2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature Awards

Christianity and Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature Awards


Each year the Conference on Christianity and Literature recognizes literary achievement in the form of awards presented for lifetime achievement, best book in the field, and the Lionel Basney Award for best article published in Christianity and Literature. The winners of the 2008 awards are presented here along with the text of the citations delivered with each award. The awards were presented December 29, 2008, at the annual CCL luncheon in San Francisco during the Modern Language association convention.

Lifetime Achievement Award

Marilynne Robinson

The lifetime achievement award is presented to an individual chosen by the CCL executive board as one who has enriched the understanding of the relationship of Christianity and literature and contributed significantly to the dialogue among Christian scholars and between Christian scholars and the secular community of professionals. The following remarks were made by CCL President John D. Cox of Hope College on the presentation of the award to Marilynne Robinson.

In the preface C. S. Lewis wrote to a new edition of Screwtape Letters in 1961, he regretted that he had not written a companion to one of his most popular books. Instead of letters from a senior devil to a junior one, detailing the psychology of temptation, spiritual distraction, and moral self-deception, the book Lewis says he should have written would have been a series of letters from an archangel to a guardian angel, detailing the angelic support of faith, the counsel of charity, and the encouragement of hope. He did not write the book, Lewis says, because the task of doing so is beyond human capacity. The spiritual heights are too high, he says, even if a writer could find what Lewis calls an "answering style." The phrase about style is Milton's, of course, in reference to his daring to imagine heaven, as Dante had before him. "Mere advice would be no good," Lewis says of the book he never wrote, "every sentence would have to smell of heaven."

I thought of Lewis's comment when I read Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead, four years ago, and I have thought about it as I reread Housekeeping from 1983 and Home, published just this year. Robinson wisely does not try to write about heaven, any more than Lewis did, but her sentences sometimes smell of it, as in that remarkable scene in Gilead when John Ames recalls his glimpse of the child Jack Boughton had seduced and abandoned to poverty, playing with her baby in the shallows of a river:

   After a while the baby cupped her hands and poured water on her
   mother's arm and laughed, so her mother cupped her hands and poured
   water on the baby's belly, and the baby laughed and threw water on
   her mother with both hands, and the little girl threw water back,
   enough so that the baby whimpered, and the little girl said, "Now
   don't you go crying! What do you expect when you act like that?"
   And she put her arms around her and settled her into her lap,
   kneeling there in the water, and set about repairing the dam with
   her free hand. The baby made a conversational sound and her mother
   said, "That's a leaf. A leaf off a tree. Leaf," and gave it into
   the baby's hand. And the sun was shining as well as it could into
   that shadowy river, a good part of the shine being caught in the
   trees. And the cicadas were chanting, and the willows were
   straggling their tresses in the water, and the cottonwood and the
   ash were making that late summer hush, that susurrus.

   After a while we went on back to the car and came home. Glory said,
   "I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one."

Though Marilynne Robinson does not write about heaven, she consistently writes about goodness--one of the greatest challenges for a writer in a postmodern world--and she does it, remarkably, without sentimentality--the easiest trap for a writer about goodness to fall into. In Housekeeping and Gilead, goodness is often accompanied by the imagery of light, as in the passage I just read. …

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