Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflections During the Sacred Triduum: Marilynne Robinson and the Central Narrative of Scripture as Wondrous Love

I'm also reading Marilynne Robinson's new book When I Was a Child I Read Books (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) these days, and am struck by a number of things that, to my way of thinking, have important significance for anyone trying to retrieve and celebrate the essential meaning of core Christian symbols at this point in American history.  First, Robinson is clear-eyed about the extreme damage many groups of Christians in the U.S. are now doing to the core symbols of Christian faith.  She minces no words about how the distortion of key affirmations of traditional Christian faith by ill-educated zealots who have little connection to what's central in Christian history and belief is tragically betraying the meaning of Christianity for large numbers of Americans today.  

And, second, she appeals to those who continue to think there's significance to be retrieved in these tragically distorted symbols to re-ground their understanding of the Christian message in the grand biblical narratives.  To re-ground their understanding of what's central in the Christian message in the biblical narrative qua narrative.  To remember that the scriptures represent a narrative that can be and has been read, in classic Christian tradition, as a narrative of wondrous love from beginning to end.  In her essay entitled "Wondrous Love," she writes,

. . .[I]f Western history has proved one thing, it is that the narratives of the Bible are essentially inexhaustible.  The Bible is terse, the Gospels are brief, and the result is that every moment and detail merits pondering and can always appear in a richer light.  The Bible is about human beings, human families—in comparison with other ancient literatures the realm of the Bible is utterly remarkable—so we can bring our own feelings to bear in the reading of it.  In fact, we cannot do otherwise, if we know the old, old story well enough to give it a life in our thoughts.  There is something a bout being human that makes us love and crave grand narratives.  . . .  
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 (pp. 126, 141.)

To my way of thinking, what Robinson has to say here provides rich food for meditation in this period of the sacred triduum, particularly by American Catholics who are, as I've argued for some months now on this blog, especially given to a destructive kind of parochial, defensive tribalism that threatens to obscure the central affirmations of the Christian faith in the Catholic community today, by obscuring the central message of the wondrous love of God for every human being in the world, incarnate in Jesus and definitively revealed in his death and resurrection.

The video is Deborah Liv Johnson singing the traditional American hymn "Wondrous Love" on which Robinson bases the title of the essay from which I've excerpted material above.

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