John “Jack” Ames Boughton is a wayward preacher’s son who always seems to find himself close to Christians. He often feels the need to let them know he is actually an atheist. His Christian acquaintances, however, somehow don’t feel the need to take his confession at face value.
Perhaps Jack bears some blame for this ambiguity. He talks about his “atheist soul”—a soul he suspects has been predestined (he definitely believes in predestination) for perdition (he is definitely not a universalist). Yet he still seeks out Christian worship, pastoral counsel, and even a hoped-for blessing. He loves to play hymns on the piano. He is also a habitual thief, liar, drunkard, and—in his own unflinching self-assessment—a “confirmed, inveterate bum.” But perhaps that is just another way of saying that he starts from the same place we all do, as a son of the old Adam.
Jack is the fourth in a series of novels by Marilynne Robinson. It follows Gilead (2004); Home (2008), which adds Jack’s perspective to the events of Gilead; and Lila (2014), all of which were lauded by critics and readers alike.
Robinson is widely considered among the greatest American novelists writing today. She has also emerged as one of America’s leading public intellectuals. Many of her addresses and essays have been collected in resonant volumes such as The Death of Adam (1998), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), The Givenness of Things (2015), and What Are We Doing Here? (2018). Barack Obama is such an admirer that while he was president, he did an interview with Robinson that appeared in The New York Review of Books.
What makes all this especially intriguing is that Robinson is also very open about her Christian faith. She is even an unapologetic champion of John Calvin. Moreover, her works are infused with Christian thought and theological meditations. She trusts her readers to know and care about the contents of the Bible, the doctrines of the church, and the distinctive views of the major denominations.
This latest novel is centered on the romantic relationship between Jack, a white man from Iowa, and Della, an African American high school teacher from Tennessee, which blossomed when they were both living in St. Louis. The precise year is not identified, but my historical detective work suggests 1954. In other words, the novel is set in a time and place in which interracial marriage was illegal and segregation was the norm.
In the previous novels, readers learned a lot about Jack through the eyes of characters he had disappointed, notably his father and sister, and his namesake, the Reverend John Ames. Jack’s chief offense was impregnating an impoverished, underage girl and then callously abandoning her and their child. He skips town and leaves his distraught family—not least his Presbyterian minister father—to figure out how to make some amends.
That episode revealed a gross weakness of character. Arguably more rattling still was the fact of Jack’s chronic malicious streak. He would steal things of no use to him just because they held sentimental value for their owners. He would destroy things he happened upon just because he could.
Poignantly, we learn in this novel that Jack is just as bewildered by his behavior as everyone else. He can’t explain his actions even to himself—and he grasps how frightening they are. He felt these deeds as a “compulsion”—somehow, he knew he was going to do mischief. Robinson does not psychologize this, but there are moments when it seems like obsessive-compulsive disorder or something similar might be a factor. At one point in the story, Jack walks to a church building with the notion of touching it and thereby absorbing its solidity. When he arrives, someone he knows is standing there, unwittingly barring him from undertaking this private ritual. As he chats with the man, Jack can’t shake the inner turbulence of having the ritual interrupted.
Robinson’s real interest, however, is not psychological but theological. Jack knows himself to be a wretched man. The good he ought to do he does not do, and the evil he knows he shouldn’t do he ends up doing anyway. The reader is relieved that Jack is looking for a way out. When Della meets him, he is already pursuing a life of determined harmlessness. He has become a kind of utilitarian saint, following John Stuart Mill’s dictum of being free to do anything as long as it does not harm others.
Jack, however, is not a true saint. He is not doing anyone any good, and he is indulging in a lot of self-abuse. Moreover, as Scripture reminds us, it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18). A central tension of the novel is Jack’s moral dilemma: Should he embrace love and thus move beyond his self-contained, self-destructive life? Or is staying away from Della—thereby ensuring he does not cause her harm—truly the most good and Christian course?
One tragic aspect of the whole situation is the tragedy of America. In contrast to the callous relationship in Gilead that so marred his reputation, Jack’s behavior toward Della is utterly pure, even chivalrous. Yet because their relationship is interracial, everyone around them sees it as shameful and discreditable. The one time in his life when Jack is behaving honorably, he is judged dishonorable; he is at last being respectable, but a racist, sinful, toxic society condemns his actions as disrespectable.
Della and Jack fantasize about re-creating society from scratch, writing the rules as they see fit. Revealingly, even for Jack, this is an imagined chance to escape the injustices of segregation but not the demands of Christian discipleship. They decide against abolishing the category of “sin” in their brave new world, reasoning that the potential to do harm will still exist. Endearingly, they even commit to remembering the Sabbath. Not only is it “pretty hard to forget,” but as Jack reflects: “Closing the world down once a week to frustrate some percentage of bad impulses was Moses’ best gift to humankind.”
There can be no exit into nihilism. But, Jack muses, what if it were clearly, unequivocally revealed that life has no meaning? Della has her retort ready: “Meaninglessness would come as a terrible blow to most people. It would be full of significance for them. So it wouldn’t be meaningless. That’s where I always end up. Once you ask if there is meaning, the only answer is yes.”
Moreover, the guarantor of meaning is Jesus Christ. As Della observes, “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.” Jesus, therefore, is another prominent character in this narrative. Jack evokes his name incessantly, including in his internal monologues. Sometimes it can sound like an expletive, but on other occasions it is readily discernible as a prayer: “Dear Jesus, keep me harmless.”
When city officials devise a development scheme that involves demolishing the black neighborhood, Jack fantasizes about rescuing the large portrait of Christ’s ascension in the black Baptist church he has been attending. He would take it back to his tiny, dingy, one-room lodging. He imagines Christ filling his dwelling place.
On the piano in her house, Della has pictures of her family and, among them, a portrait of Jesus. We eventually learn that Della’s father—an African Methodist Episcopal bishop—has the same picture on his desk, as does Jack’s father. Are they not then already blood relations—part of the same family? In Della’s display, the picture of Jesus is the only one in color. Does he then offer a way to free us from our black-and-white binary?
Grace Upon Grace
Unchristian, unjust, and socially constructed though it is, that binary is nevertheless brutally real. Jack and Della cannot sit next to each other on a bus when they travel “together”; they cautiously face away from each other when they sit talking on a park bench.
Early on, Jack compliments Della: “You’re very sure of yourself. At ease in your own skin.” To which she can only reply, “You actually said that.” When she prods him to reform his life, Jack retorts, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Can the leopard change his spots?” Robinson counts on the reader to feel the haunting resonance of the unspoken first part of that biblical quotation: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin?” (Jer. 13:23).
Another way their relationship is “mixed” is that Della is a Methodist and—doubter and flagrant sinner though he is—Jack is very much a Presbyterian. When Della airs her doubts about predestination to reassure Jack that he isn’t doomed, he remains unmoved: “Destiny,” he replies, “has made you a Methodist.” Jack can even give a defense of the Reformed faith that would make his father proud: “It’s all pretty straightforward. Salvation by grace alone. It just begins earlier for us than for other people. In the deep womb of time, in fact. By His secret will and purpose.”
And so we reach the doctrines of grace, for this is a book about grace, and Marilynne Robinson is a theologian of grace. Della’s sister dismisses her interracial relationship as a “disgrace,” but the reader, thank God, doesn’t believe it. It’s not too great a spoiler to reveal that the novel’s last word is literally “grace.” At his birth, Jack was christened “John,” a name that means “the Lord is gracious” or “graced by the Lord.” And the reader, like Jack’s father, is allowed to hope that in Jack’s beginning is his end. Grace upon grace.
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He is the co-editor of Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson.
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