“Marilynne Robinson in Montgomery”

“Marilynne Robinson in Montgomery” December 29, 2014

This essay takes a while to get going, but it’s a good, steady look at the way aesthetics and theology can lead us to flatten human experience–especially when “us” is white Americans writing about race. As somebody with a very “suffering and humiliation keep you close to Christ, you should consider them sometime” spiritual style myself, it was good to get a reminder of the way that kind of spirituality can cut against a communal pursuit of justice. As somebody who loves Robinson’s books, it was good to hear from another lover of her work who could help me see both their strengths and their lacunae.

…In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before— stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing. It’s an extraordinary thing to read and very moving. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Robinson tells a story about Oseola McCarty, an African American laundress of Lila’s generation who gained fame when, after a long and frugal life, she donated her surprisingly large life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi: “McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!Robinson delights in religious narratives like Lila’s and Oseola’s: testimonies of fervent textual engagement that unsettle common assumptions about theological expertise and the relative worth of persons.

But despite this democratic expansiveness, there are some limits of Robinson’s religious vision that she doesn’t test or stretch—aspects of our world that simply don’t exist in the world of her novels. I don’t just mean limits of subject matter. Call them limits of community. Like Robinson herself, every one of her characters is an introvert, a loner, a person filled with the passion of loneliness (to borrow a phrase from Robinson herself). It’s impossible to imagine her writing about anyone who wasn’t. It’s not surprising that in a 2012 essay Robinson defines community in fairly disembodied terms, as an imaginative act that is almost indistinguishable from the practice of reading or writing fiction: “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of … people who do not exist.” In her fiction, grace is communal only in the sense that it sometimes stretches to connect two people for a little while: a sister trying her best to understand an elusive long-lost brother, or a mother clasping her child close while he’s still small enough to be held. And even these moments of connection are savored in relation to the knowledge of their precariousness and the aching anticipation of their loss.

The novels’ power lies in their unsparing depictions of the isolated soul communing with itself or nature or God, thrown into relief by moments of mercy when the excluded prodigal or prostitute is welcomed home. But this gracious welcome doesn’t extend to everyone. The novels quietly perpetuate another kind of exclusion: the marginalization of embodied, literal community as a reliable source of solace and ethical vision.

 

In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before— stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing. It’s an extraordinary thing to read and very moving. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Robinson tells a story about Oseola McCarty, an African American laundress of Lila’s generation who gained fame when, after a long and frugal life, she donated her surprisingly large life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi: “McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!Robinson delights in religious narratives like Lila’s and Oseola’s: testimonies of fervent textual engagement that unsettle common assumptions about theological expertise and the relative worth of persons.

But despite this democratic expansiveness, there are some limits of Robinson’s religious vision that she doesn’t test or stretch—aspects of our world that simply don’t exist in the world of her novels. I don’t just mean limits of subject matter. Call them limits of community. Like Robinson herself, every one of her characters is an introvert, a loner, a person filled with the passion of loneliness (to borrow a phrase from Robinson herself). It’s impossible to imagine her writing about anyone who wasn’t. It’s not surprising that in a 2012 essay Robinson defines community in fairly disembodied terms, as an imaginative act that is almost indistinguishable from the practice of reading or writing fiction: “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of … people who do not exist.” In her fiction, grace is communal only in the sense that it sometimes stretches to connect two people for a little while: a sister trying her best to understand an elusive long-lost brother, or a mother clasping her child close while he’s still small enough to be held. And even these moments of connection are savored in relation to the knowledge of their precariousness and the aching anticipation of their loss.

The novels’ power lies in their unsparing depictions of the isolated soul communing with itself or nature or God, thrown into relief by moments of mercy when the excluded prodigal or prostitute is welcomed home. But this gracious welcome doesn’t extend to everyone. The novels quietly perpetuate another kind of exclusion: the marginalization of embodied, literal community as a reliable source of solace and ethical vision.

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/22/marilynne-robinson-in-montgomery/#sthash.CpEpIB7h.dpuf

In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before— stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing. It’s an extraordinary thing to read and very moving. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Robinson tells a story about Oseola McCarty, an African American laundress of Lila’s generation who gained fame when, after a long and frugal life, she donated her surprisingly large life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi: “McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!Robinson delights in religious narratives like Lila’s and Oseola’s: testimonies of fervent textual engagement that unsettle common assumptions about theological expertise and the relative worth of persons.

But despite this democratic expansiveness, there are some limits of Robinson’s religious vision that she doesn’t test or stretch—aspects of our world that simply don’t exist in the world of her novels. I don’t just mean limits of subject matter. Call them limits of community. Like Robinson herself, every one of her characters is an introvert, a loner, a person filled with the passion of loneliness (to borrow a phrase from Robinson herself). It’s impossible to imagine her writing about anyone who wasn’t. It’s not surprising that in a 2012 essay Robinson defines community in fairly disembodied terms, as an imaginative act that is almost indistinguishable from the practice of reading or writing fiction: “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of … people who do not exist.” In her fiction, grace is communal only in the sense that it sometimes stretches to connect two people for a little while: a sister trying her best to understand an elusive long-lost brother, or a mother clasping her child close while he’s still small enough to be held. And even these moments of connection are savored in relation to the knowledge of their precariousness and the aching anticipation of their loss.

The novels’ power lies in their unsparing depictions of the isolated soul communing with itself or nature or God, thrown into relief by moments of mercy when the excluded prodigal or prostitute is welcomed home. But this gracious welcome doesn’t extend to everyone. The novels quietly perpetuate another kind of exclusion: the marginalization of embodied, literal community as a reliable source of solace and ethical vision.

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/22/marilynne-robinson-in-montgomery/#sthash.CpEpIB7h.dpuf

In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before— stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing. It’s an extraordinary thing to read and very moving. In a recent interview in The New York Times, Robinson tells a story about Oseola McCarty, an African American laundress of Lila’s generation who gained fame when, after a long and frugal life, she donated her surprisingly large life savings to the University of Southern Mississippi: “McCarty took down this Bible and First Corinthians fell out of it, it had been so read. And you think, Here is this woman that, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, that by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians!Robinson delights in religious narratives like Lila’s and Oseola’s: testimonies of fervent textual engagement that unsettle common assumptions about theological expertise and the relative worth of persons.

But despite this democratic expansiveness, there are some limits of Robinson’s religious vision that she doesn’t test or stretch—aspects of our world that simply don’t exist in the world of her novels. I don’t just mean limits of subject matter. Call them limits of community. Like Robinson herself, every one of her characters is an introvert, a loner, a person filled with the passion of loneliness (to borrow a phrase from Robinson herself). It’s impossible to imagine her writing about anyone who wasn’t. It’s not surprising that in a 2012 essay Robinson defines community in fairly disembodied terms, as an imaginative act that is almost indistinguishable from the practice of reading or writing fiction: “I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of … people who do not exist.” In her fiction, grace is communal only in the sense that it sometimes stretches to connect two people for a little while: a sister trying her best to understand an elusive long-lost brother, or a mother clasping her child close while he’s still small enough to be held. And even these moments of connection are savored in relation to the knowledge of their precariousness and the aching anticipation of their loss.

The novels’ power lies in their unsparing depictions of the isolated soul communing with itself or nature or God, thrown into relief by moments of mercy when the excluded prodigal or prostitute is welcomed home. But this gracious welcome doesn’t extend to everyone. The novels quietly perpetuate another kind of exclusion: the marginalization of embodied, literal community as a reliable source of solace and ethical vision.

– See more at: http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/22/marilynne-robinson-in-montgomery/#sthash.CpEpIB7h.dpuf

more (via William B., who didn’t like the piece as much as I did, I should note)


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