Marilynne Robinson’s third novel (following Gilead and Home), also set in the small Iowan town of Gilead, tells the story of Lila, the second wife of John Ames, very much the hero the previous two books. John Ames, a pastor in his seventies sees Lila coming into his church one Sunday morning to shelter from the rain and soon they are married. The mystery of this fact has been largely hidden from us in Gilead and Home. Lila seeks to solve, if only in terms of the story, that mystery.
And whilst we discover the history of Lila – rejected by her birth family, picked up and cared for by a tough and determined drifter called Doll in the company of similar exiled and poor individuals in the post-depression era, a spell in a brothel n St Louis, before wandering aimlessly into Gilead for want of shelter – the deeper mystery brooding within Lila, like all Robinson’s novels remains the question of meaning, eternal meaning in the happenstance of life. ‘I’ve been wondering why I even bother’ Lila says to John Ames not long after they meet, ‘There must be a reason, but I don’t know what it is’.
What makes Lila’s perspective different from that of the previous novels is the nature of her past. Gilead’s fulcrum is John Ames for whom faith is the lens through which to interpret life. In Home we see things from the angle of a prodigal son, very much the rebel struggling to find his way back home. In Lila it is very clearly stated, much like in the book of Job to which Lila is drawn in her growing habit of Bible-reading, that she is an innocent, someone sinned against rather than sinner. ‘She had never taken a dime that wasn’t hers or hurt a living soul’. Her experience of the world is one of shame. ‘I don’t know what else I could want’ she says after marriage to Ames, ‘except for the shame to be gone, and it ain’t’. Unsurprisingly Lila lives with a level of distrust that has come from fighting for survival amongst poor itinerant workers, whose strong sense of community is forged by mutual desperation, a desperation that at any moment seems likely to tilt into conflict and rejection, depending on the relative availability of work and food. ‘I don’t trust nobody’ says Lila – and Robinson’s compassionate backstory lovingly helps us understand why.
So where does grace, perhaps the overarching theme of all three novels, fit into the story of Lila. It comes in the form of John Ames. It comes, as it must, as surprise. Unmerited, unexpected. It comes to this young, homeless, product of poverty, rejection and survival, inoculated against the hopeless fantasies of revivalist religion, in the form of a quiet, intellectual Calvinist pastor whose life has been shaped by security and church in the same quiet mid-west town his whole life. Can grace work its mysterious transformative power toward one so shaped by life’s circumstances to be utterly resistant to it? Is the universe one of grace and goodness? Or is material reality all there is to the extent that those dealt such a grim hand must simply work hard to get by and not ‘bother’ with too many deeper questions about meaning?
I believe Robinson would have us be persuaded by the truth of grace. She would have us journey with Lila, learning to trust grace, learning to accept its mysterious and counterintuitive reality, learning to stop our striving out of the past and allow life to, as John Ames puts, ‘[come] to us from a future that God has for us’. Grace is illogical and strange. In Lila Robinson has created a character for whom the acceptance of grace seems impossible – only the miracle (or grace) of wandering aimlessly into marriage to such a man as John Ames can surely accomplish that transformation.
More logical alternatives, for meaning and for the nature and existence of God, compete for Lila’s attention. Her old life, brutal and meaningless, but simple in its harsh laws of consequences and returns, claws at her, follows her like a shadow that will perhaps never go away. Besides there is the issue of deservedness whether of luck, or grace. If there is providence, if there is a God of grace what merits grace to one and not another? Early on in the story Lila receives kindness from a Gilead citizen, a member of Ames’ church. Lila’s instinct to ‘put things right’ compels her to return kindness with hard work, cleaning the house, removing weeds. When she is finished ‘when no-one was looking’ she ‘walked away’. ‘Now they were even’.
If not work then what of unmerited grace to the elected, the predestined. This is surely the unnamed sparring partner of Robinson’s novels, the controversial Calvinist doctrine of predestination, that argues for a ‘limited atonement’ in which the grace of Christ’s death was only for the elect. Surely Lila voices Robinson’s pastoral theology in the light of lives like hers caught up in the brutality of poverty and injustice when she says ‘why would God let somebody throw her out…why does he let children get treated so badly’. The context here is Lila’s own rejection as a child, it is also the baby thrown out in Ezekiel 16 (a passage Lila discovers), but it is surely also the context of Calvinism which would have us accept that some are thrown into hell because they are not of the elect.
Robinson’s novel is by far the most Biblical of the three and by far the most overt in its reflection of the themes of grace and election. Themes that have stalked their chapters like prowling cats. Centuries of Biblical interpretation continue to leave us perplexed at the dynamics between grace, works and election. What Robinson does so beautifully is humanise this complexity and make us compassionate towards its mystery. We root for Lila and we learn to love Ames’ whose inherited theology is put to the utmost test by the loss of his first wife and the appearance of his second. There is no answer, only mystery embodied in the lives of real people trying to live well and learn to trust grace. There is no knowing, no certainty – only a gradual relinquishment of the past, by telling its story and so healing its hurts. ‘Someday she would tell him what she knew’ thinks Lila, the last statement of the book and possibly of the Gilead novels. Knowing the truth about grace is something for ‘someday’ – in the meantime ours is to learn to trust it and continue to journey toward it.