Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Toward a Dialogue on Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Toward a Dialogue on Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Home

Article excerpt

A long-time faculty member of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Marilynne Robinson has been recognized widely and consistently for the quality of her fiction: Housekeeping (1980) won the Hemingway/PEN award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer; Gilead (2004) was awarded the Pulitzer as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Home (2007) was a National Book Award finalist and winner of Britain's Orange Prize. In 1987 Robinson's first novel also was made into a film directed by Bill Forsythe, starring Christine Lahti. Three non-fiction works, Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), and the forthcoming Absence of Mind (scheduled for release in 2010) develop arguments on a wide range of topics from evolutionary theory to nuclear pollution to John Calvin. As Michael Dirda testifies in his review of Gilead, one rereads Robinson's sentences "sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth." Moreover, Robinson's courage in confronting contemporary culture in a fresh and unabashedly Christian way draws her readers, reviewers, and scholars into dialogue. Dirda touches on the religious dimension of her prose: "It is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it" Robinson's stories and characters not only delight and instruct but also deeply move us on matters of Christian faith.

Perhaps James Wood best articulates the context in which Robinson's writing sounds the chords of American faith:

Gilead is a beautiful work--demanding, grave and lucid--and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness that sometimes recalls George Herbert (who is alluded to several times, along with John Donne) and sometimes the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville. ("Acts of Devotion")

To say that we are surprised by the ways in which faith is treated in her narratives is to register our joy at having found in them a voice that echoes such authors yet remains fresh in a time characterized by cynicism, one of Robinson's favorite targets (Robinson). Her achievement has led the Board of the Conference on Christianity and Literature to award Robinson the CCL 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Editors of this journal to devote this special issue of Christianity and Literature to scholarly considerations of her work (Cox).

In this issue, Robinson's skill in the essay is apparent in her contribution, "Wondrous Love." Here, Robinson urges us to consider our responses to the present cultural moment and reminds us to have faith in narrative, to redouble our confidence in it by avoiding "tribalism, resentment, and fear?' As readers also know from reading her nonfiction and essays in Harpers, to name but one of her favorite venues, a Robinson essay is to be savored for the rigor of its argument and the beauty of its textures. As always in her essays, she lucidly revises our understanding of significant texts we should read or re-read, and urges us to resist the conventional. "Wondrous Love" is no exception and has, among other things, sent me back to my hymnal with renewed appreciation. She urges us to cherish hymn narratives and find the mysteries of our faith anew through them. Robinson argues that like "musical notation" a narrative also "establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means." By asking us why we are fearful, she urges us to eschew the "narrative of decline" and to embrace a more meaningful "narrative of origins."

The scholars in this special journal issue focus mainly on Gilead and Home as we wrestle with two best-selling novels that have engaged readers and reviewers in a vibrant conversation over the past several years. In Gilead, readers meet minister John Ames as he writes to the young son of his old age. …

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