Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reflections on Marilynne Robinson's "Home": Yet More Light and Truth

Home and Gilead (about which I blogged glancingly back in April) are interlocking novels. Both are set in the small fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in the latter half of the 1950s. Both center on the families of two of the town’s elderly ministers—the Ameses of the Congregationalist church and the Boughtons, who are Presbyterians. And the plots interlock, so that events told from the perspective of the Ames family in Gilead unfold in Home as we hear the Boughton side of the story.

A proviso before I go any further and forget an important admonition: don’t bring Home onto an airplane if you fear disturbing fellow passengers and embarrassing yourself by sobbing aloud as you read. Not, that is, if you’re a certain kind of reader. The book is not bathetic in the way that caused Oscar Wilde to mock The Old Curiosity Shop and Daniel O’Connell to toss it out a train window.

Home is insidiously moving, for anyone who grew up in, around, or in even the most remote connection to families and humans (and other animals: there’s Snowflake and a little hen who gets cooked) who comprise those odd social units. Its tormenting of the heart sneaks up on you slowly—as love does, the kind of love that entangles our hearts with the hearts of others and will not release us, as it makes the fates of those with whom love has interwoven our hearts matter perilously to us.

Just saying . . . .

And so that’s one major focal point of Home: as the title suggests, it’s a book about family. About home. About an aging, retired Presbyterian minister Rev. Boughton and his youngest daughter Glory, whose life is something of a mess for reasons obscure even to her—a mess because she believed and tried and cared and was overlooked and taken for granted in the process. And the book is about her lost and wandering alcoholic brother Jack, who arrives home after many years of exile to find his father dying.

And who cannot mend the breach between himself and his family, cannot justify himself and his existence in any effective way at all. Jack is helpless before his father’s refusal to stop loving him despite anything he has done or left undone.

And then, as the novel ends, the tables turn and it’s Jack who, in his ruined abjection and with his wounded hands, brings redemption to his father and his helpless sister, as Rev. Boughton lies dying.

As this brief plot summary suggests, Home is, at one level, a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s far more than that, though. For anyone steeped in the biblical text—as Americans of almost all classes and backgrounds once were, unavoidably so, because it was taught in schools and its stories were fundamental to the nation’s cultural currency—Home is a primer of biblical allusions ranging from David and Bathsheba to the Suffering Servant.

It’s a book you won’t understand—just as the United States is a nation you won’t understand through much of its history—if you don’t know and pay attention to subtle, omnipresent allusions to the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. And to the hymns that shaped the cultural outlook of generations of Americans, particularly in Protestant churches of the heartland and the Southeast throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. Hymns that envision saints and grieving family members (who sometimes overlap) gathering at rivers, walking in gardens, listening for the whisper of hope to lift their hearts.

It’s easy to be sentimental about the story Home tells, particularly for someone who, as I did, grew up with overt connection to the mainline and evangelical Protestant churches that have long mediated salvation to and reinforced the morals of middle America. There’s a way in which both Home and Gilead celebrate something many of us take for granted, and which now seems to be passing quickly from our culture: the centrality of church life, of biblical allusions, of the kind of community churches uniquely comprise in small American towns and in rural America—something rather difficult to explain to anyone who grew up outside a cultural milieu dominated by the Protestant experience of the heartland and the Southeast.

It’s clear that Marilynne Robinson appreciates—and yes, wishes to celebrate—that experience and that influence, and it’s equally clear that she is nostalgic about the demise of this experience and cultural influence in postmodern America. At the same time, she is cool-eyed about what the churches of middle America can and cannot do, what they have and have not done. She is cool-eyed about our cultural sins of omission and commission, even as she celebrates our soul of a church.

As the posting about Gilead to which I link above notes, Robinson wants to remember what some churches, at least, were able to accomplish in the Midwest during the period of abolition. She does not wish her readers to forget that, even when many of our churches caved in to culture and did what was easy and expedient (and rewarding in terms of money and power), some believers pulled hard against the tug to concede and fought to set captives free.

Home continues that story through an ongoing dialogue between Rev. Boughton and his feckless son, who can no longer find himself at home in his family’s church until that church comes to terms with the struggle for civil rights that is contesting barriers to justice throughout the nation in the period in which the novel is set. And for all his fundamental goodness—his holy, biblically shaped, theologically astute goodness—Rev. Boughton cannot appreciate this struggle.

His alcoholic son, who did not attend his mother’s funeral, who has been in prison, who fathered a child out of wedlock and then abandoned that child and its mother: his son Jack the prodigal is the one who understands. It is Jack who is able to retrieve the strands of liberation that powerfully informed the 19th-century piety of his forebears and their neighbors in Gilead during the struggle against slavery, and to point those strands to their contemporary significance in the civil rights movement.

This is a novel about church and family, then. It’s a novel about the way in which biblical and theological preoccupations formed the crucible of family life for generations of churched Americans in the areas of the nation in which Protestant churches dominated cultural life up to the latter part of the 20th century.

Marilynne Robinson is masterful—a word I don’t use lightly, one that is simply accurate here—in her depiction of the painstaking and exceedingly painful way in which members of traditional churched families work out their salvation through the pedestrian but sublime medium of everyday conversation. Not a word that is spoken goes unmeasured, unanalyzed. Every nuance of speech passing between family members is weighed in the scale of right and wrong, of forgiveness and compassion, of possible hurt and probable misstatement, in a way impossible to explain to anyone who has not spent years being schooled in the intricacies of biblical exegesis—of the kind of exegesis peculiar to the Protestant tradition in its classic expressions, in which life or death depends on the meaning of this text and the interpretation of that text.

Robinson is powerfully nostalgic about—she hungers for the retrieval of—a culture in which language matters. In which it matters intently. In which everything hangs on the choice of the right word or the wrong word. In which the cultural imagination of ordinary people is enriched beyond measure by meticulously crafted sermons that subtly, with inexpressible care, parse the significance of a text until its hidden sense springs forth suddenly to demonstrates that, yes, God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word, even now.

Home is a book about the power of the word/Word, about its forgotten power in American culture, about its ability to illuminate and to open doors that appear decisively closed (and to wound, whip, and subjugate). It is, in that sense, an old-fashioned book, one whose faith in the power of language to shape culture and sensibility appears almost impossibly quaint at a time when few of us can expect to hear a halfway literate sermon in any of our churches of a Sunday—let alone a well-crafted, thoughtful, heart-rending one.

But when we can find novels that contain passages like the following, we need not lament the loss of the word/Word too loudly:

In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

As long as we can read literature like this, we are not totally bereft of sermons that continue to break open the Word as they break open hearts to let it in. Even if our churches continue to starve heart and mind with inane, jingoistic homilies that merely skim the surface of thought. Or of redemption. And of humanity, for that matter.