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    black and white photo of a street in an Iowa town

    The Hidden Proof of Grace

    A Conversation with Marilynne Robinson

    By Marilynne Robinson and Reuben Zimmerman

    April 12, 2021
    • JEANIE

      Oh my, I can't believe my eyes. I am so honored to be your Plough reader. Your books are so painfully beautiful...Thanks for your interview!

    Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books, set in a fictional (and eponymous) town in 1950s Iowa, center on the lives of two aging preachers whose families are caught in the clashing currents of race and history. John Ames, a widower, has baptized and then married Lila, a woman much younger (and of much meaner background) than he. His best friend, another aging minister named Boughton, has also been widowed, and the two men meet often to argue theology – especially salvation, politics, and the plight of Boughton’s wayward and estranged son, Jack. Jack’s common-law wife, Della, is a school teacher in Memphis, and appears to be both his guiding star and his nemesis: he loves her and yet cannot live with her, because she is Black.

    Reuben Zimmerman: It’s hard to encounter Jack Boughton’s neurotic manner without eventually wondering about a diagnosis: He gets tangled up in his thoughts, he doesn’t often give himself space to simply live, much less breathe. His wife Della puts him in his place: You’re not the Prince of Darkness; you’re just a talkative man with holes in his socks. Later on, Rev. Hutchins, the Black preacher, tells him that if God shows us a little grace, he won’t mind if we enjoy it. Can you elaborate?

    Marilynne Robinson: I never think in terms of diagnoses. They disallow nuance. They see people as types. I would never impose such constraints on characters. I also feel that their usefulness when applied to human beings can be grossly overstated. A character who feels real never comes from a textbook.

    People are much more aware of guilt – the anticipation of punishment – than of grace, which is the source of every good pleasure, and which is, in many forms, so commonplace that it is taken for granted. It is not seen as proof of God’s kindness to human beings or his loyalty to them. So the nature of God is not understood, nor of human life.

    One of the most moving conversations you’ve ever put onto paper is that sequence in Home in which Lila Ames advocates for Jack and insists that a person can change – that “everything” can change! This theme of grace comes up often in your work: the fact that we all need to be given the chance to change, and that people around us need to believe that we can change. How do we mirror God’s grace in our interactions with others – especially those who, like Jack, never seem quite completely deserving of it?

    I think what needs to change often is our view of people, our understanding of them and theirs of themselves. Ames learns that Jack has changed from scoundrel to father and husband, desperate to live out his role in his family, to find a home for them. It is true that he is breaking the law again. It is true that he finds himself too suspect to question the legitimacy of the law. And it is true, as no one would expect, that his life is devoted to deep and honorable love, whence his grief.

    People are much more aware of guilt than of grace.

    I don’t think it’s possible to read your work without stumbling on the issue of predestination. What exactly did that term mean to Calvin? And what does it mean to you?

    Virtually every major Christian theologian, very much including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, has accepted predestination as doctrine. It has been used to great effect in polemic against Calvin, but he is by no means alone with it. He, like all the rest, is an ethical teacher – it matters absolutely what you do, what choices you make. Predestination might seem to obviate grace and hope, but neither for Calvin nor for any of the others is this true. It would change the very nature of Christianity if predestination actually had this effect. There has been much Weber-influenced effort to explain the strenuous ethicalism of Calvinist tradition in light of this doctrine, but an explanation would have to be found for virtually the whole of Christianity, this doctrine is so widespread. Jesus is quite mysterious on the subject. I think he perceives time very differently than we do.

    Your Gilead books deal with racism and the problem of our stated philosophies not matching up with our private feelings. People will decry racial violence and yet quickly blame any kind of ferment on the oppressed, and they may preach equality, but then falter if it involves their own children. Why is it so hard for us to live the things we say we believe in?

    I really wish I had a better understanding of this than I do. Today I was reading in the newspaper about “racial conflict,” by which the article meant the difficulties in the relationship between our White and Black populations. My whole life Black people have pressed for voting rights, equal education, due process, security in their persons and property – what honorable person would engage in “conflict” to deny them any of these things? What is the argument? What White person could have any legitimate interest in opposing these demands? It is by no means aggressive in American people to demand their rights as citizens. It would normally be thought of as patriotic. It isn’t surprising, considering history, that we have problems, but this does not at all affect the legitimacy of these claims on the conception of justice written into our law – as revealed in its essence through the leadership of many Black men and women devoted to making the country worthy of itself and truly devoted to the common good.

    black and white photo of a street in an Iowa town

    Photograph by Paul Douglas

    People looking for tidy endings to your novels, and to the lives and experiences of your characters, are always going to be disappointed. But as I’ve read your books, I’ve always come away reminded that God isn’t finished with any of us, either – that he keeps chipping away at us. Do you think that this process will continue in the hereafter?

    It must be clear that I don’t really believe in endings. There is always much more to any story. I have always liked Calvin’s view of life as a school. We differ in the quality of our attention, in our assiduity.

    One thing I’ve always loved about your writing is the way in which you make very ordinary things extraordinary: the sunlight streaming into the old church at dawn, or the rustle of leaves on a dark summer street. You observe nature in a way that drags us right in, as though we were there. But these experiences are actually all around us, and I think we’re missing them, because life has become so rushed, and our attention span has become so short. How do we ever get back there?

    Art is a method humans have for drawing out the extraordinary in the ordinary, by ornamenting a cup or pot or a scarf, drawing out the quality of clay or tin, or by “seeing” the thing for its qualities or in its context of use, meaning and so on by means of music or language. We relegate whatever is familiar and assumed – daylight, leaves – to an undifferentiated field of experience whose elements are not usually demanding attention. But we also collaborate in enabling ourselves to break the trance of inattention.

    There is always much more to any story.

    It’s been suggested by Faulkner and others that fiction is truer than fact; that stories may better convey the realities of history than do textbooks or newspaper articles. But of course there is the problem of viewing history through our own individual lens – the temptation to embellish and steer and control the narrative. How do you embody your work with emotion and still let history speak?

    History can be amazing if it is respectful of its materials, the human voices and gestures that it sometimes, rather rarely, captures. It can feed very directly into fiction. I try to do justice to the sources I find. Of course history takes many forms. To the extent that it is good history, only the best fiction is better.

    I’m also thinking about what Dorothy Day says about great literature: that we should put away our newspapers and turn off the radio and spend time with Kristin Lavransdatter and Jeremiah and the Book of Kings – that these books can give us the perspective we need, and better fuel our hearts and minds. Is that true?

    I follow contemporary history, i.e. the news, with fascination. It is frighteningly full of meaning. Granting its faults, it does give us a more complete (and utterly incomplete) sense of being in the world than most other generations could have dreamed of. What in God’s name is going on here? This is a very interesting question.

    Contributed By

    Marilynne Robinson is the author of the bestselling novels Lila, Home (winner of the Orange Prize), Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award).

    Reuben Zimmerman is a physician assistant who lives and works at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York.

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