Saturday, August 9, 2008

‘Home’ and the Imperishable Inheritance of Grace

"Maybe this Robert will come back someday…What of Jack will there be in him?”

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I used the word ‘imperishable’ here in this title because it is the word that most embodies the splendor and incorruptible eternality of our inheritance in Christ’s standing and also the rewards that are made possible by Christ’s great repute. However, for this novel it would have been just as fair of me to use the word “irresistible” and to good effect. That is the question here isn’t it? Can an inheritance of grace be resisted?

It would be true to say that this novel is a work that takes its aim at a profligate son, a prodigal. But where does Christ’s story of the prodigal son get its start? The story that Christ read as a young man, the story that set down roots in His heart is the story of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the father of Jacob and of Esau.

This novel “Home” is a story about inheritance, and how the claim inheritance makes on its benefactor can survive and be carried out in weakness. In the same way, the promises of God were carried down through the life of Jacob, the deceiver.

“Jacob was a quite man, dwelling in tents,” -Genesis 25:27b

"Jack had run a length of clothesline from beam to beam and thrown a tarp over it to make a low tent in the angle of the floor and roof…a soul that had improvised this crude tabernacle to stand in the place of other shelter…” –Marilynne Robinson, ‘Home’

Just as the Reverend Boughton would often pull Jack in close to get a good look at him, so did Isaac reach out to touch his sons. When Isaac's vision became “dim” as scripture puts it, he carried out his blessing by touching his son and, in that way, confirming on him his grace. So many times through out the novel Reverend Boughton longs to see Jack but can’t. “Is Jack here? I hope you find him, because it seems like I never even get a clear look at him,” He is the only child who truly had the Reverend's inheritance, and at the same time, the only child whom the Reverend could never completely see in order to bestow his blessing. This is why the reverend has no peace, because, although he has many children, he has not given his blessing to the one he intended to have it.

At the end of the novel we learn that the inheritance was given, and received. The young Robert receives the framed picture of the river and, like a fissure in a mountain, the line of grace runs back up through the entire novel, introducing and superimposing itself on every scene that felt deprived of it. Although the salvation moment happens off stage, it is made incarnate here in Jack’s son. Just as Jacob wrestled with God and was full of deceit, his true inheritance and election was made certain because he fathered the nations, and this is why the Lord is wonderful.

The lord is wonderful because even after the metal is cast, and the form is cooled, and there seems to be no hope, only an empty expectation to receive back from the mold that shape that was always cast into it, out comes something full of redemption and grace.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Lord is Wonderful: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Home

“The Lord is Wonderful”, is the closing line of Home. Robinson’s third novel continues to unwrap the depth and complexity of human life in Gilead, Iowa. Home is a followup to Gilead, but not a sequel, prequel, but the same stories told from a different house. Their relationship is not unlike that of the four Gospels in the Bible. Giving unity in setting and characters, diversity in form and content and both creating an overwhelming artistic complexity and beauty.

and Home have much in common, namely, the Boughton’s and the Ames’s and the shining star of radicalism: Gilead, Iowa. In Gilead readers were invited to read the memoirs and letters of 76 year old Rev. John Ames as he dies of angina pectoris, a failing heart, writing to his 6 year old son Robby (whose name we learn in Home). The reader becomes fully acquainted with the Boughtons in Gilead, particularly John Ames’s fabled namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton and his sister Glory. Home puts Jack and Glory to the foreground and leaves John Ames a shadowy figure. Robinson’s characters evoke a kind of gestural stroke like the paintings of Rembrandt, the interaction of the characters is greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the psychology of human interaction something very different from Gilead is given in Home, Robinson weds form and content in electing a unique third person POV. However, the POV in Home is not omniscient, but rather is cinematic. By not giving the us the privilege of knowing the intentions and thoughts of her characters, Robinson leaves us to grapple with the complexity of humanity found in the relationships of Jack and Glory. Following Jack or Glory around could have been interesting, but in Home Robinson gives reflections on the mystery of the family, and God’s providence in it. Where Gilead gave pastoral and theological reflection, Home explores familial and relational bonds.

Thematically there is perhaps one dominant motif, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jack certainly is the Prodigal who returns and Glory the elder brother, yet Robinson shows something much more profound and real than how that story is typically treated. There is much Scripture in Home, though not to the same degree as Gilead, however, what Robinson does in the final pages of Home is nothing less than a reflection on how wonderful the Lord is. Throughout the entire novel we follow Jack and Glory as they eke out their time in Gilead waiting and watching for some glimpse of grace. Reflection is too narrow, what Robinson gives us is a dramatization of wonderfulness of the Lord. If this sounds too pious and mawkish for a Pulitzer prize winner, one must read it for themself to test her maxim “if you can pull it off, you can do it”. This kind of description admittedly makes the book sound trite and pious. Perhaps, that it is why Robinson did not just tell us the Lord is wonderful, but showed us.

In the publisher’s write up of Home, they call it Robinson’s “best work”. I agree. I think that Robinson has demonstrated her prowess as an author in Home that her other work (Housekeeping and Gilead) affirms but in Home her writing is rich with complexity, artistry, and most of all grace.