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Stealing Past the DragonsStealing Past the Dragons

Stealing Past the Dragons

Marilynne Robinson is a 21st century successor to Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis, with less shouting and fantasy.

Doug Sikkema
8 minute read

Almost no two writers of the 20th century quite captivate the Christian imagination the way Flannery O'Connor and C.S. Lewis do. Almost. I know the century gave us—if centuries really can give such things—the inimitable riches of Tolkien's Middle Earth, the seemingly inspired depths of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and even Annie Dillard's quietly stunning ruminations on Tinker Creek. And, of course, it gave us much, much more: Greene, Waugh, Updike, Auden, Sayers, Bonhoeffer, Barth, Niebuhr… The list goes on and on. But the enduring importance of Lewis and O'Connor was their self conscious mandate to reawaken many to the niggling fact that God was still alive in a century echoing with his death knell.

There's something wonderful and terrifying about Flannery O'Connor's God, who in a typical O'Connor story will violently enter the human experience wielding grace like a sword. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," God's grace is the business end of the Misfit's pistol as it finally draws an old Southern belle into her first authentic encounter with her Maker. After taking her from the world, the Misfit acknowledges that this lady—and most of us, I'd imagine—could be good "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." In "Revelation," God's grace is a thick textbook on human development flung by Mary Grace, a girl filled with some knowledge and lots of rage, smack dab into the face of the unsuspecting Mrs. Turpin, a genteel "lady" who knows her privileged status and lets others know it, too. Bloodied and on the floor, Mrs. Turpin isn't allowed to get up until Mary Grace quietly delivers a message from another world: "Go back to Hell where you came from, you old warthog." Mrs. Turpin is obviously shaken to the core by this—who wouldn't be?—but it's also a chance for redemption.

God's grace, intimately tied to redemption, is what writing is all about for O'Connor. She believed that writers and readers of fiction want the "redemptive act that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored." The difficulty, though, was that the average 20th century reader had thrown both God and evil from the picture and, therefore, had likely "forgotten the price of restoration." In O'Connor's fiction, God is always on the move, ready to redeem. But it's no gentle spring breeze that signals His coming. It's a punch to the gut.

When asked why her work so frequently figured such grotesque caricatures of good and evil, O'Connor argued, "While the South is hardly Christ-centred, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God." In other words, if you want to reach people whose God is not quite dead, sometimes you've got to shout.

Now, O'Connor was writing from a very specific region, in a very specific time, so I don't want to overstep the probable regarding what her work might say about the role of Christian writing in the 20th century. However, O'Connor's method of writing —a method meant to unsettle Christians more often than to embrace them—was imbued with the broader ideological, religious and social currents that circumscribed her region.

C.S. Lewis, writing in the same century, albeit from across the pond, ran into something similar. Although a renowned medievalist, essayist and apologist for Christianity, perhaps Lewis' most enduring legacy will be the slim volumes of the Narnia Chronicles, which he wrote rather late in his career, much to the chagrin of his more serious Oxford and Cambridge peers. In explaining why he left more highbrow literary forms in order to pen a series of children's books, Lewis wrote:

"I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency. Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could."

Most children who've experienced the movement of Aslan or the sting of the White Witch's cruel hypocrisy or, in perhaps the most poignant moment in all the books, the roughly clawed grace that rips the scales from Eustace Scrubb's back, transforming him from a dragon back to a son of Adam, have a small inkling of Lewis' success in stealing past the watchful dragons that guard a child's imagination in a secular age. Even though they might not yet articulate it, children who have entered Narnia are given the chance to experience the whole cosmic sweep of redemptive history—creation, fall, restoration— in all its potency.

But again, both Lewis and O'Connor realized that they wrote as ones with their backs against the wall. They were on the margins of a much larger culture growing increasingly hostile to religion in its traditional forms. O'Connor shouted and Lewis turned to fantasy. It's interesting to think what a shift the 20th century brought from the confidence of a Dante or a Milton with their Christian epics. Theirs were the ages of worship in cathedrals, ours the age of worship in repurposed retail outlets. And there is a connection here, I believe. The difference in ages is not in the worship—God will be worshipped regardless— but in the form of worship the age allows.

It's why today the popularity of Marilynne Robinson is perhaps shocking but also perhaps a sign of a seismic shift in the direction our postmodern, post-secular age is moving. Against the odds, perceived or otherwise, Robinson has come along and written Gilead, a stunning novel that not only deals with the finer points of Calvinist theology but that also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. The novel is an extended letter of blessing from a dying pastor, John Ames, to his young son Robert. And if you're surprised to read a novel that treats predestination without irony and snark, so was I. But don't be deceived by the general tameness of Robinson's prose; in the 21st century, a novel like Gilead is really a rather bold move. Who is going to read, let alone take seriously, several hundred pages where every discussion of life, nature and relationship is filtered through the lens of a rather narrow sect of Reformed Christianity?

Since the success of the novel, Robinson has expanded her treatment of the small Iowa town of Gilead with the publication of Home and Lila. Although the narrative voice is relocated in each novel, Robinson continues to explore the quiet strength of belief, the difficult beauty of forgiveness, and the wild and unpredictable intrusion of grace into the mundane rituals of family life. But again, in a world that by all accounts wants less and less to do with any of this sort of thing, or so we imagine, how does Robinson get away with it?

Well, one suggestion is that perhaps the reports of God's death have been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps, stirring below the hard, brittle shell of the secular Western culture we so crudely imagine, there are real people—many of them—with deep yearnings for truth, grace, forgiveness, peace, beauty, an experience of unconditional love, goodness, a life that might even go beyond this one and, perhaps, a name to put on that mysterious "something" lurking at the edges of all they know or think they do.

What marks a sea change with the current rise of Marilynne Robinson is that we have a writer who's decidedly not shouting like O'Connor with her grotesque depictions of good and evil or moving into the fantastic like Lewis and his Inklings. Robinson's narrative voice is measured and calm and approaches even the most difficult puzzles of human experience with a confidence void of any fears and insecurities. This narrative voice has attracted so many possibly because its confidence is never proud and its humility is never timid. Pastor Ames, like his good friend Pastor Boughton, is always conceding to the limits of his thought, of his words, of his senses, and even of his ability to love others. Their voices are decidedly not the vitriolic sermonizations from 21st century preachers such as Richard Dawkins.

For Robinson, God's grace is not the earthshaking entry of weighted glory into the world that is as terrifying as it is awesome; rather, God's glory can be found everywhere, charged in the mundane. It's in the rays of light received and given by the moon, it's in the ability of a father to forgive a child, and it's in the simple care it takes to keep a home. Robinson's Gilead trilogy doesn't seem to want us to demand a miracle if we're incapable of seeing that the very fact of our existence, and our emplacement within families and communities in which we get to enact small graces every hour, is miracle enough. If we can't see that, then no talking lion or Misfit will get us to see it either.

But perhaps what is most shocking about Robinson's success is our own shock at her success. Perhaps we've become so convinced that the faith is marginalized, and that we've been reduced to taking what we can from our ghetto, that we've forgotten in the long history of mankind that thinking intelligently while believing in God has been the rule, not the exception.

Depending a lot upon the writing of John Calvin, Robinson has stated several times in interviews that one of her favourite insights from the reformer was that he saw every encounter between humans as one of the greatest gifts from God. Two humans— two of the most complex and mysterious things yet known in the universe—are able to come together and commune. They can talk, they can love, they can hurt each other, and they can forgive. It's something so common that we often fail to remember that even this, like our own bodies, has been freely given. That is, it's a miraculous act of grace.

Reading Robinson—and all the other writers I've mentioned, in addition to all the non-Christian writers I haven't—is, similarly, an encounter. It is a gift charged with grace. In her fiction, you come across a beautiful mind that challenges you to find blessing in solitude, to tend your own life with seriousness and joy and, perhaps above all, to seek the "resurrection of the ordinary." Because if we desire our writers to be the prophets who might usher in hail and brimstone, or walk on water, or rise from the dead—that is, to be the voices of the miraculous in a secular age—perhaps we'll fail to see God's presence in a sister's loyalty to a brother, or a father's love for an estranged child, or even in the simple, reluctant utterance of "I'm sorry." As Robinson has stated, if there is one thing the Bible shows us, it is the real audacity of God to trust that His plans will be enacted and embodied by His image-bearing creatures. Maybe Robinson's calm, clear stories of such mundane familial and community relationships signal hope that more than we even imagined are willing to see such small acts of truth, goodness and beauty as a participation in a divinity they are no longer so hostile to believing. Robinson's work is perhaps one hopeful sign that the dragons guarding the 21st century perception of sacred just might be starting to let down their guard.

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