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Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson

Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson, eds.
Published by IVP Academic in 2019

Michael Vander Weele is Professor of English Emeritus at Trinity Christian College.

If you looked up this review, chances are good that you will want to read this collection of essays for yourself—unless you have not read anything by Marilynne Robinson yet, in which case do that first. When I read page 128, part of the “Space/Time/Doctrine” essay by Tiffany Eberle Kriner, I said to myself that this page was worth the price of the book. But then an essay by Rowan Williams, who I think is one of the best readers of Robinson, still lay ahead, as did the beautiful plates and accompanying essay by artist Joel Sheesley, an essay by Robinson on “The Protestant Conscience,” and not one but two interviews, the first by Wheaton professors Vincent Bacote (Theology) and Christina Bieber Lake (English) of Robinson and Williams together, and the second by Wheaton president Philip Ryken of Robinson by herself. What came before page 128 was also helpful, with some critique, considerable praise, and a consistent effort to think with, against, or into Robinson’s fiction and essays. I think many readers will make the same comment as I did, and probably about other pages.

The collection stems from the Fall 2018 Theology Conference at Wheaton College. Though Robinson says that she does not write theology, she also says that she finds a theology conference to be an entirely appropriate lens to bring to her work. I am in agreement with this, not only for an author as clearly interested in theology as Robinson is (she has also engaged with the Reformed Journal, for example) but also because literature’s substance is often recognized better in “literature and …” courses than in literature-only courses, whether the second part of the title designates theology, law, medicine, business, or still another subject. From that perspective, it was also a good challenge to see in what ways literature and theology would impinge upon each other in these essays, what choices their authors would make.

Four Theologians

The first four essays in the collection are penned by theologians Timothy Larsen, Han-luen Kantzer Komline, Timothy George, and Keith L. Johnson. (Larsen and Johnson are the book’s co-editors, a task they also took up for the 2013 volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, likewise published by IVP Academic.) Lauren Winner provides a kind of transition, through her reflection on preaching, to two essays by literary scholars (Patricia Andujo and Eberle Kriner) and then the work of Sheesley, Williams, and Robinson mentioned above, followed by the two interviews. Along the way, we hear about Wheaton College’s Abolitionist beginnings; Calvin and Robinson on election, predestination, and the imago Dei; and, implicitly at least, what Robinson’s Calvin might contribute to a contemporary Christian aesthetic. We also hear concerns about the weight given the sovereignty of God or the loveliness of God’s creation (Johnson), the authenticity of the preacher or the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (Winner), and the degree to which the Gilead novels do or do not help readers face America’s original sin of racism (Andujo).

Larsen’s opening essay, “The Theological World of the Reverend John Ames,” takes seriously Robinson’s statement that Tabor, Iowa, served as a model for her fictive Gilead, and then connects both Tabor and Robinson’s home church, the Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City, founded in 1856, to Wheaton College’s beginnings. The essay’s opening salvo seemed odd and a little off-putting to me. I have never thought myself especially interested in Wheaton’s history. But gradually I realized that I was wrong. There was good reason for Larsen’s double goal of exploring the “well-documented, real-life analog to the theological and ecclesiastical world of the Reverend John Ames” and then connecting that world to Wheaton College. Larsen writes, “the town of Gilead, John Ames, and Marilynne Robinson herself are much closer to my alma mater and employer, Wheaton College, Illinois, in terms of their particular religious, ecclesiastical, and theological convictions, identity, and ethos than most people would suppose” (7-8).

How was I persuaded to drop my crabbiness about having to read up on Wheaton’s history when what I really wanted was to deepen my understanding of Robinson’s work? In the first place, Larsen’s work is a really good example of what Betsy Ziegler, the CEO of 1871, Chicago’s high-tech incubator (the largest in the world), had called for in a talk at Trinity Christian College earlier this spring: the need to connect one’s own institutional history to a larger history. For Ziegler, this meant that a start-up should be able to tell the story of its connection to Chicago’s history. Translated forward, this advice also challenges Christian colleges to connect their history to the longer history of Christian education. Larsen does an exemplary job of this, and it has two really interesting results. First, it highlights Wheaton’s Abolitionist beginnings, one of the things that led to Wheaton’s first president giving the inaugural sermon at Marilynne Robinson’s Iowa City church back in 1856. Second, it provides a really good place from which to challenge the division between evangelical and mainline Christianity (a division found only in the Western Church, according to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in Future Faith: Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century, especially chapter 10 [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018]).

Larsen’s refusal to read Gilead in the subjunctive only produces some results that are almost as dizzying but productive as Robinson’s pyrotechnics. If this is naïve, it is a naïve sophistication that rings up interesting institutional histories of denominations, colleges, and journals, in the long century between the 1850s and 1950s, that still impinge upon us today. It also gives us some uncanny historical detail, such as the historical recovery of Reverend E. S. Ames, who as preacher of Tabor’s Congregationalist Church in 1856 may have been the namesake for the fictive John Ames’s fiery Abolitionist grandfather; or the fact that Wheaton’s first president both studied at the same seminary as John Ames’s grandfather and gave the inaugural sermon at the church where Robinson worships today.

Most important, Larsen complicates the story of neo-orthodox, neo-evangelical, and mainline Protestantism in putting fictive story and historical world side by side. This effort may owe something to Charles Taylor’s challenge to evolutionary readings of secularism. Larsen wants to show us, as the conference this book was based on perhaps suggests, that such labels give us “overlapping rather than mutually exclusive categories.” That he did so, in his conference version, with Marilynne Robinson on center stage at Wheaton College, seems especially appropriate. Crossing easily between the indicative and the subjunctive—this may be parallel to Robinson’s easy movement between different time periods—has the surprising effect of holding characters and readers to sharper account on issues of race, education, and stewardship. Though Larsen doesn’t give us much interpretation of the novels, what he does say seems deeply appropriate to me, including his parenthetical statement that “My own teasing tagline for Lila is ‘The book of Hosea meets the book of Ruth’.” (I develop the connection to Ruth in greater detail in a forthcoming article in Religion and the Arts.)

When Rowan Williams began his conference session with high praise for the paper given at an earlier morning session by Han-luen Kantzer Komline, “Heart Conditions: Gilead and Augustinian Theology,” I knew I should have been more willing to negotiate Chicago’s rush hour traffic. (She was generous enough to send me a copy afterwards.) Her essay reads, in its beginning, like a medieval index, but really seeks to name a pattern of life that fiction as well as non-fiction can illuminate. Kantzer Komline points out similarities between John Ames and Augustine (the Confessions mostly) in 1) their vocation as preachers, 2) their constancy of prayer, and 3) their work as writers. Further, in personal experience, both 1) have a “heart’s brother” (Alypius and Boughton), a beloved son (Adeodatus and Ames’s unnamed 7-year-old), and 3) a heart disease, whether a medical condition in Ames’s case or Augustine’s early declared “restless heart.” (Ames’s statement that his problem, angina pectoris, has a theological sound like misericordia gives the occasion for this comparison.) Kantzer Komline then rehearses Augustine’s four basic states of the human race in terms of the human heart:

These four conditions of the human heart—the wholeheartedness of creation, brokenheartedness of the fall, change of heart of redemption, and final peace of the future—tell the story of the human race as well as summarizing an influential stream of Christian theology. They get at the big picture. But insofar as each human being is inseparable from humankind’s larger history, this schema also serves to make meaning of individual lives. … In Gilead, John Ames regales his son with just such an Augustinian saga of the heart. As the novel progresses, we observe Ames’s metamorphosis through all four states. … Each state poses a theological question that moves the reader toward this realization [that Ames’s heart problem moves him toward a greater understanding of mercy]. (33)

The rest of the essay is a deep reflection on understanding the conditions of the heart with the help of Robinson’s fiction. As in the first essay, this essay also makes good and unembarrassed use of Robinson’s non-fiction prose to illuminate her fiction. It also rightly refers Lila’s key question, “Can people change?”, to Ames as well as to Jack. The essay concludes with a few other parallels between Ames and Augustine, conclusions that have one foot in the text and one foot outside: the particularity of praise, the physical or sensuous character earth shares with heaven, and the importance of blessing.

The third essay, by Timothy George, stays more within its theological bounds. Titled “Marilynne Robinson and John Calvin,” it tells the two stories about how Robinson became a Calvinist: through an undergraduate assignment on Jonathan Edwards which “made the phenomenal world come alive for me again” (qtd. on 50) and through teaching Melville’s Moby Dick at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and learning that his mother belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. Taking Melville and the Institutes side by side, Robinson learned that “Calvin presents a creation penetrated by sacred meaning, the internal evidence for which is planted in every soul” (56).

George also discusses Robinson’s two strategies for rescuing what is important in Calvin: “debunking the debunkers” (54) and exercising a “constructive effort that includes giving a proper historical context and retrieving fresh insights (55). He gives good examples of each before turning to two stumbling blocks for those trying to come to terms with Calvin: the case of Servetus and the doctrine of predestination. We get both Robinson’s commentary and George’s guidance on both issues.

Keith Johnson’s essay offers more resistance than the first three. His goal is “to describe Robinson’s metaphysics as she develops it throughout her essays” (67) and “from this posture of appreciation … raise some critical questions to see if there might be additional treasures hidden in Christ” (67-68). He tells, at greater length, the story of Jonathan Edwards’s influence on Robinson (73) and, despite taking the essays as his subject, writes two beautiful paragraphs on Robinson’s fiction (66, 76). In fact, he writes beautifully throughout, even if I find him stricter than necessary in his defense of God’s sovereignty and absolute freedom. We might just need to have more information in order to decide how different the affirmation that “God loves creation because God is love” is from Robinson’s emphasis on the worthiness of God’s creation and human beings’ place in it. Perhaps the second is corollary to the first. Johnson also raises the question whether Robinson’s emphasis on the goodness of creation might detract from the radical change made by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, that is, whether Robinson’s appreciation of the continuity between creation and crucifixion leaves her and us with an insufficient appreciation of the disruption brought about by Christ’s crucifixion. I think these are good and fair questions to ask of a novelist interested in and writing about theology. I’m just not sure that we have sufficient information to answer them.

But I have passed over too quickly Johnson’s appreciation of Robinson. He describes three remarkable strengths of her essays: 1) they show how reductionist competitive self-interest actually is; 2) they give a high view of creation as the theater of God’s glory, worthy of God’s desire, with humankind able to experience God’s loving relationship with creation; and 3) they show that “[s]in is not a private, spiritual affair between God and us; rather, sin involves the social, structural, and embodied life we live in relation to other people” (78). This pithy statement should temper discussion of Robinson’s individualism. In fact, it seems to me as if she forces us to redefine “individualism.”

A Transition: Lauren Winner on Preaching

Lauren Winner obviously loves Robinson’s fiction and non-fiction prose, but in the fifth essay, “Thinking about Preaching with Marilynne Robinson,” she takes understanding preaching as her goal, a goal that she thinks the fictive character John Ames can help us understand. It is again a worthy concern, I think, with one foot in and one foot outside the text. Winner notes that Ames was, like her, a “manuscript preacher” but, unlike her, was going against the recommendation of the time, or at least against the advice of the two Congregationalist preachers who served as Deans of the Yale Divinity School. Winner is grateful that John Ames resisted the concern these deans expressed in 1914 that preaching from a manuscript could encourage an “ornate and somewhat remote literary style” (86). Instead, Ames shows how for some preachers, including Winner herself, “writing [sermons] is how we crack open things to ourselves, and … how we ourselves get cracked open” (87). As John Ames wrote to his son, “Writing has always felt like praying” (qtd. on 87).

Winner does, however, take issue with Robinson’s description of preaching in this passage from her essays: “But to speak in one’s own person and voice to others who listen from the thick of their endlessly various situations, about what truly are or ought to be matters of life and death, this is a singular thing. For this we come to church” (Robinson, The Givenness of Things [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015], 156-157). Though the paragraph leading up to these two sentences “contains many of the characteristics of Marilynne Robinson I most love” (96), its description of preaching, Winner writes, falls significantly short. She contrasts “speaking in one’s own person and voice” to “speaking in persona Christi” (97) and draws upon Calvin’s Commentary on Acts 13:14 for support: “[Christ] alone was appointed by the Father to be our teacher; but he hath put in his place pastors … who speak, as it were, out of his mouth” (qtd. on 98). This is a second critique for which we may not have enough information. In some ways, it resembles Johnson’s concern that “For Robinson, grace has become nature” (79). I suspect that the answer to Winner’s question depends upon the question of authenticity, whether “speaking in one’s own person and voice” is viewed through an Augustinian or nineteenth-century Romantic lens. Robinson might try to hold onto Augustine and Emerson at the same time. I should add that Winner’s essay has intriguing section titles: “People Who Listen to Sermons,” “Sylvie and Other People Who Do Not Listen to Sermons,” “An Unpreached Sermon,” “More Unpreached Sermons and Pascal,” “Robinson and O’Connor,” and “They Mattered or They Didn’t.” These have the care of an art form, or at least of an artist. The story of Lauren Winner serving a very small Episcopal church in Louisburg, North Carolina, while holding a teaching position at Duke Divinity School resonates, for me, with George Herbert’s desire to bend both intellect and will to the needs of a small country church.

Two Literary Critics and a Visual Artist

Winner’s essay transitions us to the two essays by literary scholars. In the first of these, “Marilynne Robinson and the African American Experience,” Patricia Andujo extends Christopher Douglas’s critique (“Christian Multiculturalism and Unlearned History in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,” Novel 44 [2011]: 333–353) to character study. She reads the characters in Gilead as archetypes for the response of white Americans to racial injustice, ranging from an “unnerving detachment,” the reason why Jack could not bring his multiracial family to live in Gilead, to “overreach[ing] and becom[ing] a beacon of hope for social justice” (101). Andujo devotes sections to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the goal of nonviolent direct action, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the concept of costly grace, and to Adam Clayton Powell and the norms of a model church before turning to the characters in Gilead and the archetypes they represent. “Anything less than ‘nonviolent direct action,’ ‘costly grace,’ and a ‘model church’ raises suspicion of one’s moral compass and warrants an examination of one’s Christian theology,” Andujo writes. “Such skepticism can be applied to some of the characters in Gilead, despite their good nature” (108).

The rest of the essay analyzes Robinson’s characters as representative of four archetypes: passive pacifists (Ames and his father), zealous visionary (Ames’s Abolitionist grandfather), proponent of social order (Rev. Boughton), and reluctant heir to Christian stasis (Jack). Andujo is right to conclude, “Gilead suggests that there is something about race relations that is so problematic and difficult to deal with on a spiritual level that Christians find it easier to avoid it rather than confront and wrestle with it” (121). It is not always clear whether Robinson should be thanked for her realistic fiction, since realism, Andujo believes, has the potential to educate us about race relations, or whether she should be criticized for not distancing us far enough from Ames and his friend, Reverend Boughton. It would be interesting to hear what Andujo makes of Lila, both in Gilead and in Lila or, for that matter, what she makes of John Ames in the later novels. And, of course, it will be terribly interesting to read Robinson’s forthcoming novel, with Jack as main character. What courage it must take to write that novel—both the pressure of constructing a new ending to the successful series and the pressure of situating Gilead through the consciousness of the troubled and troubling Jack—but Robinson seems up to the task.

This leaves time and space to at least introduce my favorite two essays in the book, which bridge sections of this essay. (I hope to have given you enough detail to land on essays that may interest you more.) Then I will say a word or two about the back-to-back interviews with which the book concludes and give a final word about the usefulness of literature, which may be clearer once paired with theology or other disciplines.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay, “Space/Time/Doctrine: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels,” begins with Jonathan Edwards’s story in “Personal Narrative” of “falling in love with a problem doctrine: predestination” (122), then draws a comparison to Robinson’s similar interest in what she has called “disputed and in some cases discarded doctrine” (qtd. on 126). Robinson’s approach to caring for Christian thought, Eberle Kriner writes in a stunning analogy taken from Robinson’s third novel in the Gilead series, “might be compared to that of Doll in Lila, who takes up a baby no one wants and says, perhaps furiously, in its ear, ‘Don’t you go dying on me now’” (126). This bold comparison serves as a kind of prelude to the essay’s strategy, named two pages later: “I propose that we, as boldly as the first and later readers of Jonathan Edwards’s “Personal Narrative,” take Robinson’s care for Christian thought seriously for the fiction and consider her Gilead novels as instructive” (128). Given Robinson’s interest in physics and the “thought experiments” important there, Eberle Kriner recommends that we think of fiction, at least Robinson’s fiction, the same way:

[Robinson’s] narrative thought experiment in the Gilead novels layers types of time into the novels, dilates time in multiple ways, and entangles scenes and characters to make the doctrine of God’s sovereignty both more mysterious in scope and usable in orientation. Robinson thus renders God’s sovereignty more thinkable, more loveable. (128)

She continues, “This fullness of space-time, I argue, points people toward reverence for the mysterious Spirit of God and the mysterious image of God in other people” (128). Eberle Kriner attends to the strategies of fiction as avenues to theological experience, one of the things I honor most in her essay.

The final three sections of Eberle Kriner’s essay describe how the Gilead novels evoke “the fullness of space-time” on a macro level (131), on the micro level of three intertwined scenes (135), and in endings that evoke “awe and delight at the sovereignty of God” (144). The macro level includes the “overlap in space, characters, events, and concerns” (131) in the three novels; the “assert[ion of] temporal determinism and spiritual predestination … and subver[sion of] them at the same time” (131); and the dismissal of “a traditional story arc of conflicts and resolutions in favor of a meditative, regressive, inquiry-warped orbital structure” (133). All three points receive interesting and strong support. A sentence in support of the third sounds as if it could have been written by Erich Auerbach about Virginia Woolf, which suggests that in addition to all the nineteenth-century American influences Robinson and her critics consistently name we should also include the twentieth-century Modernist European tradition of the novel of consciousness (Woolf, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others). Here’s the sentence which is equally appropriate to Auerbach’s description of To the Lighthouse: “These incidents—transitory moments and those that reorient temporal ordering and causation—become massive in meaning, though extremely transitory” (134).

Eberle Kriner is as good at the micro as at the macro level, picking up the predestination porch scene in Gilead and Home and an associated tent-meeting scene in Lila. The porch scene includes John Ames trying to answer Jack Boughton’s question about predestination. In both of the first two novels, the scene ends with Lila chiming in, “People can change. Everything can change.” I had not noted the connection to the tent-meeting scene in the third novel before, but Eberle Kriner is persuasive. She is, throughout, especially good on time in the novel, on the novel as a thought-experiment equivalent to those in physics, and on the aesthetic innovation and depth of experience Robinson’s theological interests require of the novel.

Artist Joel Sheesley’s “Heaven and Earth: Reading Gilead through the Landscape of the Fox River,” provides four beautiful plates of his studies of Illinois’ Fox River, which resonate with Robinson’s nature writing for Iowa (or Idaho) landscapes. Maybe this earns Sheesley the right to speculate—it is a surprising and challenging, but I think a just, speculation—that since

it is not improbable that nature and humankind already share a work together toward the day of resurrection … [p]erhaps it is in this partnership that landscape plays its part in easing John Ames’s anxious judgmental predispositions and brings him to reconciliation with Jack Boughton. (153)

Perhaps this is also the moment to recognize the musical artistry of composer Shawn Okpebholo, to whom this collection is dedicated. The conference opened with a performance of Okpebholo’s “Balm in Gilead,” composed for his 2014 album Steal Away, and then continued to celebrate, at different points in the conference, debut performances of reimagined compositions sung by lyric baritone Robert Sims, well known for his work in African-American folk songs and spirituals. These debut performances included Robinson’s favorite hymn, “Wondrous Love.” Like the others, it will be included in Okpebholo’s next album. Kudos to the Wheaton Theology Conference and to the book’s editors for stitching the arts and theology together in respectful ways. Pain and pleasure both deepen memory, a truth also known by the Old Testament temple singers and the New Testament church.

Rowan Williams, Marilynne Robinson, and Two Interviews

Rowan Williams and Marilynne Robinson author the final two essays in the book, followed by the double interviews. These essayists require least introduction. Robinson’s will be interesting for anyone thinking about the importance of the other in her fiction or essays, or about individualism, which she strongly supports, of course, but here is careful to tie to the word “everyone.” The essay also ends with as sharp a critique as she has given of those who keep calling America “a Christian nation.”

Williams reminds me of a dispute, during my graduate student days, about a young faculty candidate who had written a slim dissertation on Melville’s Moby Dick. One of our professors asked how one could write about Melville at such slight length and with so little scholarly apparatus. The retiring Melville scholar answered that every paragraph and almost every sentence showed that she knew Melville and the critical arguments about him well enough to say what was most important. The rhythms were right. So, too, with Williams.

Williams addresses what the Gilead novels can teach us about “the insuf- ficiency of goodness” (158). Williams writes, “I read Lila as a book which is very strongly focused on exactly this question: how do the ‘good’ recover their connection with truth or reality? How are the good saved (never mind the evil for the moment)?” (158). He speaks of ways “[w]e are implicated—tangled and embedded in relations we have not chosen” (158), which gets us close to the concerns raised by Andujo earlier in the book and, along the way, also gives a sharp rejoinder to the frequent consideration of the novel as “typically the product of an individualist moment in our civilization’s history” (158). In talking about the importance of human solidarity, Williams gives us this winsome proverb from a Russian Orthodox friend: “We all go to heaven in each other’s pockets” (qtd. 162). Put his own way in a different section of the essay, Williams writes, “Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we are healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we are back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes” (163).

The interviews contain some nice surprises—Robinson trying to think about individualism in the light of Williams’s comments on solidarity, Williams’s brief mention of his love for George Herbert’s and Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, their divided response to Bieber Lake’s question, herself an award-winning Flannery O’Connor critic, about how they might engage each other on the work of O’Connor, with Williams’s quick acknowledgement of their well-known difference, “This is where we fight, is it?” (190). The final interview between Wheaton’s president, Philip Ryken, and Robinson refers again to Wheaton’s Abolitionist first president, as well as to the date of the conference falling on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as in Eastertide. Important themes of time, imago Dei, the inheritance of slavery, individualism, the sovereignty of God, and others also reappear. There is one question Ryken asks that refers to a passage on Calvin from one of Robinson’s seminars: “I was very interested to read—I think a friend had pointed me to this quotation, which is from one of your seminars—that in Calvinism, the great demand placed upon you is attention: to God, to others, to yourself.” Here it sounds as if John Calvin would have appreciated the Simone Weil of Waiting for God. Maybe that also helps us understand how the Pauline boldness of Robinson in her essays gives way to the attentive ear that partly receives, partly creates, the voices in her novels.

A Final Note

As a whole, this collection makes a strong argument for the ways that literature should enter debate about public life. Our view of literature, and writing about literature, often swings between relief for a life marked by ever-increasing specialization, on the one hand, and diagnosis of societal ills, on the other. The work of this conference and the collection of essays and interviews it produced suggests that these two emphases might only describe the two edges of a larger social hermeneutic to which we should attend.1

Cite this article
Michael Vander Weele, “Balm in Gilead—An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:1 , 89-98


  1. For a longer argument for the usefulness of literature, see Michael Vander Weele, “John Calvin’s Notion of ‘Exchange’ and the Usefulness of Literature,” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, eds. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, James K. A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Michael Vander Weele

Trinity Christian College

Michael Vander Weele is Professor of English Emeritus at Trinity Christian College.