Just finished the novel Home, by Marilynne Robinson. A fine novel. But of course I think novels are our philosophy and theology and poetry and cosmology and meaning in large measure these days. Along maybe with movies, which one might think of as light-weight novels. Or novels for the light-footed or light-headed or light-hearted.
In any event, as I have said in an earlier post, narratives of whatever kind can be all these things—our philosophy, our poetry, our cosmology, our meaning—altogether, if well done. And often if they are poorly done also. They help us understand our place and time and being and living by giving us characters somewhat like ourselves. And placing these substitutes—these simulacra—in worlds that are kind of like our own. By doing this, they help us imagine what our own stories are really getting at. Where they may come from and where they are headed. What they are about. Maybe.
Home does all this and is, as I say, well done. Very well done. It plays quite directly with the idea that we live in stories that are much greater than our own, larger stories that may help explain our own particular stories. Stories from the Bible, especially.
The Biblical story that resonates throughout Home is the story of David and Bathsheba. Jack Boughton, son of a Christian minister in Gilhead, Iowa, (who has isolated himself from his birth family for 20 years as the novel begins) is from his earliest memories estranged from his family and community. He steals. He causes mischief of various kinds. He wonders off by himself. He rarely participates fully in the life of the Boughton family. He is almost always gone. Out of the house and who knows where.
Jack in his estrangement struggles to understand himself. His embarrassing and self-destructive and self-isolating behavior. Well into the novel, he brings this up with his father, Robert Boughton, who is dying. And with his father’s old friend, John Ames, also a Christian minister. He tries to get them to help him sort out the Old Testament understanding of God versus the New Testament understanding of God and how God acts in the world.
He suspects that he—Jack Boughton—in himself might be a curse on his father and his father’s religion. Just as Absalom—in his rebellion against his father—appeared to be a curse on King David for David’s sins of sexual immorality and murder. He appears to wonder whether his father and other leaders of American Christianity haven’t been apologists for slavery and racial discrimination. He seems to wonder whether this isn’t their sin and whether he isn’t his father’s punishment for this.
And he seems to wonder whether the child that he fathered as a teenager, out of wedlock, didn’t die (as a toddler of an infection) as his own punishment, for his sexual immorality, his thievery, his torment of his father and the rest of his family.
Jack is married to a black woman, but he does not tell his father or his father’s friend John Ames. But he does ask them questions about the story of David and Bathsheba and about predestination. He seems to regard himself as someone whom God has created to play a role in his father’s story. Perhaps he has been created simply to be destroyed, after his usefulness as a torment for his father is at an end.
Jack isn’t a Christian. He knows Scripture quite well, but he is not persuaded. He takes what appears to be an Old Testament view—that God punishes his people—and attempts to understand his world and his experience using this view of God. He attempts to get confirmation from his father and John Ames, but they are ambivalent. Equivocal. Neither marches in with the New Testament story, either—with the unmitigated joy of salvation and redemption. Which is of course odd. Given that these two are, as I say, Christian ministers, and Jack is their inexplicable favorite. They love him deeply but are also quite. Well. Hostile toward him as well. Aren’t human beings odd? Even in novels? Particularly good ones?
Full of contradictions. Full of ambivalence. Paradox.
And so this idea that the story of our lives may be understood in light of other stories—particularly the stories of the Bible—comes up again in this novel. Comes up faithfully again and again throughout the history of literature. Sometimes explicitly, as in Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and sometimes implicitly, as for example, in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (communion of the saints—1 Corinthians:12). One might almost think of all of the works of western literature as being so many footnotes to the Bible and footnotes to one another. And if one did, one might begin to see a bit—and only to a depth of about one eighth of an inch or so—into the world-wide sea of our stories and how they may well all intersect and work together somehow like so many elements of one ecosystem to make us who and place us where we are. Which can be—like the characters in the novel Home—at the bottom of the sea sometimes, struggling for air.