I posted this excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's essay "Wondrous Love" during Holy Week 2012. I'm of a mind to publish it again now as an Advent meditation. I love its insistence that what Christians think and say in the name of Christ--what they profess as the teaching of churches called into being to remember Jesus and transmit his memory--has always to be normed by the "great narrative" of the Christian gospels.
That narrative is, as Robinson stresses, from beginning to end, from alpha to omega, a narrative about wondrous love. When we place any particular Christian teaching--say, about economic life or sexual morality--in any context that robs of it of its framework as part of the overarching narrative of wondrous love, we distort that teaching. We uproot it from the good news of the gospels.
As I listen to the astonishing recent meanderings of people like Rush Limbaugh and other representatives of the U.S. political and religious right about what Christianity means to them, I cannot help thinking that Robinson's concluding lines in this passage are prophetic:
This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.
Here's Marilynne Robinson's commentary on the great narrative of wondrous love that is the warp and woof of the Christian gospels:
The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seem a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine. There is the human intimacy of the story—the astonishing, profoundly ordinary birth, the weariness of itinerancy, the beloved friends who disappoint bitterly and are still beloved, the humiliations of death—Jesus could know as well as anyone who has passed through life on this earth what it means to yearn for balm and healing. He could know what it would mean to hear a tender voice speaking of an ultimate home where sorrow ends and error is forgotten. Most wonderfully, he could be the voice that says to the weary of the world, "I will give you rest," and "In my Father’s house there are many mansions." It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God towards humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear ("Wondrous Love,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012], p. 141).
And, of course, those final lines are, I suspect, very much what Pope Francis meant when he said last month that a kind of serious illness has taken hold in the lives of ideological Christians who wish to substitute for the tenderness, meekness, and love of Jesus a rigidity that locks the church away from people, distances the church from people, chases people away rather than embracing them as they are, as human beings.
The video: a German group, Sacred Harp Bremen, singing the old American folk hymn "What Wondrous Love Is This?" in the old Sacred Harp style long maintained by shape-note singers in the Southern United States.