I’m watching a miracle unfold in my family. Four sons, imperfectly parented, are growing into healthy, responsible, and strong young men. Two of them have even gone on to become imperfect parents themselves, and somehow, by grace, we just keep on forgiving one another for offenses, both big and small, with the understanding that family ties are God’s great gift for teaching us how to get along. When we forgive, we discover how to start over, how to fall back and regroup relationally, and this is also how we receive God’s love and forgiveness for our many failures.
It’s been six years since Marilynne Robinson last added to her Gilead series, and Jack, the fourth in the series, is definitely worth the wait. The eponymous hero of the story gets my vote for literature’s most frustrating character. He shows up as the troubled (and troubling) fly in the ointment in both Gilead and Home, but my heart softened toward him this time as I read backstory that connected the dots between the unhappy man and the rascally boy who functioned as a complete mystery to his father, the Reverend Boughton, a Presbyterian clergyman.
A Puzzling Character and a Tragic Setting
This fourth novel in the series puts meat on the bones of Jack’s life story as, with pure loveliness, Robinson’s narration gives voice to Jack’s interior monologue which reveals a man just as puzzled by himself as he is inscrutable to others:
On the one hand, there was jail time and destitution and a slightly battered face, and on the other, there were neckties and polished shoes and a number of lines of Milton.”
A self-confessed atheist, Jack continually evokes the name of Jesus, and it’s not always clear whether he’s praying or cursing.
Sliding into love, almost against his will, Jack’s interracial romance with Della stands in opposition to his resolve to make a vocation of “harmlessness,” a condition that has always seemed just out of his reach and for which he has no natural talent. How does a man pursue the woman he loves when they live in an era in which their relationship is considered a crime and his presence in her life would undo everything she has accomplished and alienate her from her close-knit family?
Entering into this dilemma with Jack allows the reader to put flesh and blood on an egregious fault line in our country’s history. Ironically and tragically, when Jack has finally begun to behave honorably toward a woman, a racist society discredits the relationship as dishonorable.
Faith, Family, and Forgiveness
In an interview with the New York Times in 2014, Marilynne Robinson lamented “There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart.” Certainly faith and those who practice it professionally show up in her books, but there’s no getting around the sadness in this novel– or the uncomfortable stiffness to the Christianity Jack learned and practiced in his home. The hollowness shows up in his load of shame carried forward, and if home is a metaphor for the soul in literature, Jack’s having a hard time finding a place to land on both levels.
It’s no secret that Christian families (and ministry families in particular) have unique challenges: passing along a vibrant faith free of church politics; living truth before our kids in the grittiness of our everyday routine; engaging in worship that does not feel like work. Jack’s faith appears to have been shaped by his father’s existential fear for Jack’s soul, a fear that found its way into Boughton’s sermons and most of his conversations with his son. Sadly, Jack may speak for many adults who have grown up in a pew and are struggling to find their way into ownership of their faith and a place to stand in the church gathered:
I guess I feel at home in a church. Not at ease, but at home.”
Even though his lifestyle choices continually put him in the way of misfortune, Jack still gravitated to the church, and his mind was full of its words and music. It was in his conversations with Pastor Samuel Hutchins that Jack began to reveal some of his deep regrets and the load of shame he carried. Clearly, Jack was an enigma to Pastor Hutchins who, nonetheless, struggled to blaze a trail back to grace for an obviously troubled man:
If the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If he’s showing you a little grace in the meantime, he probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.”
Jack is a cautionary tale for Christian families. As tempting as it may be to re-work our theology to accommodate the sins of our children and as slippery the slope into despair over our prodigals may be, God is still in the process of dispensing grace to us and to our children. In the meantime, I’m grateful for fiction that invites me to own the brokenness in my own story, to embrace my need for repentance and meaningful change, and to trust for clear-eyed judgment concerning all the ways in which I may be my own worst enemy.
Many thanks to NetGalley and to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Jack, Gilead, or Home, simply click on the title, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Order your copy of Oh Wondrous Grace Chronicle here and buy one for a friend. I have an article in the current issue on the gift of work. (I know, it’s hard sometimes, but truly, it’s a gift from God, and he was the very first homemaker.)
To, you’ll also find good words on the blessing of “Monday Night Dinners” from my friend Sue Moore Donaldson, the queen of hospitality.
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