Let me come right out and say it: sometimes I loath the work of literary scholarship. With a master’s degree in literature (and the thesis to prove it) and more graduate school ahead of me, sure, I love doing research, I love reading novels, and I even love puzzling over the right way to turn a phrase or compose a bibliography. But there are times in which I run into a monograph on a particular topic — be it a novelist or an era of novelists — and I feel as though an original, beautiful, glorious thing has been reduced to a pile of worthless words on a page. I feel obliged to note that this is common in one of my specific fields, George MacDonald scholarship (there are, thankfully, exceptions to this).
To do written work that both critically excavates the powers of a narrative work whilst preserving its unique character is extraordinarily hard, and this becomes all the harder when one feels the temptation to tilt a narrative towards one’s own ideological goals. The novels and essays of Marilynne Robinson, writer of such masterworks as The Death of Adam, The Givenness of Things, Gilead, Home, etc., are magnificent, radiant, and unique works of literature, and this volume, Balm in Gilead, faces the unenviable plight of discussing her works while preserving their radiance.
Thankfully, it is successful in that nigh-impossible task.
Theology and Narrative, Embodied
There are many excellent essays to parse through to make the case of this volume’s particular successes, but two stand out as especially worthy of attention:
First, there is Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner’s delightful essay on the homiletics of Gilead and its preacherly protagonist, the Rev. John Ames. Here the topic of homiletics leaves its lofty, intensive home at the seminary to embed itself within the particularity of weekly preaching practice. Ames, famously, has a large collection of his former sermons piled end to end in his attic, which he hopes his wife will burn someday. “They mattered,” he thinks, “or they didn’t.” Winner, a preacher as well as a professor, notes the significance of this throwaway line to the everyday pastor — how much energy and work goes into producing a single subsection or illustration of an overarching theological treatise that nevertheless, somehow, has to manifest for the common good, and then how often Sunday’s sermon goes unheard, forgotten, deemed unimportant.
Others have discussed (see Part III of Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, for instance) the relative unimportance of the every week sermon compared to the weekly practice of listening; but Winner highlights, using Ames’ as her case-study, the surprise significance of these throwaway sermons. Who knows when a turn of phrase or line might land in just the right way? Those who preach weekly (or who have done the practice) will recognize the depths of wisdom elucidated here by both Winner and Robinson.
Another delightful treat is the essay from Joel Sheesley, professor emeritus of art at Wheaton College, where he takes a very serious aesthetic approach to Gilead, comparing Robinson’s work with a theological brand of landscape. As opposed to, for instance, Romanticism’s sublime or modernism’s nihilism, Sheesley uncovers Robinson’s aesthetic [narrative] theology that turns the everyday into a veil through which shines the glory and beauty of God. Here Robinson’s poetics, more than her thought, is at the forefront, and we see a kind of cooperation between form and function, style and substance. Alongside this, Sheesley’s addition of landscapes as plates to the collection is very welcome and goes alongside it all quite nicely.
I could go on, as most of the essays gathered here are of a high-caliber quality: there are discussions on the shared Protestant heritage of Ames and Wheaton College which, while a bit over-particular (and thus a little un-useful, academically speaking), frame the collaboration between Wheaton (an evangelical institution) and Robinson (a mainline layperson) in a broader complex of American Protestant history. There is a metaphysical discussion from Keith L. Johnson that is very intriguing, sparking some Protestant-Catholic tensions regarding the nature of grace in a much-discussed review.
Plentiful Grace (for the Readers!)
As if the essays of the interlocutors were not enough, the volume includes three especially delightful works at its end that feel almost as an appendix, except for the fact that all three works are worth the price of admission!
One is an essay from Rowan Williams discussing the nature of Grace and that tenacious (and difficult) word “inclusion” from the standpoint of Robinson’s novels. The second is Robinson’s own reflection on the essential character of Protestantism — its freedom of conscience, its ever-reforming reformations. These are both precisely what a reader expects from these two intellectual and rhetorical giants.
But the special treat is immediately after: the whole collection is concluded with an in-depth interview, first of a discussion between Robinson and Williams, and the second with Robinson on her own. The discussions begin with reflections on the character of fictional works in doing theology, in creating communities, and then move on its role in democracy and society at large. Then in Robinson’s solo interview, she handles her biography, her formation through the works of Jonathan Edwards (et al.), and, as always, her reflections on the centrality of grace.
With a collection as thorough and robust as this one, handling so articulate an author as Marilynne Robinson, I feel that my review is a very poor etching of what is an extravagant painting. The collection, however, has done that work with exceptional skill, ease, and clarity, leading to some of the best writings on Gilead (etc.) that I have seen. For fans of Marilynne Robinson and Christian literary scholars seeking some guidepoints for how to do the work of literary scholarship, I heartily recommend this volume.
Balm in Gilead
ed. Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson
IVP Academic, 2019. 218pp.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.