(Ulf Andersen/Getty)

(Ulf Andersen/Getty)

Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila has been greeted with rapture—not just by critics but also by a host of readers who rely on Robinson for novels that change the way they experience life in the world. During the last days of the countdown to Lila’s release, breathless fans took to the Internet to testify to the power of her prose. One commenter on the website The Toast wrote that Gilead “hooked me like a gasping fish”; another said that as she read it “I kept feeling like I’d been hit in the stomach by something huge and wonderful, and I’d have to stagger off and deal with my pathetic scrabbling soul until I was able to face reading more. It was like staring at the rising sun.” Anticipating Lila, a third reader vowed, “I will read this book slowly and intently and then reread it seventy times seven.”

I have been one of these ardent, gasping, staggering fans. Two years ago when I had the opportunity to teach a senior seminar at Yale on anything I wanted, I chose to teach one on James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson. My students and I read all of Robinson’s novels and spent a reverent afternoon with her papers in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. We reached into boxes and pulled out translucent, grease-spotted letters written while Robinson was cooking dinner, and spiral-bound notebooks filled with the transcendent sentences that would become her first novel Housekeeping, her neat cursive words about loss and resurrection inscribed next to crude, crayoned cars drawn by her small son. We held in our hands tangible evidence of the miraculous intimacy between the quotidian and the sublime.

It is this sacramental significance that makes Robinson’s writing feel so transformative and true. She evokes the hope of heaven in the everyday, and the promise of baptismal blessing in ordinary water. In this way, reading her books can be a religious experience. As one reader writes, “Whenever I’m reading a Marilynne Robinson book, I mostly believe in God and I have like sense memories of what real religion feels like to my body.” For some readers her books have even been a way back into formal religious faith. After reading Gilead and Home, my friend Francisco, who was raised Catholic and evangelical and had drifted away from both, sought and found a new spiritual home in his local Congregationalist church.

Even when she doesn’t bring people back to church, Robinson’s books can restore a kind of religious revelation that had seemed lost. In an essay on Buzzfeed called “Why I Read Marilynne Robinson,” Anne Helen Petersen writes about how Robinson’s novels allow her to set aside the “shame and alienation” of some of her evangelical experiences and remind her instead of “the religion I remember with fondness, both for its intellectual rigor and the righteousness of its teachings, which seem, at least in hindsight, the closest translations of the transgressive, progressive teachings of Jesus.” Petersen writes that this selfless and contemplative form of Christianity is “absent of the suffocating, contradictory ideologies that characterize much of its popularized iteration today.” For these reasons and others, Marilynne Robinson is an important figure for those of us who care about the role of religion in our national life. For many, she is a rare writer who can be trusted to represent Christianity to a culture that often sees faith as anti-intellectual or reactionary or easy to dismiss. As Mark O’Connell muses on The New Yorker’s website: “Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind.”

Robinson has not only been hailed as the best person to define Christianity for our age—she’s been held up as a critically needed political voice. President Obama has named her as an important influence on his thought. And the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who calls Lila “unmistakably a Christian story,” believes Robinson’s fiction has profound public importance beyond the boundaries of Christendom: “Its moral acuity and insistence on what it means to allow the voiceless to speak give it a political and ethical weight well beyond any confessional limits.” For Williams and many others, Robinson’s writing both represents Christianity and transcends it, narrating a political and ethical vision that can serve as a kind of public conscience. To borrow a phrase from The New Yorker, there is now a “First Church of Marilynne Robinson,” and its adherents are everywhere: in pulpits and libraries and online and at the National Book Awards and in the White House. In her own writing and speaking, Robinson embraces this public role for herself, consciously re-interpreting traditional American Calvinism as a moral model for modern times.


MAKING CALVINIST THEOLOGY MEANINGFUL to modern Americans is a tough challenge, but insofar as it can be done, Robinson does it. In her Iowa trilogy (Gilead, Home, and Lila), she takes a classic, white, educated Calvinist vision of grace, a kind of loving and restrained Midwestern serenity, and opens it up. She shows how this deeply thought-out faith interacts with the disorienting extremes of slavery, racism, alcoholism, prison, poverty, illiteracy, and prostitution—extremes that are made manifest in the small town of Gilead through the experiences of damaged, outcast characters. Robinson’s great theological achievement is to show us the predictable limits yet surprising expansiveness of this fatalistic faith, which she demonstrates in plots that trace the ways white, male ministers and their families rise to the occasion of grace, or don’t, and in sentences that express a remarkable aesthetic vision that finds beauty and radiance in almost everything.

Gilead is narrated by the aging minister John Ames, and Home contains the same events told from the perspective of his best friend’s daughter Glory Boughton. In Lila, a prequel, Robinson returns to an outsider perspective reminiscent of her long-ago first book Housekeeping to show the encounter with grace from the perspective of a woman on the margins, Lila Dahl. Though Lila eventually marries the middle-class Ames, she grows up as a migrant farmworker, raised by a beloved foster mother whom she loses to jail. Armed with wariness and a knife, Lila makes her desolate way through the fields and brothels of Missouri and Iowa, finally arriving in the sanctuary of Gilead. For a while Lila lives in a ruined cabin in the woods outside of town, haunting the church and parsonage and graveyard, craving baptism for reasons she can’t understand, and teaching herself to write by copying Bible verses in a tablet. Eventually she and Ames begin an unlikely marriage that brings them unprecedented consolation, but also leaves Lila with unresolved desires to return to the wild world outside Gilead, to unbaptize herself and claim kinship with the lost people who live beyond the reach of religion.

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. Though Ames has been a minister his whole life, he unsurprisingly admits that he prefers the church when it’s empty: “After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.” (And of course he appreciates the empty church even more because he knows it’s about to be torn down.) Glory’s definition of church is likewise unpopulated except for the minister:

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.

In the hundreds of pages of these novels about ministers and their families, congregants and townspeople are barely mentioned. We know they are there because unseen people sometimes silently drop off pies and casseroles at the parsonage, tactfully refraining from ringing the bell.

I believe Robinson’s deeply spiritual vision of loneliness, of ecstatic and resigned and despairing and meaningful disconnection, is part of what makes readers respond to her so rapturously in the Internet age. Her novels are a kind of digital Sabbath. As our inboxes overflow and our alerts and notifications multiply, her characters wait in vain for letters that don’t come, and lose track of people they once knew, and fail to make it to the phone in time to hear the faraway voice of the one they love. Through it all, they ache and yearn for a word, a sign, an echo or trace of what they have lost, or what they know they are about to lose. Her books have to be historical novels; it is not an accident they are set between sixty and a hundred years ago. But despite or because of their temporal remove, they are apparently exactly what many of us want to read now. Her characters breathe an unclouded atmosphere that speaks to our discontents as denizens of a world swirling with ambient data.

As a result, her religious vision excludes almost all of us. She can’t represent those of us who are tweeting and commenting and blogging and chatting about her books’ beauty, or comprehend those of us who find ourselves immersed in thick webs of connection and collectivity and populated chaos. Though Robinson clearly cares deeply about what might be called “social problems,” her stories of individual reckoning and resignation have little to say about lives lived in the midst of congregations or in the shadow of corporations. Whether we resist constant compulsory connection or revel in it or both, we are living outside her novels’ theological and political categories.


DO THESE LIMITS MATTER? It seems almost ungrateful to point them out. Robinson already stirs our souls with her stories of solitude and hard-won hope; does she really have to write beautifully about community and politics as well?

Joan Acocella says no. In her review of Lila in The New Yorker, she admits that “Robinson’s use of politics is … to some extent, a weakness of the Gilead novels.” But Acocella argues that the political limits of Robinson’s religious vision don’t matter because Robinson’s mystical insight is so strong: “Robinson writes about religion two ways. One is meliorist, reformist. The other is rapturous, visionary. Many people have been good at the first kind; few at the second kind, at least today. The second kind is Robinson’s forte. She knows this, and works it.”

I agree with Acocella that Robinson works it, and furthermore that her work gives us painful insights into the spiritually corrosive effects of poverty that “meliorist, reformist” writing rarely does. There is a dire need for lamentation in liberal Protestantism, and I am immeasurably grateful to Robinson for supplying it. But I also believe that Robinson’s political limitations matter a great deal, because she has been cast as a public religious voice and conscience by so many, and has taken on this role for herself both inside and outside her novels. And since she has been heralded as the best contemporary expression of public Christianity, it matters what she is leaving out or getting wrong.

As it happens, one of the things she gets wrong is the politics of race. In saying this I don’t mean what my friend Jess Row argues in his Boston Review essay “White Flights”: that Robinson, like many other post-1960 white writers, assumes “a systematically, if not intentionally, denuded, sanitized landscape, at least when it comes to matters of race,” or that in her novels “whiteness is once again normative, invisible, unquestioned, and unthreatened.” Row uses persuasive examples from Housekeeping to bookend his essay, but his critique is inapplicable to Gilead and Home. Their racial problem is quite different.

The race problem in the Iowa trilogy is not that Robinson ignores non-white people and their violent eviction from white landscapes and white religion. Gilead and Home are Robinson’s attempt to reckon with that horrible history. She mourns the ethical declension that turned the multi-racial abolitionist outposts of the 1850s into the white sundown towns of the 1950s. She repeatedly shows us the traces of racial terror on the Iowa farmland and the hushed-up events led to this “denuded, sanitized landscape”—the burning embers of black churches and the black flights through and from Gilead, from slavery days to Jim Crow. Race is likewise at the center of the novels’ plots and their family dramas: Ames’s grandfather was a John-Brown-style radical abolitionist who attended black churches because the preaching was better, but Ames’s pacifist father disavowed that militant legacy, creating a bitter rift. Meanwhile Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of Ames’s best friend, is secretly and illegally married to a black woman and they have a son, which is why he believes he can never be fully received back into his white family.

Furthermore, the problem is not that Robinson fails to call whites to account for their racial complacency. The character of Jack Boughton allows her to indict the kind of white Christian obliviousness that is effectively white Christian racism. When Jack shows Ames a picture of his black wife and child to try to gauge how his own father might respond to having an interracial family, Ames realizes that even after a lifetime of friendship he has no idea how his best friend would react: “Now, the fact is, I don’t know how old Boughton would take all this. It surprised me to realize that. I think it is an issue we never discussed in all our years of discussing everything. It just didn’t come up.” When Ames observes that interracial marriage is legal in Iowa, Jack indulges in a bitter aside: “Yes, Iowa, the shining star of radicalism.” Except for Ames, Jack keeps his secret to himself, but he talks to his sister about W.E.B. DuBois and pushes his minister father to take responsibility for racial injustice, telling him about the murder of Emmett Till, and quoting an article that argues that “the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro.” His father inadequately responds that if black people are good Christians, “then we can’t have done so badly by them, can we?” Jack deferentially disagrees. Through Jack, Robinson endorses a racial standard as a valid one for assessing the seriousness of white American Christianity, and she shows us how her white characters fail to live up to it.

But even as Jack demonstrates the limits of his family’s racial vision, he inadvertently shows the limits of Robinson’s as well. When I was re-reading Home recently I stumbled on a curious and troubling anachronism in the novel’s account of the Civil Rights Movement. In a dramatic passage, a TV broadcast of a brutal police crackdown on black protesters in Montgomery prompts a fraught racial conversation between Jack and his father and sister. The problem is that the events Robinson describes bear no resemblance to what actually happened in Montgomery in 1956. What really happened was a yearlong bus boycott that was sparked by Rosa Parks, supported by a coalition of churches and community organizations, and sustained by tens of thousands of ordinary people: ‘‘the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation,” in the words of Montgomery activist Mary Fair Burks. Instead, Robinson erroneously represents “Montgomery” as a violent showdown between cops, dogs, and black children, much like what happened in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham seven years later.

This strange substitution begins when Jack is standing on the sidewalk watching a TV in the window of the hardware store, transfixed by “the silently fulminating authorities and the Negro crowds.” He tells his sister it is “Montgomery,” and though this makes chronological sense since the novel is set in 1956, it is unclear how the image on the screen corresponds with a bus boycott. Later Jack watches the news with his father and sister at home:

On the screen white police with riot sticks were pushing and dragging black demonstrators. There were dogs.

His father said, “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.”

Jack said, “Some people will probably remember it.” …

Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”

His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”

Jack said, “I—” as if he were about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”

On the screen an official was declaring his intention to enforce the letter of the law. Jack said something under his breath, then glanced at his father.

Later Jack tries to explain his agitation to his sister Glory: “I shouldn’t have said what I did. But things keep getting worse—” She thinks he means his father’s health, but he clarifies: “No. No, I mean the dogs. The fire hoses. Fire hoses. There were kids—” Glory reassures him, “None of that will be a problem for you if you stay here.” He replies, “Oh Glory, it’s a problem. Believe me. It’s a problem.”

So: In a scene in which remembering “Montgomery” is equated with racial awareness, and forgetting it is equated with racial obliviousness, Robinson “forgets” Montgomery, or at least remembers it as something very different. This is not just a slip-up about a name; it is a series of counterfactual descriptions. In 1963, when Birmingham cops attacked young people with dogs and water cannons, the images were considered so shocking and unprecedented that they appeared on the front page of newspapers around the country, and a couple years later in 1965 ABC interrupted a broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg to show footage of white police in riot gear using billy clubs to beat black protesters on Bloody Sunday in Selma. But neither the police attacks nor the media events happened in 1956. As Jack would say: “Believe me. It’s a problem.” But what does it mean?

One answer, a simple and troubling enough answer, is that Robinson simply made a mistake—one that reflects the limits of her racial attention. Robinson mixes up Montgomery and Birmingham because her precision when it comes to figurative language or classic theology doesn’t extend to major events in American racial history. For decades she has immersed herself in rigorous reading of Calvin and Shakespeare and the Puritans and the Latin Vulgate, but she hasn’t read enough about the Civil Rights Movement to get it right; Calvin is clear but black people are a blur. And insofar as she is using undifferentiated black people on TV as a way to throw her white characters’ moral development into relief, it might not much matter to her what happened in Montgomery. It’s also possible that she decided that conflating the facts would work better to characterize her white characters, so she silently changed them. Either way, she could be seen as illustrating Toni Morrison’s critique in Playing in the Dark of “the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them.” Morrison sees white writers’ ubiquitous instrumental invocation of blackness as a “sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.” (Robinson’s potentially sinister imprecision is further blurred in Acocella’s New Yorker review: Acocella inaccurately refers to the Montgomery bus boycott as “the Montgomery riots” and calls the black people on TV “rioters.”)

I believe Morrison’s theory about white writers and blackness applies to Gilead and Home, but I suspect Robinson’s propensity for “playing in the dark” is not the whole explanation of why she gets this history so wrong. I believe her failure to represent the real Montgomery is evidence of something else as well, something much closer to the core of her tragic, individualistic theology. I think it speaks to the perilous political tendencies of her particular version of Calvinism.

Unlike versions of Christianity which see suffering as something to be resisted or triumphed over, Calvinism tends to view both suffering and grace as arbitrary, mysterious, and predestined. The forces of fate are inscrutable and immense; the capacity of human agency is comparatively small. Perhaps because of her acute awareness of the cosmic imbalance of power between the human and the divine, Robinson represents religious faith less as a spur to action and more as a beautiful individual reckoning with inevitable loss and anguish. Above all, her writing honors an individual’s submission to the deepest sorrow in order to plumb all the meaning it will yield.

Over and over again, Robinson’s characters find a kind of peace in accepting their arduous lot: Ames spends decades praying in an empty house without seeking the comfort of a human touch; Glory gives up her dreams of a husband and home of her own with a sighed “Ah, well”; Jack painfully accepts exile from both his white and black families without ever telling his sister or father his racial secret, or opening the door to the possibility of embodied beloved community. We watch him as he walks away into an emptied world, Christ-like in his weary submission to his fate: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.”

Robinson teaches us that these resignations, these “Ah, [fill in the blank]” moments, are their own redemptive reward. Over and over again, in a paradoxical pattern that Amy Hungerford calls Robinson’s “logic of absence,” the novels state that lack is its own fulfillment; loss its own restoration; sorrow its own solace. As Robinson writes in Housekeeping, “need can blossom into all the compensation it requires,” or, as Lila says, “fear and comfort could be the same thing.” In surrendering themselves to the passion of loneliness, in nourishing themselves with a spiritual imagination that turns the stones of sorrow into bread, Robinson’s characters find grace in the midst of death and dearth. In the world’s fallenness, they envision a paradise regained.

When you consider Robinson’s deep disinterest in embodied communities and profound interest in the aesthetics and theology of resignation, it makes sense that a successful boycott could never be represented in her fiction. Robinson ignores black community organizing in Montgomery for some of the same reasons she ignores the white congregation in Gilead: she is not interested in representing embodied collective life. But beyond that, her displacement of the Montgomery bus boycott with images of brutality and suffering seems almost predestined by her theology. She is replacing a story of black people successfully coming together to transform their society with images of black people enduring pain inflicted by the powers that be. The protesters in her Montgomery do not walk together with tired feet and rested souls for 381 days. Instead they are passive objects of violence, pushed and dragged by police. (Robinson’s fictionalization of the Civil Rights Movement is entirely reduced to these brief images of black suffering: her novels do not include speeches, sermons, sit-ins, strategies, meetings, music, marches, legal battles, freedom rides, or voter registration drives.) Though Robinson mentions Rosa Parks in her essays, her novels dwell on the private, pious perspectives of white people who resemble Oseola McCarty. She is not interested in telling the stories of people who fight their fate, alone or together.

Still, Robinson is unparalleled at finding meaning and beauty in suffering and deprivation. This is why her novels are so heart-wrenchingly gorgeous. It is also why they are troubling when they are used to define religion or politics for our time, or when they are claimed as a public conscience for the oppressed and voiceless. There are dangers both in what she leaves out of her fiction and what she puts into it. And the beauty and peril of Robinson’s vision can be seen with stunning clarity in the last pages of Home.

A few days after Jack has left Gilead, probably forever, his wife and son, Della and Robert, show up at his family home looking for him. Glory, who knows that Jack has a wife but does not know she is black, doesn’t recognize who they are at first. When Della asks after Jack and finds he is gone, she prepares to go away in silent sadness without explaining who she is (ah, Della). But Glory, yearning for an impossible momentary connection, stops her: “You’re Della, aren’t you. You’re Jack’s wife.” They talk together about Jack in a reserved, tentative, heartrending way. Glory chats with her nephew about baseball, and he reverently touches a tree in his father’s yard, “just to touch it.” Tears are quietly shed and wiped away. And then Della and Robert leave without ever walking in the front door. As Della explains, they have to leave before sundown: “We have the boy with us. His father wouldn’t want us to be taking any chances.”

Overcome in their absence, Glory sits on the porch steps and reflects on her meeting with her black family. She is overwhelmed by a sense of the cruelty of the situation and her own inability to make it different: “Dear Lord in heaven, she could never change anything.” In a moment of empathetic imagination, she sees Gilead through Della’s eyes, grieving that Della “felt she had to come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country.” Her own sense of her home is transformed, made alien. And then, in the last paragraphs of the novel, Glory consoles herself for her own sadness and for Jack’s and Robert’s and Della’s, as members of a family torn apart by racist anti-miscegenation laws and Jim Crow. In a rapturous vision of imagined connection, Glory pictures her nephew’s brief return, decades into the future: “Maybe this Robert will come back someday. … And he will be very kind to me. … He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, … This was my father’s house. And I will think, He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment.”

This is the power and inadequacy of Robinson’s racial vision. An empathetic encounter with a black person can totally transform a white person’s view of their own place in the world; and a dream of interracial connection (however partial and temporary) is enough to give meaning to a white person’s entire life, and incidentally to wrap up the worn and ragged threads of the novel. It’s a lovely liberal reverie, and its limits make it even more poignant: even in her wildest dreams, Glory can’t imagine Robert being welcomed into his white father’s childhood home. But Glory does nothing to make even this modest fantasy of a family reunion come true. The dream of Robert’s return is so consoling to her, so meaningful, that for Glory’s emotional purposes, and for the purposes of the novel, it doesn’t much matter whether it actually happens. The mere longing is enough: It feels more satisfying than any real attempt at interracial community or racial justice could ever be. Actual black people need never displace the shy, grateful, undemanding black man of Glory’s dreams.

This kind of consolation can be captivating, if you identify with Glory and not with Robert or Della, and if you don’t think too much about the implications. And of course, characters and novels don’t have to be moral models. We can love Glory and Home without following in their steps. But as I write in the wake of mass protests against racial injustice in Ferguson and New York and around the world, I can’t accept unfulfilled cravings, empathetic fantasies, and suffering beautifully borne as the best possible public Christianity for our age.


I WILL FOREVER READ all the fiction Robinson writes. We who love her books read them because they give us what we miss, a specter of a stripped simplicity we’ve lost or never had, imbued with a fullness of meaning that we can hardly bear. I’ve barely quoted Robinson in this essay because I suspect that the sheer beauty of her words would overwhelm any criticism I could possibly make. Writing about Montgomery and what it means has been like trying to pry her books out of my own hands. But I know that when I close Robinson’s novels and step out of the baptismal pool of her pages, I re-enter a world I could never find in Gilead: a world full of struggling and striving people of every religion and race, classrooms full of clamorous voices, bright threads of friendship woven across the Internet, and wild desires for change and justice and beloved community that overcome all my half-hearted attempts at relentless resolute Calvinist resignation.

Novels can be partial and still be perfect, but religion needs to be practical. These are beautiful novels, complete in themselves, but insofar as they are held up as a political and ethical example they are far from enough. We need to read Marilynne Robinson, but we need to read Morrison too, and so many others. And we need to imagine a more capacious and yet unwritten vision of grace for our moment. We need a grace large enough to extend to those who prefer churches with people in them; a religious sensibility that is finely attuned enough to care when and where people are staging boycotts or facing down cops and dogs for freedom, and new prophetic voices that will inspire us to join them.

I read Lila in a day, marveling in the quiet words, sometimes stopping to wait for my tears to subside so I could see the page. Some sentences I read aloud to myself so I could hear them spoken, just as Reverend Ames read aloud during his long decades of solitude. I copied bright phrases into a commonplace book like Lila copying the prophecies of Ezekiel in her ruined cabin. In the end, I was grateful to have ached and starved and wept with Lila, and I was ready to let her go.


Briallen Hopper is a Lecturer in English at Yale and the Faculty Fellow at the University Church in Yale.