There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to
do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
--1 john 4:18 NRSV
Thank God for Marilynne Robinson. If you're unfamiliar with this author,
google her right now then go find one of her works of fiction or non-fiction
and begin reading. She's an antidote to our times in more ways than one.
I came to know Robinson through her 2004 novel Gilead, which is narrated by
an aging Congregational minister in mid-20th Century small town Iowa,
specifically the fictional town of Gilead, inspired by the real town of
Tabor, in southwest Iowa. You might think that the book would appeal to me
since I am a minister, but I confess to being averse to clergy characters in
fiction, TV and film. Few writers know much about clergy and fewer still get
it right. In this case, Robinson gets it right, and apparently non-clergy
loved the book too, because it won the Pulitzer prize.
In Gilead and the three sequels (the fourth has just been released), small
town life is depicted with beauty but also honesty. These books are not a
nostalgia trip but an investigation of the difficulties that come when you
disagree with the actions and/or beliefs of someone you love. Race,
religion, gender and age all frustrate the neat and tidy convictions of its
characters. The books are optimistic without being schmaltzy, because the
mysteries of love bind these characters together despite the difficulties of
remaining in relationship.
If you are someone interested in the history of Kansas and Missouri,
especially the bloody border war between abolitionists and slaveholders
involving John Brown, the novel Gilead dwells on this history through its
narrator. William Ames, a Congregationalist minister, shares his experiences
with his grandfather who rode with John Brown on some of his raids into
Missouri. In his musings, Ames ponders the relationship of faith to racism
and violence, his thoughts have particular relevance for 2020 America.
Robinson's fiction mirrors her own Christian faith. She is a part of the
United Church of Christ denomination as a member of the Congregational
United Church of Christ in Iowa City. The UCC was formed in 1957 as a merger
of denominations including the Congregationalists of which some of the
characters in her novel were a part. The UCC and the Christian Church,
Disciples of Christ have close ties. (I hold standing as a minister in both
denominations) and explored merging decades ago but couldn't pull it off.
Among many ways the UCC and DOC work together is through a shared
international ministry known as Global Ministries. No doubt the characters
of Robinson's novels would have known members of pre-Disciples of Christ
Christian churches near them in northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa.
Why I like Robinson's novels and I feel like her writings (including her
non-fiction collections of lectures) are an antidote for our time is that
they are permeated with a belief in the decency of people in general and
ordinary Americans in particular. In interviews and her collected essays,
Robinson has been critical of strains in American Christianity that foment
fear of the other and a type of exclusionary nationalism. Among her fans is
President Barack Obama. In 2015, Obama sat down to interview Robinson and
their remarkable dialogue was reprinted in The New York Review of Books (it
is available for free on the NYRB web site). In their dialogue, Robinson
shares the foundation of her beliefs:
Well, I believe that people are images of God. There's no alternative that
is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that
understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the
logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at
its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It's the human image. It's
not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it's being human that enlists
the respect, the love of God being implied in it.
She goes on to say this about the most vocal and virulent strains of
Christianity that promote intolerance and exclusion:
Well, I don't know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if
you take something seriously, you're ready to encounter difficulty, run the
risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves-and God
knows, arming themselves and so on-against the imagined other, they're not
taking their Christianity seriously. I don't know-I mean, this has happened
over and over again in the history of Christianity, there's no question
about that, or other religions, as we know.
But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive-"Love thy neighbor as
thyself"-which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy
of love as you are, not that you're actually going to be capable of this
sort of superhuman feat. But you're supposed to run against the grain. It's
supposed to be difficult. It's supposed to be a challenge.
Through Rev. William Ames, the narrator of Gilead, Robinson has some
fantastic lines that illustrate her understanding of Christianity. Here are
a few of my favorites:
"Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense."
"It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not
to satisfy some standard of righteousness but because God their Father loves
"Love is holy because it is like grace--the worthiness of its object is
never really what matters."
"I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know
the limits of God's grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any
imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the
In this time of fearmongering politics, we need the steady calm voice
Marilynne Robinson offers through her characters. We need reminders that
beneath the hateful and even racist words of those we disagree with, there
stands a human being, beloved by God and no amount of disagreement we may
have with them changes the bald fact that God made them in the Divine image
and loves them more than we can comprehend. We need to be reminded that each
of us is a recipient of God's grace and so are the people we so often
demonize. As you read today's political news and cast your ballot this fall,
remember the sacredness of each person around you whether they return your
love and respect or not.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851