Marilynne Robinson’s novels always leave me with a visceral impression of celestial light. Heavenly bulbs seem to switch on at climactic moments, showing a world as undimmed as it was at Creation. “I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once,” writes John Ames, the narrator of Gilead, an elderly preacher approaching death as if returning to the birth of being. “And God saw the light, that it was good,” the Bible says, and Ames sees that it’s good, too: “that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”
A primordial sun also shines upon Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Robinson’s Gilead quartet (Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack). In Home, Jack restores the broken-down family car, an old DeSoto, buffing its chrome detailing to its former resplendence. It’s the only time we ever see the shame-riddled Jack truly at ease. He proudly slides the DeSoto out of the barn and “[floats] away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti.” He’s bathed in grace, and when he takes his sister and father for a ride in the countryside, the drab Iowa fields have become an Eden, bright and fertile: “The terraced hills glittered with new corn.”
Robinson is one of the greatest living Christian novelists, by which I don’t just mean that she’s a Christian—though she is an active one—but that her great novels (five so far) and her versatile, morally stringent essays (four collections and a book of lectures, on subjects including Darwinism and the Puritans as well as her own childhood) reflect a deep knowledge and love of Christianity. Robinson, who has taught Bible classes and preached at her church in Iowa City, Iowa, is a learned lay theologian of the Calvinist variety. In many of her essays and particularly in Gilead, she makes us aware of a John Calvin who does not at all conform to his reputation as a dour ascetic.
Robinson’s Calvin revels in creaturely delights. This Calvin says that we discover God’s goodness through the pleasures of the senses: “We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers,” he writes in his Commentary on Genesis. Calvin says that Moses—traditionally understood to be the author of the Bible’s first five books—makes a good artistic choice when he begins his narrative by conjuring up God’s dazzling cosmos ex nihilo, rendering him “visible to us in his works.” Calvin’s Moses, like Robinson, knows how to light God.
Now Robinson has written her own exegesis of the first book of the Bible, called Reading Genesis. It follows Calvin’s in treating scripture as art. She knows that such literary analysis may offend modern-day literalists: “To suggest craft in the making of sacred text disturbs some people, as if the Holy Spirit would never descend to the strategies of nuance and emphasis that heighten the intelligibility of a story.” But an aesthetic appreciation of the Bible doesn’t diminish its holiness, she says; on the contrary, artistry is divine. Robinson derives this lesson from Genesis 2:9, finding it in the second story of Creation. God, designing Eden, puts in trees. The first thing the verse tells us is that they’re “pleasant to the sight.” Only after that are we told that they provide good things to eat. Robinson notes that God gave us the gift of enjoyment—which was “nothing less than a sharing of His mind with us.”
This is the stuff of sermons—the kind I’d willingly sit through. But Robinson is also up to something that should interest her secular readers. She’s working out a poetics. In her deft hands, Genesis becomes a precursor to the novel—the domestic novel, as it happens, which is the kind she writes. Perhaps I’m making her sound self-glorifying. She’s not. She makes her case.
Robinson’s main claim is that Genesis invented a kind of realism—this-worldly, nonmythological—remarkably akin to our understanding of the term. This is outrageous, impossible to defend—if you’re a literary historian. But she’s not doing history. She’s writing an essay about biblical style and its implications. She wants us to see how radical scripture is compared with its sources. For one thing, it’s human-centered. The Babylonian epics that the Bible recasts—the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh—tell the origin myths of a passel of quarrelsome gods. The Enuma Elish’s gods created people so that they would serve their Creators—build their temples, grow their food. “There is nothing exalted in this, no thought of enchanting these nameless drudges with the beauty of the world,” Robinson writes. In Genesis, by contrast, humankind is made in God’s image; all the sublimity of biblical Creation seems to be meant for its benefit. We move from gods indifferent to our well-being to a God obsessively focused on us.
Why that happens is not immediately clear. The protagonists of Genesis are unlikely candidates for God’s solicitude. One innovation of the Western novel is to shift the emphasis from great men and women to ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. But the biblical author is also interested in unexceptional folk. The founding fathers and mothers of Israel aren’t kings or warriors or, like Moses, a former prince who rescues an enslaved nation. The patriarchs raise sheep. Indeed, God seems to pick his covenantal partner, Abraham, at random. Why bind himself to a son of idolaters “drifting through the countryside, looking for grazing for his herds,” in Robinson’s words? Why not the next guy?
Apologists wave away that theological conundrum—the apparent contingency of election—by claiming that Abraham is unusually righteous, Kierkegaard’s exemplary “knight of faith.” But if Abraham is indeed thoroughly good, he’s the exception. Every other major character in Genesis has an unsavory side. God made a covenant with Noah, too, for instance, and although he is chosen to survive the flood because he is a righteous man, he isn’t afterward. He gets dead drunk, and his son Ham sees him naked in his tent. Ham tells his brothers; they enter the tent backwards, averting their eyes, and cover him with a blanket. Noah wakes up, feels humiliated, blames Ham, and lays a curse—not on Ham but on Ham’s son Canaan, who is condemned to be a slave to Ham’s brothers. The Bible offers no excuse for Noah’s cruelty, or for many other misdeeds committed by its chosen people. “There is nothing for which the Hebrew writers are more remarkable than their willingness to record and to ponder the most painful passages in their history,” Robinson writes.
That history, with its providential arc, works itself out through family dramas of this kind, more than it does through cosmic events like the flood. At first, both share the stage: The glorious tale of Creation segues to Adam and Eve nervously fobbing off responsibility for eating the apple. Their son Cain commits fratricide, and his descendants bequeath lyres, pipes, and metallurgy to humankind. The genealogies culminate in Abraham, the first patriarch, whose household is made turbulent by rivalry among wives and among siblings.
Then the tone grows hushed. Everything in the background fades, leaving only God, Abraham, Sarah, their household, and their occasional journeys. “As soon as the terms are set for our existence on earth,” Robinson writes, “the gaze of the text falls on one small family, people who move through the world of need and sufficiency, birth and death, more or less as we all do.” Of course, unlike us, they speak with God, but that, Robinson adds, in a sneaky homiletic twist, is “a difference less absolute than we might expect.” Robinson thus redefines realism to encompass the encounter with the divine. Furthermore, if she can bring us to acknowledge that biblical characters are realistic, that they portray us, then we should probably admit that we may, like them, be God’s interlocutors, whether we know it or not.
The genius of Reading Genesis lies in its collapse of the space between the holy and the mundane, the metaphysical and the physical. God resides in commonplace things; his sublime purposes course through the small-bore tragedies of unremarkable people, to be revealed in the fullness of time. God is himself and the world is itself—we are not speaking of pantheism here—but they are also one. This is a very Christian mystery that Robinson’s ushering us into, and the proper response is awe at the hallowed world she shows us, at the loveliness—and shrewdness—of the idea of divine indwelling. She does a lot with it. For one thing, it allows her to dismiss scientific skepticism of religion as not only reductive but unimaginative. How can “sacredness in existence” be disproved? Sanctity is immanent, not quantifiable.
Above all, Robinson’s God-infused theory of reality is also a theology of realistic fiction—of her brand of realistic fiction, in which the physical may suddenly be revealed as numinous and the spirit inheres in the flesh. I want to be clear: At no point in this book does Robinson talk about herself, her novels, or the novel as a form. That’s not the sort of thing she’d do. This is me reading her reading. I see Robinson in her depiction of the biblical author, who in turn sometimes seems to merge with God. What she has in common with both the writer or writers of the Bible and God, as she depicts them, is a deep tenderness toward the subjects of their concern. “The remarkable realism of the Bible,” she writes, “the voices it captures, the characterization it achieves, are products of an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature.” Nor, I would add, in a great deal of modern literature. This boundless and merciful interest in the human is what distinguishes her.
Two characters seem to inspire the most pity and love in Robinson: the patriarch Jacob and her own creation, Jack Boughton. Both sin greatly and suffer greatly. As a young man, Jacob tricks his older brother, Esau, into selling him his birthright (the right to lead the family, and a double portion of the estate), and then straight-up cheats Esau out of their father’s blessing. A lifetime of exile and intermittent misfortune follows. Jacob matures into a more thoughtful, mostly penitent man, but his punishment does not end there. Ten of his 12 sons turn out to be worse than he ever was. At one point, they collude in slaughtering the men of a village and carrying off its women. Jacob commits the offense of favoring one son, Joseph, over the others, and in retribution, they throw the boy into a pit, from which he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt. The brothers present their father with Joseph’s bloodied coat, the implication being that he’d been killed by a wild beast. Jacob never recovers from the blow.
Jack, like Jacob, is born into a family rich in blessings. His father is a minister who truly tries to do right by him, and Jack’s seven siblings—good, kind people—love and worry about him. Nonetheless, as a child and young man, he commits senseless crimes—mostly petty thefts—seemingly “for the sheer meanness of it,” the Reverend John Ames says in Gilead. Then Jack impregnates a very young girl, which tests his all-forgiving father to his limits, and he leaves town, staying away for 20 years. In Jack, we learn of his bitter life as a vagrant, and in Home, he tries to go home, with mixed success. His presence makes his father anxious, and Jack can’t bear the feeling that everyone mistrusts him. Insofar as forgiveness is on offer, he seems unable to accept it. At one point in Gilead, he asks his father and Ames, “Are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?”
The Bible, Robinson declares in the first line of Reading Genesis, is “a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil.” So are the stories of Jacob and Jack. Why do they do what they do? Were they predestined to hurt others? We know how Jacob’s story ends: Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh and is in a position to rescue his family from starvation. This is why you did what you did, Joseph tells his brothers: God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival.
Robinson, however, is more interested in what happens afterward, when Joseph brings Jacob to meet Pharaoh. His father is curiously querulous. “The great man asks him,” she writes, “How old art thou? Jacob answers that he will not live as long as his fathers did.” Robinson comments:
He has grown very old in fewer years, enduring a life of poverty and sorrow. He is the third patriarch, the eponymous ancestor of the nation Israel, which at that time will not exist for centuries. He has received the great promises of the covenant, including possession of the land he will only return to as an embalmed corpse.
This is the patriarch at his most self-pitying. God’s pact is with Jacob’s children’s children more than it is with him; it doesn’t compensate for his sorrows. Jacob cannot reconcile the double perspective that may be the Bible’s greatest literary achievement: the view from heaven, “with an eye toward unrealized history,” as Robinson puts it, and the view from “a nearer proximity” of the human agent of that history. He has been told the future, but that hasn’t blunted his grief, hasn’t reached “the level of ‘innermost’ feeling.”
Jack, too, struggles with the meaning of his affliction, less certain of vindication than Jacob. In Home, he waits for a letter from his estranged wife, whom we sense he sees as his salvation. Robinson torques the suspense: Jack has earned our sympathy—more, to be honest, than Jacob has—and on Jack’s behalf we want answers to his questions. Will the evils he has inflicted, and his terrible loneliness, be shown to have a larger purpose? Will the ways of God be known to men—to this poor man?
We get answers, up to a point. It’s not clear that he does. Maybe he has missed his chance; maybe he’ll get another one. Not knowing breaks the heart, but knowing would be cheating. Besides, as Jacob comes to show, knowing doesn’t necessarily help. “The Lord stands back,” Robinson writes in Reading Genesis ; his “divine tact” lets his characters achieve their “full pathos and dignity.” Robinson does the same. The Bible was not given to man to simplify complexity, she says, but to speak of it with “a respect and restraint that resists conclusion.” Therein lies its beauty, and that of the literature it has inspired. The realism of Genesis, as she says, is “by itself a sort of miracle.”
This article appears in the March 2024 print edition with the headline “How Marilynne Robinson Reads Scripture.”
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