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Christianity and Literature Vol. 59, No.2 (Winter 2010) Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and the Difficult Gift of Human Exchange Michael Vander Weele To be sure, there's plenty of irony in Marilynne Robinson's second novel. The narrator, an aging minister, needs his prodigal godson to help him come to peace with his impending death. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach contributes an important platform for the minister's understanding of blessing. The blessed confer blessing upon those who bless them. And so forth. So it's not a lack of irony, exactly, that surprises Robinson's reader. Still, the reader recognizes at once Robinson's difference from fellowChristian authors Flannery O'Connor and Muriel Spark, whose ironic stance toward their characters communicates, as O'Connor put it, how abnormal our normal state of affairs really is. (This stance and this goal are more clearly evident in Robinson's essays, as beautifully wrought as her fiction, but regularly revisionist and sometimes caustic.) Where O'Connor and Spark trigger our recognition of what is lacking in our so-called normal lives, Robinson's fiction shows us the other side of such recognition: effort. Robinson shows her characters' committed, fallible efforts to sustain the difficultgiftof human exchange. The seriousness of Robinson's commitment to showing this effort is what's so surprising in Gilead, page after page after page. Language and Form ofLife It is a terrific artistic and moral risk Robinson takes-risking a decrease in aesthetic distance and an increase in moral presumption. But if she negotiates these risks well, she can take us into territories we need to understand better (or more, or again). Take, for "territories" Wittgenstein's "forms of life:' If "to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life;' as Wittgenstein says (qtd. in Wannenwetsch 32), then Robinson gives access to a form of life as different from what we know as her language is different from her contemporaries, both Christian and non-Christian. 217 218 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE For starters, what other authors could combine the mundane and philosophical in passages such as these, chosen more or less at random, from the middle portion of the 76-year-old minister's "endless letter" to his son: I was thinking about old Boughton's parents, what they were like when we were children. They were a rather somber pair, even in their prime. Not like him at all. His mother would take tiny bites of her food and swallow as if she were swallowing live coals, stoking the fires of her dyspepsia. And his father, reverend gentleman that he was, had something about him that bespoke grudge. I have always liked the phrase "nursing a grudge;' because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts. Well,who knows what account these two old pilgrims have made of themselves by now. I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on. I enjoy the hope that when we meet I will not be estranged from you by all the oddnesses life has carved into me. (117-18) or Just before suppertime yesterday evening Jack Boughton came strolling by. He sat himself down on the porch step and talked baseball and politics-he favors the Yankees,which he has every right to do-until the fragrance of macaroni and cheese so obtruded itself that I was obliged to invite him in. (119-20) or When she [Della, wife and mother] woke up, she was so glad to see me, as if I had been gone a long time. Then she went and fetched you and we ate our supper in the parlor-it turns out that whoever brought the trays brought one for each of us. Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake and pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life'sproblems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked...


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