Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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