Writer Marilynne Robinson is known for her exploration of theology in her literary works; in two scenes from her novels, the character Jack Boughton seeks to answer the question: “Are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?”
Editor’s note: Marilynne Robinson will deliver the Hickman Lecture for “Drawn into Scripture: Arts and the Life of the Church,” Duke Divinity School’s 2011 Convocation & Pastors’ School, Oct. 10-11. As part of her presentation, she will read from her novels and will have an onstage conversation with Richard Lischer, the Cleland Professor of Preaching at Duke Divinity School.
Praised for their beautiful writing, finely drawn characters and serious exploration of Calvinist theology, Marilynne Robinson’s novels “Gilead” and “Home” focus on the stories of two clergymen, longtime friends who are close to death.
The novels are set in a small Iowa town in 1956 and tell the story of a prodigal son returning home. “Gilead” is narrated by the Rev. John Ames, a 76-year-old Congregationalist minister. It takes the form of a series of letters to Ames’ nearly 7-year-old son, Robby, whom Ames knows he will not live to raise to adulthood. Having lost his first wife and child in childbirth, Ames spent most of his life living alone until he met and married Lila, a much younger woman who is mother to his son.
“Home” focuses on the family of Ames’ longtime friend the Rev. Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister. Boughton and his daughter Glory struggle to deal with Boughton’s ne’er-do-well son, Jack, who returns to live with them after many years.
Born and raised a Presbyterian and now a Congregationalist, Robinson has written often about Scripture and theology. She told NPR, “I wouldn’t necessarily start to write books that are ‘Christian’ in the sense that they wouldn’t be meaningful to any other category of people.” Instead, she says, “when I draw on my own deeper resources, this interest of mine certainly emerges.”
Excerpt from ‘Home’
John Ames, son Robby and wife Lila have come to the Boughtons’ house to visit with Robert, Jack and Glory. During the conversation, Jack asks, “My question is, are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?”
Ames took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Scripture is not really clear on that point. Generally, a person’s behavior is consistent with his nature, which is to say that his behavior is consistent. The consistency is what I mean when I speak of his nature.”
Boughton chuckled. “Do I detect a little circularity in your reasoning, Reverend Eisenhower?”
Jack said, “People don’t change, then.”
“They do, if there is some other factor involved. Drink, say. Their behavior changes. I don’t know if that means their nature has changed.”
Jack smiled. “For a man of the cloth, you’re pretty cagey.”
Boughton said, “You should have seen him thirty years ago.”
“Well, you should have been paying attention.”
Ames was becoming irritated, clearly. He said, “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s what people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.”
Glory said, “Your five minutes aren’t up yet.”
Jack glanced up at her blandly, not quite smiling, touching his fingertips together as if there were no such thing in the world as a hint. So she went into the parlor and turned on the radio and took up a book and tried to read, and tried to stop wanting to make sense of words she was doing her best not to hear. The Presbyterian Church. Redemption. Karl Barth. She read one page over three times without giving it enough of her attention to remember anything about it, and the radio was playing the William Tell Overture, so she set the book aside and went to stand in the doorway.
Lila said, “What about being saved?” She spoke softly and blushed deeply, looking at the hands that lay folded in her lap, but she continued. “If you can’t change, there don’t seem much point in it. That’s not really what I meant.”
Jack smiled. “Of course I myself have attended tent meetings only as an interested observer. I would not have wanted to find my salvation along some muddy riverbank in the middle of the night. Half the crowd there to pick each other’s pocket, or to sell each other hot dogs --”
Lila said, “-- Caramel corn --”
He laughed. “-- Cotton candy. And everybody singing off key --” They both laughed.
“-- to some old accordion or something --” she said, never looking up.
“And all of them coming to Jesus. Except myself, of course.” Then he said, “Amazing how the world never seems any better for it all. If I am any judge.”
“Mrs. Ames has made an excellent point,” Boughton said, his voice statesmanlike. He sensed a wistfulness in Ames as often as he was reminded of all the unknowable life his wife had lived and would live without him. “Yes, I worried a long time about how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation.”
“None that I can recall just now.” He said, “It seems as though the conclusions are never as interesting as the questions. I mean, they’re not what you remember.” He closed his eyes.
Jack finally looked up at Glory, reading her look and finding in it, apparently, anxiety or irritation, because he said, “I’m sorry. I think I have gone on with this too long. I’ll let it go.”
Lila said, never looking up from her hands, “I’m interested.”
Jack smiled at her. “That’s kind of you, Mrs. Ames. But I think Glory wants to put me to work. My father has always said the best way for me to keep out of trouble would be to make myself useful.”
“Just stay for a minute,” she said, and Jack sat back in his chair, and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself. Then she looked up at him and said, “A person can change. Everything can change.”
Ames took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He felt a sort of wonder for this wife of his, in so many ways so unknown to him, and he could be suddenly moved by some glimpse he had never had before of the days of her youth or her loneliness, or of the thoughts of her soul.
Jack said, very gently, “Why, thank you, Mrs. Ames. That’s all I wanted to know.”
Excerpt from ‘Gilead’
Later in the narrative, Jack Boughton comes to Ames’ church to speak with him and finds him sitting in a pew, asleep. Ames describes the encounter that follows.
He gave me a look, then covered his eyes with his hand. There were elements of grief and frustration in the gesture, and of weariness as well. And I knew what it meant. I said, “I’m afraid I offend you.”
“No, no,” he said. “But I do wish we could speak more -- directly.”
There was a silence. Then he said, “But I thank you for your time,” and stood up to leave.
I said, “Sit down, son. Sit down. Let’s give this another try.”
So we were just quiet there for a while. He took off his necktie and wound it around his hand and showed it to me as though there were something amusing about it and slipped it into his pocket. Finally he said, “When I was small I thought the Lord was someone who lived in the attic and paid for the groceries. That was the last form of religious conviction I have been capable of.” Then he said, “I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Why would that happen, do you think? I mean, that I could never believe a word my poor old father said. Even as a child. When everyone I knew thought it was all, well, everyone thought it was the Gospel.”
“Do you believe any of it now?”
He shook his head. “I can’t say that I do.” He glanced up at me. “I’m trying to be honest.”
“I can see that.”
He said, “I’ll tell you another strange thing. I lie quite a lot, because when I do people believe me. It’s when I try to tell the truth that things go wrong for me.” He laughed and shrugged. “So I know the risk I’m running here.” Then he said, “And in fact, things also go wrong when I lie.”
I asked him what exactly it was that he wanted to tell me.
“Well,” he said, “I believe I put a question to you.”
He had every right to point that out. He had asked a question, and I had avoided responding to it. That’s true. I couldn’t help but notice the edge of irritation in his voice, considering how earnest he seemed to be about keeping the conversation civil.
I said, “I just don’t know how to answer that question. I truly wish I did.”
He folded his arms and leaned back and twitched his foot for a minute. “Does it seem right to you,” he said, “that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or who will? Granting your terms? That between us and you there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”
“I am not sure those are my terms. I would speak of grace in that context,” I said.
“And never of the absence of grace, which would in fact seem to be the issue here. If your terms are granted. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”
“I understand that,” I said.
“So,” he said, after a silence, “you have no wisdom to share with me on this subject.”
I said, “Well, I don’t know quite how to approach it in this case. Do you want to be persuaded of the truth of the Christian religion?”
He laughed. “I’m sure if I were persuaded of it, I would be grateful in retrospect. People generally are, as I understand.”
“Well,” I said, “that doesn’t give me much to work with, does it?”
He just sat there for a while, and then he said, “A friend of mine -- no, not a friend, a man I met in Tennessee -- had heard about this town, and he had also heard of your grandfather. He told me some stories about the old days in Kansas that his father had told him. He said that during the Civil War Iowa had a colored regiment.”
“Yes, we did. And a graybeard regiment, and a Methodist regiment, as they called it. They were teetotalers, at any rate.”
“I was interested to learn that there was a colored regiment,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought there were ever that many colored people in this state.”
“Oh yes. Quite a few colored people came up from Missouri in the days before the war. And I think quite a few came up the Mississippi Valley, too.”
He said, “When I was growing up, there were some Negro families in this town.”
I said, “Yes, there were, but they left some years ago.”
“I remember hearing about a fire at their church.”
“Oh yes, but that was many years ago, when I was a boy. And it was only a small fire. There was very little damage.”
“So they’re all gone now.”
“Yes, they are. It’s a pity. We have several new Lithuanian families. Of course they’re Lutheran.”
He laughed. He said, “It is a pity that they’re gone.” And he seemed to ponder it for a while.
Then he said, “You admire Karl Barth.” And I believe it was here he began to speak out of that anger of his, that sly, weary anger I have never been able to deal with. He was always smart as the devil, and serious as the devil, too. I should have known he’d have read Karl Barth.
I said, “Yes, I do admire him. Very much.”
“But he seems to have very little respect for American religion. Don’t you agree? He is quite candid about it.”
“He has been very critical of European religion also,” I said, which is true. And yet even at the time I recognized that my reply was somewhat evasive. So did young Boughton, as I could tell by his expression, which was not exactly a smile.
He said, “He takes it seriously, though. He thinks it’s worth quarreling with.”
“Granted.” That is certainly true, too.
Then he asked, “Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?”
“Not really,” I said, which surprised me, since I have wondered about that very thing any number of times.
Now, at that point I did feel that Jack Boughton was, so to speak, winning the conversation, and furthermore, that he was no happier about it than I was, maybe even a little disgusted. Certainly I found myself in a false position yet again. I felt like pleading old age. But I was sitting there in my church, with the sweet and irrefragable daylight pouring in through the windows. And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone. And my heart rose up within me -- that’s exactly what it felt like -- and I said, “I have heard any number of fine sermons in my life, and I have known any number of deep souls. I am well aware that people find fault, but it seems to me to be presumptuous to judge the authenticity of anyone’s religion, except one’s own. And that is also presumptuous.”
And I said, “When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth’s own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.”
I was tired and I was feeling more beleaguered than a man my age should feel, and that is the only way I can explain the tears. I was almost as surprised as young Boughton.
He said, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” and he said it convincingly.
There I was, wiping tears off my face with my sleeve, just the way you do it. It was embarrassing, believe me. He said something that sounded like “Forgive me,” and he went away.
Now what? My present thought is that I will write him a letter. I have no idea what it will say.
Excerpt from HOME by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2008 by Marilynne Robinson. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.com
Excerpt from GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2004 by Marilynne Robinson. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. www.fsgbooks.com
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