I’m not such a good man as I thought I was”; Ames, “I woke up this morning thinking this town might as well be standing on the absolute floor of hell for all the truth there is in it, and the fault is mine as much as anyone’s.” But Robinson—herself a believing Christian, a deacon and, when the local pastor travels, occasional substitute sermonizer—practices a far more radical kind of Christianity than most non-believers would think possible. Her recent Paris Review interview—”religion is a framing mechanism … a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions”—and praise for the “religionless Christianity” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer leave little doubt as to how far her beliefs lie from the complacencies of her country pastors. But my preferred evidence for Robinson’s radicalism is the irreverent anecdote that serves almost as frontispiece to the all but pagan spirituality of her first book, Housekeeping:

A tiny old lady named Ettie … took me by the hand once and told me that in San Francisco, before the fire, she had lived near a cathedral, and in the house opposite lived a Catholic lady who kept a huge parrot on her balcony. When the bells rang the lady would come out with a shawl over her head and she would pray, and the parrot would pray with her, the woman’s voice and the parrot’s voice, on and on, between clamor and clangor. After a while the woman fell ill, or at least stopped coming out on her balcony, but the parrot was still there, and it whistled and prayed and flirted its tail whenever the bells rang. The fire took the church and its bells and no doubt the parrot, too, and quite possibly the Catholic lady. Ettie waved it all away with her hand and pretended to sleep.

Putting aside anti-Catholic prejudice, clear motive for dottie old Ettie, no story better illustrates the self-satisfied, parrot-type religion that infects the most pious citizens of Robinson’s recent fiction. One of Ames’ most beautiful moments in Gilead also happens to be one of his most presumptuous: “I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained.” Too few realize that Robinson (and to some degree Ames) must see this ‘restraint’ not as yet another beautiful instance of grace but rather for the clear sin of pride that it is.((If my criticism ignores the originality of Ames’ phrase, with its hints at self-satire, compare how Robinson describes Boughton’s congregation in Home: “Complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case. Christian charity demanded no less, after all. … Even her father’s sermons treated salvation as a thing for which they could be grateful as a body.”))

As anyone familiar with the habits of old Midwesterners will know, there is no better cover for complacency than humor.  The old preachers’ self-condemnations cease to surprise and become their characters’ apotheoses. As Robinson wrote in “Puritans and Prigs,” her great essay in defense of Calvinism: “Their elect were unknowable, chosen by God in a manner assumed to be consistent with his tendency to scorn the hierarchies and overturn the judgments of this world.”

The question, then, in Robinson’s retelling of the prodigal tale is not how the son has sinned but whether the father will forgive him. Critics excused the apparent undramatic quality of Gilead by referring to the novel’s epistolary structure. Home, written in the third person, makes clear that Robinson’s oblique approach—only slowly uncovering Jack’s past, saving the revelation, in both books, for the very end—has been anything but accidental. Forgiveness is never, except of course in the case of God, a matter of omniscience; thus, the drama of Gilead and now, decisively, Home, depends on discovery. With the prodigal tale, the father has no idea what his son has been up to yet welcomes him with a feast. The question remains—since that initial celebration seems positively easy in comparison—how forgiving, how Christian the father will be when he learns how far his son has strayed.

Behind both Home and Gilead lies the secret of Jack’s black wife and child and his hope to bring them home, with Boughton and Ames’ influence guaranteeing welcome, protection, and all that they could not find in St. Louis, where cohabitation laws broke the family apart. But Home makes explicit what Gilead only hinted at: the thoroughgoing racism of Jack’s father. Soon after returning, Jack persuades Boughton to buy a television, ostensibly so the old man can watch baseball, but really so Jack can follow the Montgomery bus protests. His father says, “The colored people … appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this—commotion. There’s no reason for all this trouble. They bring it on themselves.” When Jack suggests he might know some colored people back in St. Louis, his father tells him, “You could help yourself by finding a better class of friends.”

None of this prejudice will seem surprising to readers well acquainted with the stereotypes of the Midwest, but Robinson has a different idea of the region’s history. Fly-over country is for her a cultural colony of New England, the land the abolitionists turned to once fed up with limited options for direct action back home. Hence what Robinson terms the Midwest’s “special tradition of intellectualism and populism, moral seriousness and cultural progressivism.” The town of Gilead, an authentic locale in southern Iowa, was itself founded by abolitionists, little more, as Ames puts it, than “a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas.” So when Jack speaks with Ames about bringing his wife and child to Gilead—the real reason he has come home, the hope that gave him courage to brave his father—the conclusion rings with the weight of history:

“What about this town? If we came here and got married, could we live here? Would people leave us alone?”
Well, I didn’t know the answer to that one, either. I thought so.
He said, “There was a fire at the Negro church.”
“That was a little nuisance fire, and it happened many years ago.”
“And it has been many years since there was a Negro church.”

Given that Ames’s grandfather was a partisan of John Brown, we are led to hope that he might serve as a final tenuous bridge from the abolitionists to the civil rights movement, the two redemptive moments in American history built upon Christianity. Ames observes that Iowa never let miscegenation laws get on the books; Jack’s response quotes both General Grant and Ames’s own grandfather: “Yes, Iowa, the shining star of radicalism.”

Robinson seems at pains in her recent fiction to make certain we perceive her characters as more than mere country bumpkins. The result can feel like an improbable confluence of world-historical conflict for a single Iowa farm-town: abolitionist history meets mid-twentieth-century racism; Ames’ brother Edward, sent off to Heidelberg to study theology, come home an atheist; a radical family that moves in next door and starts farming some of the Boughton family’s unused land. But any small town archive, given sufficient attention, will yield its share of world-historical surprises. The improbability is simply that of the perceiving consciousness, and Robinson exhumes these larger forces as much to uncover her characters as to give them wider relevance.

Nowhere is Robinson’s method for making use of history more apparent than when she recalls a moment from decades past, when the Boughton children, in a fit of impiety, trampled a family field planted by their radical neighbors, whom the children jokingly call Mr. and Mrs. Trotsky. Old Boughton orders the children to apologize, relishing, as Robinson puts it, “the opportunity to demonstrate Christian humility in such an unambiguous form that the neighbor could feel it only as rebuke.” The ensuing scene sets the stage for the rest of the book. The Boughton kids can’t help but observe that their family does, in fact, own the field, and young Jack lets out a laugh. Mrs. Trotsky replies: “I know who you are. The boy thief, the boy drunkard! While your father tells the people how to live! He deserves you!” The Trotskyist’s condemnation provides the frame for Boughton’s fall. Boughton says, “Did she say that? Well now,that was kind of her. I will be sure to thank her. I hope I do deserve you, Jack.”

Ames, too old to shepherd Jack’s family home to Gilead, remains radical enough to offer his surrogate son the only protection he can, his blessing:

“Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” … “Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. … I said, “We all love you, you know,” and he laughed and said, “You’re all saints.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, as Jack well knows. He came to Ames, his godfather and namesake, to ask his advice, to judge whether he should reveal the painful past to his real father. But Ames had no idea how Boughton would react. “It surprised me to realize that,” Ames says to himself. “I think it is an issue [miscegenation] we never discussed in all our years of discussing everything.”

Jack never can bring himself to tell old Boughton about his black family; his mere presence, over the course of three hundred fraught pages, irritates the old man enough. Where Gilead ends with redemption—”Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”—Home shades into tragedy. Instead of a saintly blessing, Boughton sends his son off with a curse:

“I thanked God for [Jack] every day of his life, no matter how much grief, how much sorrow—and at the end of it all there is only more grief, more sorrow, and his life will go on that way, no help for it now. You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or to protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was—” He said, “It’s like watching a child die in your arms. “He looked at Jack. “Which I have done.”

The significance of those final words terribly redoubles, as the son now desperate for his father’s spiritual arms receives a second deathblow. Earlier Jack tells his sister Glory, “There’s nothing sad about getting what you deserve.” Her response epitomizes the science of forgiveness: “I don’t know. Maybe getting what you deserveis the saddest thing in the world.”

These last lines, however laden with prosaic profundity, can make one fear equating forgiveness with that original midwestern sin: sentimentality. If Robinson’s recent fiction is first a test of the father’s forgiveness, it proves almost as much one of the reader’s emotional restraint. Gilead in particular feels designed to tug at brittle Protestant heartstrings. When Ames, near the very end, almost with his last breath, says, “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful,” it takes no great leap to imagine him speaking past his son, directly to you. The end of Home, a kind of expulsion from the garden of small-town America, left me with the same feeling of helpless nostalgia. But Robinson couldn’t be more aware of the temptation to sentimentality. Embedded in her homely, apparently nostalgic language, there’s always a carefully cultivated, steadily growing scent of something festering, not gemütlich– but unheimlichkeit, ‘unhomeliness’, otherwise known as the uncanny.

Glory, with her exaggerated sense of the homely-sentimental, acts as an index to its slow disintegration. At the age of four, she “wept for three days over the death of a dog in a radio play,” and even at thirty-eight, she must keep her guard against “country songs and human interest stories.” She cries over everything, even the Old Spice on her father’s discarded clothes. With time that pious comedy transubstantiates into anomie, until Glory feels as homeless in small-town Iowa as her vagabond brother: “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? … That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us … But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”((Robinson offers a delightful hint for how to read Glory’s sentimentality, showing us the aging, girlish woman as she sighs to herself, “Ah, tears … how considerate it would have been of nature to allow the venting of feeling through the palm of a hand or even the sole of a foot.” This apparently singular desire precisely inverts a notorious moment in Montaigne, when the ruddy old Frenchmen denies the ascetic desire “that we should stupidly beget children with our fingers or heels,” and rather proposes, “with reverence be it spoken, that we might voluptuously beget them with our fingers and heels.” Certainly Robinson, the scholar of Reformation thought, who champions her patron saint, Calvin, not as a denigrator of bodies but rather their fleshly celebrant—“such exquisite workmanship in their individual members, from mouth and eyes to their very toenails“—would take the side of voluptuous begetting against Glory’s hoped-for hidden tears.)) It’s hard to think of a better sentence to inoculate against nostalgia and force you to return to this book, and the Boughton family’s fall, with all the distance of the prodigal. Home tempts with the charms of the past, only, like a ghost, to pull that rug out from under.

Beneath the veneer of sentimentality, the real difficulty lies in the book’s relentless way of honing in on the same intractable drama, until all that remains is the need of forgiveness and its failure to come. Robinson refuses a taut plot of reversal and recognition for a slow descent into despair; the only strange thing is the implied religious solution. We should expect nothing less from a self-declared disciple of the existentialist theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Robinson litters her essays with accidental descriptions of her own writing—”mysticism as a method of rigorous inquiry, and metaphysics as an impassioned flight of the soul”—but nowhere is her praise more self-reflexive than in her paean to theology as narrative:

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] earns its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth … So theology is never finally anything but theology, words about God [theo – logy], proceeding from the assumptions that God exists and that we know about him in a way that allows us to speak about him.

You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate Robinson—her work, while close to theology, comes down on the side of poetry, aspiring only to assent, not ultimate truth—but a knowledge of the faith’s dying words and urgent messages may well be required to get her meaning. In this I doubt she’s much different from many of the great Jewish writers of the past half-century, believers and apostates alike. Robinson’s books nonetheless suffer from a particularly great distance, since the motivating logos of both Home and Gilead is forgiveness—a word that, between the fundamentalist taste for damnation and the secular lust for justice, has gone from dying to dead.

When Jack leaves his father on his deathbed, damned by the old man, thus very possibly leaving the dying preacher to his own damnation, that distance grows greater than ever. Jack’s reluctance to join in the family death-vigil offers little excuse for his leaving: two days after he departs, his wife and child drive up, the event for which he had waited weeks, and Jack’s decision to depart goes beyond all understanding. Perhaps he has finally seen the wisdom of his wife’s father, a black preacher, who long ago told him, “If you were an honorable man, you would leave her alone.” But Robinson once again, with complete deliberation, leaves us in the dark. Incomprehension is the basic condition of all earthly forgiveness, a point she is unafraid to make with all the pained, beautiful repetition it requires. As Norman Maclean wrote at the end of another great Protestant story, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

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