Marilynne Robinson and Little Old Me
Updated: Jan 11
Grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.
So says Rev Ames, one of Marilynne Robinson's narrators, and I think he's right.
I first came to Robinson's novels when I was fifteen. I remember being in registration right at the beginning of the school day when a much cleverer-than-I boy came over to me to tell me that he'd read a book I might like. When I asked what it was about he said 'God.' And then that was it. I bought the book that weekend and read it over a few weeks.
I honestly didn't know what to make of it. All I knew was that the way I felt after reading a few pages of her prose was the way I feel now after a long meditation session. It was like going deep underwater where things go slower and yet, paradoxically, it felt like coming up for air, like clarity and sense.
If you've read Gilead you'll know that my fifteen year old self didn't really 'get' this novel. Feeling renewed and restored is not necessarily what that text is all about. But I do think that I found something in the way she wrote that I didn't quite have the name for yet. It didn't matter I wasn't alive to the nuances of subtext and her text's references to dead poets and biblical tropes. There was something in the way the prose moved that had me, even then.
Fast forward to 2022. I have written a book on Robinson. My PhD was solely on her work. I met her in Iowa in 2017 and interviewed her for an hour. She was and is a very funny and generous person. She has a permanent glint in her eyes that reveals she likes a joke more than Calvin might have.
My life, which is to say, my way of seeing, has been utterly transfigured by the way this woman puts down words in an order.
I was ready to give up on faith, theology and Christianity when I was in my early twenties. I had recently learned that everything I had already learned, theologically that is, was probably not true. The Bible wasn't dictated by the Almighty, the average Joe probably wasn't going to smoke and smolder should the moral scales tip the wrong way, the Presbyterian understanding of the gospel was just that, the Presbyterian understanding of the gospel. I was sold, so I felt, an entire package that could not be edited, improved or challenged. It had to go. Nietzsche and nihilism awaited. Hallelujah.
Robinson's novels returned me to something resembling Christianity. I got a three year funded PhD position to work exclusively on her work. And while I was meant to be writing a PhD, what actually emerged was something like a spiritual adventure tale. I was in pursuit of something I knew was worth chasing. Words like grace and blessing, prayer and transcendence seemed to have depth again. They were happily burdened with significance once more.
Although it is unpopular to say, my PhD experience was ridiculously joyful. I regularly felt like a child who got to play on their PS5 all day. Reading Robinson from week to week and occasionally writing down some thoughts about what I'd read? It made me laugh when people made oooooh noises when they found out I was doing a doctorate. This wasn't 'the highest degree a university can confer.' It was a curious, theologically inclined introvert's wildest dream come true.
Marilynne Robinson, although primarily known as a novelist, is, I think, best understood as a theologian. At least that is what she is to me.
Some purists want to keep theology for the system builders. The Calvin's and Barth's of this world. But that approach leaves out more than it lets in. Systems are built to exclude. Robinson's literary theology includes everything as worthy of attention. She asks us to pay attention to the ordinary: to the water we use to grow vegetables, to drink, to bless; to the oppression we have let become ordinary, the racism and homophobia and misogyny we can hardly see due to our own lazy inattention.
Most of what I know about theology has been in some way gleaned from five years of deep study of Robinson's novels and essays. She is our best living theologian of grace. Writing four novels set in roughly the same time and place and roughly about the same characters is, in itself, an experiment in grace. Her latest novel, and surely the last of the Gilead series, literally gives grace the final word.
She lets us see things from multiple perspectives, inviting us into the truth that without pursuing this kind of rounded, compassionate seeing, grace can never get a foothold in us.
I am doing what I am doing because of Marilynne Robinson. Sometimes I laugh when an event organiser needs a fancy bio from me for something or other. I usually say 'teacher, writer, theologian' - that kind of thing. In reality what I am though is someone who has been utterly changed by five novels and a handful of essays and never wants to shut up about it.
I don't know if you can empathise with this kind of passion for a writer or thinker. I hope you can, because it is a gift I would buy for you if I could find it for sale somewhere. Its the kind of insatiable hunger for more that usually comes with a sidecar of Christian shame. Except this doesn't. Robinson's novels will find little hidden places in you and break them open. Reading her will make you question everything and won't give you any answers. What she teaches is that this *this* is what is. Everything is connected, grace is what the universe was made for.
I teach the six week Marilynne Robinson course simply as an outlet for the years of utter joy I had in being paid to read and think about her work. If you would like to get a taste of what it means to have your vision of the world - of the 'given' as Robinson would say - you can always take a course with me. I think there's one starting in the middle of February. Why not come along for the journey. It might change your life...
Next Course starts in February. Yay!