Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (October 6, 2015)
Paperback: 272 pages
The climactic scene in the novel Lila is a baptism. But not an ordinary one.
In it, John Ames, an elderly pastor, watches as his young wife gives birth to his son. This is not his firstborn; his first wife had died in childbirth many years ago, taking the baby with her. Ames watches in anticipation, but also fear—fear that God might send him more that he can bear. That the past might repeat itself.
Outside it is snowing, and Ames catches some sparkling snow in a bowl, taking it inside to melt. It is meant to christen the baby, if he should die at birth. “If the child came struggling into the world, that water would be ready for him. If it had to be his only blessing, then it would be a pure and lovely blessing. That was the old man getting ready to make the best of the worst that could happen. Not my will but Thine.”
The baby is born: weak, scrawny—and lifeless. The house is silent, and Ames brings the bowl of water upstairs and sits down by his child to read the Bible. Finally, he stops, overwhelmed with grief, and reaches for his handkerchief. But as he does so, he knocks the bowl over, and the baptismal water spills onto the baby’s head. At the shock, the baby wakes, and cries. The water quite literally brings the child back to life. All at once, the underlying theme of the novel is revealed: the powerful, miraculous grace of God.
Lila tells the story of a young woman, Lila Dahl—of her abandonment at birth, her wild upbringing among vagrants, and her eventual arrival in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, where she begins a relationship with the gentle pastor who would one day become her husband. It is a story of grace – divine and human – and of unconditional love.
Yet despite such a strong gospel message, not everyone loved Robinson’s latest novel. Theologian John Piper took issue with one particular passage, where Ames tells his wife: “Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin…You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that.”
Piper, who had previously praised the book, ultimately dismissed it, saying that he felt like he had been betrayed by the fictional pastor’s alleged disavowal of a traditional doctrine of hell.
But does this critique sufficiently grasp what Robinson is trying to say in Lila? Or do other passages of the novel disclose something deeper and more interesting about divine grace, the meaning of baptism, and the allegory of God’s faithful love in the characters of John Ames and Lila Dahl?
The overarching plot of Lila can be seen as a metaphor for baptism. It tells the story of an outcast, who is initiated into a community of acceptance and unconditional love. And fittingly, baptismal imagery permeates the book from start to finish. The novel opens with the child Lila rescued from abandonment by Doll, the woman who becomes a mother to her. The first thing Doll does with the girl is to cleanse Lila, by pouring water over her head. When Lila later recalls that event, she feels that she had been “born a second time” that night.
In another scene, Lila happens upon a river where people are being baptized, one of the women with her, Mellie, accidentally falls in, and she checks her afterwards to see if she seems different, having been “saved.” At the time, Lila wonders what it would be like, to be pronounced “clean and acceptable”—even only for a few hours.
Then there is the achingly beautiful scene in which the Reverend proposes to Lila. Lila, however, feels inadequate: how can she stand in the front of a church to be married, when she’s too afraid to even be baptized? She doesn’t want people to look at her. So Ames offers instead to baptize her then and there—with a basin of water from the river. He gathers some sunflowers, and recites the words of the sacrament. At the touch of his hand three times on her hair, Lila cries.
All of these scenes point to the power of grace, as seen through baptism. And it is a grace from which one cannot escape. At one point in the novel, Lila begins to think she might run away, that she is not suited for this life. In desperation, she even attempts to wash her baptism off in the river. Later, she asks Ames about the permanence of the sacrament. “Baptism is what I’d call a fact,” the Reverend says. Lila considers this, and then replies, “Because you can’t just wash it off.”
This irresistible, unremitting grace of God shines through Robinson’s deft use of her protagonists. Besides being vivid, intensely human characters, Ames and Lila also operate as an allegory of God and the human soul. Lila is constantly resistant to Ames’ love. Like the narrator in Herbert’s powerful poem, she always “draws back, guilty of dust and sin.” Yet through it all, Ames loves her unceasingly, without hesitation. And despite all her struggling and rebellion and fear, his love wins her to himself, and eventually also to the God he loves so much.
The novel can be seen as a Hosea parable, in which Ames takes in Lila, the wanderer and foundling, and transforms her by his love. As Lila struggles to understand the Bible, she comes back again and again to the passage in Ezekiel, where God says, “I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood.” Lila eventually comes to realize that this forsaken child is her. She, too, has been pitied and brought back into new life. She, too, has been granted a grace beyond anything earned or expected.
In interviews, author Marilynne Robinson has often spoken of her admiration of John Calvin. Peter Leithart writes that her novel Home is, “among many other things, a literary meditation on reprobation, a doctrine that Robinson has been careful to get right.” He goes on to describe one of her essays, in which she notes that Calvin believes that “we are lost or saved as God wills and our destiny has always been known to him.” And that in this, Calvin refuses “to allow any limit to the power or knowledge of God, or to the efficacy of his grace.”
This idea is the gospel thread running straight through Lila—the grace of God is beyond what we can hope or imagine. This is not a story attempting to disprove reprobation; that is simply not the focus. Home may have been about reprobation, but Lila is about grace, a grace so powerful that even Lila cannot resist it.
I recently had the privilege of attending a lecture that Robinson gave on the east coast. In it, she made the point that characters must be “human and free”—that they should not be used to demonstrate a type, or to make a point. Afterwards, someone asked her why it was that her characters still seemed to stand for something greater than themselves.
“Because all people do stand for something greater than themselves,” she replied.
This ability to create characters who are simultaneously so real that one might meet them on the street, and yet who are also allegories of something greater, makes Robinson’s writing incomparable. Her novels are written with such careful beauty that, as Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote, one feels “touched with grace” just to read them.
There are rumors that a fourth Gilead novel is in the works. I, for one, can hardly wait to see what stories Robinson has yet to tell, and in what startling new ways she portrays the irresistible grace of God.
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Marilynne Robinson came to Dordt’s campus a number of years ago and I too was amazed by what she said. I have only read Gilead but might read others by this child of God. Thanks for your thoughts and words.
Thank you for this fine review, Kate. I have come to think of Rev. John Ames almost as a friend since I first read Gilead. I think I’m going to spend some time with him again by re-reading Lila.