The popularity of Marilynne Robinson manages to be at once both thoroughly deserved and entirely unexpected. That is, if popularity is the right word for what remains a relatively niche (if approaching cult) literary following among those who enjoy the plot-lite, highly poetic end of the literary fiction spectrum – but also many who don't.
“Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is clearly a modern classic, and it hasn't even been in print for five minutes,” boggled Nick Hornby in a 2005 review of the first of Robinson's (now three) novels set in the tiny Iowa town of Gilead. “I didn't even mind that it's essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian … In fact, I am writing these words in a theological college somewhere in England, where I will spend the next several years,” he jested, “[which] only goes to show you that you never know how a novel's going to affect you.”
The phrase Christian literary fiction doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Some would call it a contradiction in terms. The devout too often project (or have projected onto them) a stereotype of narrowness, perpetual alarm, or else otherworldliness. Men and women whose basic response to the world is disapproval or unconcern are unlikely to make great novelists – candid, receptive, courageous observers of human impulses and human weaknesses, and the grand or sordid or humdrum theatres in which they play out.
The history of English literature does, of course, place a few difficulties in the way of the theory that religious faith and literary sophistication are mutually exclusive: Milton, for example; Charlotte Bronte; T.S. Eliot. It was really only about fifty or so years ago that English literature entered a new phase, in which we might estimate that the majority of those reading it no longer shared the beliefs – or at least worldview – of the majority of those who wrote it.
T.S. Eliot, actually, wrote an essay about this newly ticklish relationship between religion and literature. The aptly-enough titled “Religion and Literature” (1932) charts the secularisation of English literature over the previous 200 years, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when, Eliot claims, faith began to be taken for granted and omitted from literary work (as in the novels of Fielding, Dickens and Thackeray), through the Victorians' self-conscious worriting about faith and doubt (George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy) to his own time, when Christian faith had become a mere anachronism for all modern authors, he suggests, except Joyce.
With this divorce of religion from literature came a new category: “religious literature.” Eliot divides this more or less dismissible class into (1) religious writings that have some literary value (think Pilgrim's Progress); (2) that specialised field of still-legit lit that takes religion as its subject (the devotional poetry of George Herbert, perhaps); and (3) sheer propaganda, “the literary works of men [sic] who are sincerely desirous of forwarding the cause of religion.” None of these forms, explains Eliot, can be taken seriously when written today, “because they are conscious operations in a world in which it is assumed that Religion and Literature are not related.” What he calls for, and implies is rather unlikely to come when called, is “a literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and definitely, Christian.”
Enter Marilynne Robinson, stage left, several decades later. To be fair, this tentative post-Eliot resurrection of the religious element in Western literature is no one-woman show. From the mid-twentieth-century novels of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis or Flannery O'Connor to contemporary work by Donna Tartt, Tim Winton, or the poet Christian Wiman, Christian faith has for some time been stealing quietly back into the quasi-mainstream literary limelight. (Not exclusively the Christian variety, either; if the 2014 Booker-shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, which turns upon the religious impulse generally and Judaism incidentally, may be taken as indicative of a broader shift, the experience of faith – having, not having, yearning for, being repelled by it – is back, not only in the twenty-first-century world, but in its literature.)
But Robinson's hushed, hypnotic prose, her everyday world crammed with marvels and calamities, above all the utter nonchalance with which she sets forth her characters' faith-fraught lives, have made this remarriage of the openly Christian with the incontrovertibly “literary” much harder to ignore.
For Robinson manifestly does not write something we could label “religious literature.” The life of John Ames, the kind old mid-western preacher who narrates Gilead (2004) and appears in Home (2008) and Lila (2014), is suffused with his faith. He does not scramble to explain or defend it; it's simply who he is, the lens through which he sees and describes his world. His musings on mercy or baptism or death, it turns out, don't need to make any concessions to the supposed gap between religious thought and experience and a secular reading public. For Robinson to make those concessions would be to falsify Ames's experience, to grow self-conscious and clumsy.
Robinson's fiction pays Christian faith the very basic compliment of treating it as within the purview of literature, as a phenomenon in the world and therefore worthy of the kind of turning over in the light that we accord to, well, everything else. Mind of a serial killer? Sure. The routines and rituals of middle-class marriage? The beauty of a barren landscape? You name it. The thoughtful, exuberant, workaday faith of a lifelong believer? That too.
In an article on the eighteenth-century Puritan philosopher Jonathan Edwards that came out soon after Lila, Robinson describes her great relief, as a college student who “felt gloomily captive to the determinisms of Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest” on stumbling onto Edwards' theology. She notes:
“I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards's vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.”
Lila, like Robinson's other novels (only more so, perhaps), doesn't shrink from mystery or suffering, from those vertiginous gaps between our existence and our understanding of it. In one of the most beautiful twists in contemporary fiction, the prickly, vagrant Lila, haunted by a past of grinding hardship and neglect and stumbling on her wanderings into insignificant Gilead, finds herself the wife of the kind old Reverend, carrying his child and living an existence she can't quite grasp as her own.
Both husband and wife, working from very different premises and personal histories, grapple with the scale and the burden of human suffering, as well as the glories of human life. “Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous,” Ames writes, and reads aloud to Lila. “Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don't add up. They don't even belong in the same calculation.” Neither Ames nor Robinson attempt a theodicy: a “defence” of God's existence and goodness in the face of evil and suffering. Lila is not, after all, “religious” literature. It simply bends its gaze on a faith that is unsqueamish, experientially full, and interpretatively meaningful for those who hold it.
It's hard to deny that literary fiction is a robustly – at times, verging on militantly – secular domain. It was many, many moons ago, within a culture less secular than ours, that Flannery O'Connor insisted on the impossibility of writing great fiction that is also religious in a society that is not itself religious:
“you cannot show the operation of grace when grace is cut off from nature or when the very possibility of grace is denied, because no one will have the least idea of what you are about … I don't believe that we shall have great religious fiction until we have again that happy combination of believing artist and believing society.”
Certainly “happy” isn't the word everyone would use in that context. But the novels of Marilynne Robinson categorically defy the assumption that a great gulf is fixed between believing writer and secular reader. Her novels are luminous with grace, and whether or not her readers have any idea what she is “about,” she doesn't explain and they don't seem bothered. When it comes to religion and literature, either Robinson is the exception that proves the rule, or the herald of a more truly diverse cultural landscape.
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.