On community, faith, & Marilynne Robinson

LilaTwo days ago, I stumbled across Alan Jacbos’s latest essay: “The Watchmen,” published at Harper’s. In a nutshell, it laments evangelicals’ disengagement from secular society, their climb into solitary towers of faith, and suggests that if we intend to have a true countercultural impact, we need to be willing to participate in the larger culture.

Jacobs make some interesting points, and I am looking forward to reading the responses from other intellectuals of faith. In this post, I want to nitpick: Jacobs insists towards the end of his essay that America’s current strongest believing writer, Marilynne Robinson, espouses an individualistic faith, one that contemplates the inner self rather than engaging with the community:

It is noteworthy how consistently inward and solitary the faith of the characters in Robinson’s novels is, including that of her most compelling creation, the elderly pastor John Ames in Gilead. The community of church is not a strong element in these people’s lives; they tend not to speak for anyone or anything more than themselves, and the conversations that they have about faith are mostly internal.

This is simply not true.

On the one hand, it is true that Robinson’s characters face conflicts which are nearly entirely internal: in Gilead, jealousy and suspicion of a black sheep returned to the community; in Home, a mistrust in God’s faithfulness and goodness in the face of family troubles.

Yet ultimately, the characters consistently come to terms with their conflicts through community. Only through community, in Robinson’s fiction, is redemption found.

This is most striking in comparing Robinson’s bookend novels: her first, Housekeeping, and her last, Lila. 

In Housekeeping, the central character grows up in a community where she never feels at home. With her mother dead, and her younger sister ever more estranged from her, Ruthie comes to identify with her vagabond aunt, Sylvie. The closer she grows to Sylvie, the further she grows from anything resembling an ordinary community life. She stops attending school, she stops speaking with the neighbours, she stops eating normal meals and keeping a normal house; magazines pile up across the kitchen table.

Although Ruthie and Sylvie flirt with the idea of participating in community rituals, as a way to prove that their family is sound and prevent the town from taking Ruthie away, they reject these ideas as too burdensome. Ruthie imagines “trudg[ing] to church through the snow in pillbox hats”, the verb indicating this is a difficult responsibility taken up unwillingly. Ruthie adds, “Those days [Sylvie] cast about constantly for ways to conform our lives to the expectation of others, or to what she guessed their expectations might be.”

To live in community, Ruthie implies, is to suppress individuality in pursuit of an identity which is always shifting. Not only are they required to “conform” to others’ expectations, they are not even sure what those expectations are, leaving them constantly changing, Proteus-like, in an effort to make themselves presentable to the little town where they live. In a novel published on the cusp of modernity, where individual identity and self-expression are inviolate, such life is unendurable.

Yet Ruthie is an unreliable narrator, her portrayal of community life not to be trusted. Certainly the life she takes up upon leaving town is no improvement. She and Sylvie burn down the family house, with all its heirlooms , and walk away from town in the middle of the night, crossing a high train trestle above the frozen lake where Ruthie’s mother committed suicide fifteen years previously. “We are drifters,” Ruthie tells the reader, adding that “once you have set your foot in that path, it is hard to imagine another one.”

Indeed, Ruthie’s life is barely human. Though from time to time she works in a local diner or truck stop, she does not drink the coffee or eat the food, asking “What have I to do with these ceremonies of sustenance, of nurturing?”

Rootless and drifting, Ruthie becomes a ghost upon her flight from community; the end of the novel is a kind of negative redemption, in which Ruthie finds herself, yes, but that self turns out to be empty and unmoored.

Contrast this with Lila. 

There, the main character starts the novel as a drifter. Born into an unloving family, she is stolen away by a woman named Doll. Doll saves her life, but she also brings Lila along when she joins a group of roaming sharecroppers. Lila does not attend school, does not have anything resembling an ordinary childhood; like Ruthie at the end of Housekeeping, she lives outside community norms.

Yet Lila moves in the opposite direction of Housekeeping, in that Lila is drawn away from her wanderings into community. Her entry into Gilead is a clear break with this kind of life: “She was there in Gilead,” the novel notes, “because once when she was walking along the road, probably hoping to get to Sioux City, tired of walking, tired of carrying her suitcase and her bedroll, she had noticed a little house sitting a way off by a cluster of cottonwood tress.” It is significant that her weariness with the vagabond life is what ties her to Gilead in the first place; the fact that she is “tired of walking” and “of carrying her suitcase and her bedroll” suggests the shortcomings of a life lived alone, of supporting oneself. Where Ruthie chooses a life of individuality, Lila finds too much individuality a burden.

And there in Gilead, Lila finds redemption. She lives outside the town for a while, then marries the preacher John Ames and has a son with him. While she imagines returning to her wanderings when Ames dies (he is older than she is), the truth is that she finds contendedness in abiding within the community, and its norms. “She could make a pretty good meat loaf now and a decent potato salad,” the novel notes; she takes joy in “this time, this waking up when the baby started fussing, this scrambling eggs and buttering toast in the new light of any day at all, geraniums in the windows, the old man with his doddering infant in his lap, propped against his arm, reading him the funny papers.”

Lila ultimately chooses a self shaped in obedience to community standards, the standards that she have a husband and child, that she be a tolerable cook. Yet unlike Ruthie, she finds pleasure in this version of herself; the imagery of bright morning light in this passage conveys that in submitting to communal norms, she has found pleasure, even grace. 

Of all the images, I find the garden most compelling. You cannot have a garden if you are perpetually on the move. I grow potted petunias every summer, yet even visiting with my family for a week threatens these; it is hard to keep them alive. That Lila is growing bright red geraniums suggests that she, like the flowers, is growing in a single place, the town of Gilead. Moreover, plants are associated with new life; consider Jesus’s parables of the seed falling into the ground and dying. Thus, Lila’s flowers work as a double metaphor, implying not only that she has learned to dwell in a community and be happy there, but also that the community has prompted a spiritual rebirth in her.

It is true that all of Robinson’s characters are introverts. Probably this is part of the reason that I, as an introvert, so enjoy her writing.

Yet it is not true, as Jacobs writes, that their faith is an altogether solitary thing. In reality, when one considers Robinson’s larger body of work, it is in community that we find redemption. To leave a community, she suggests, is to fall away from life. To come into a community is to come into grace. 

Indeed, as Lila’s cookery and gardening suggests, to experience grace it is important that we be willing to participate in community life. As we take up its everyday, ordinary burdens and responsibilities, Robinson implies, we find divine blessing.

So why does any of this matter? After all, Robinson’s novels are only an example in Jacobs’s larger essay; why bother correcting his interpretation?

For two reasons:

One, because Robinson’s portrayal of community has been encouraging to me, I hate to see it misrepresented. I want to correct the record. Robinson’s novels are populated with introverts, true, but they are introverts who find grace through community.

Two, and more seriously, Jacobs laments Robinson’s refusal to portray redemptive community as part of his larger point, that evangelicals decline to participate in secular culture as secular culture declines to appreciate evangelical community. He laments that characters do not have “conversations of faith,” nor do they engage in “church communities.” Perhaps this is unintentional, yet Jacob’s word choice here conveys to me the standard view of church community: a place defined by the four walls of the church building, and largely limited to the activities that happen, or at least originate, within those walls. To participate in church community is to attend Wednesday night Bible study and to serve at AWANA. It’s more important to host a prayer meeting than simply invite a few friends over for dinner.

Robinson’s novel Lila does not picture this flagrantly churchy kind of community, of course. Her community is much broader, encompassing not only the life of a particular church but the life of the home as well. But it is in that broader community life that Lila finds grace, and likewise, it is in a broad community life that we too will find grace, and that we will, as Jacobs desires, speak to our culture. 

I am in sympathy with Jacobs’s broader point, that we believers need to participate in culture in order to impact our community. Yet too often that participation is defined as either strictly religious, such as church Bible studies, or sweeping and dramatic, such as publishing a new book or leading a National Prayer Breakfast.

Robinson reminds us that real community impact need not be so dramatic, that if we never publish a book nor lead thousands of people to Christ, if we only cook and raise our families and love others, we can partake of grace, and share it with others.

 

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