The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Lila by Marilynne Robinson – A review

Lila is a hard and tender book.   Until she arrives in the town of Gilead, the best part of Lila’s life came among migrant workers in the dustbowl, where she was cared for by a scar-faced woman who stole her from a life of neglect.  That is a hard life.

But the novel is also tender because Lila perseveres;  she fights against the worst of her ghosts and wants to care about others.  She cares about Doll, who raised her, John Ames, the elderly pastor who marries her, and the expectant child she talks to for much of the novel.  The fact she wants to love and wants to trust at all is a testament to grace.

If there is one word that describes this novel it is grace.  It is not a pretty, pretend grace that makes everything rosy.  Rather, it is a grace in spite of Lila’s  dangerous life that is always on the edge of abandonment, It is a gritty grace that overcomes being a second generation knife-totting woman.  The only grace that can touch Lila is a gritty grace experienced in the most dire of circumstances, ministered by the most unlikely of characters.

Reading reviews on Amazon.com is an interesting experience.  The people who respond negatively to the book most likely prefer action over character development, which Robinson does so well.  With consummate skill, Robinson follows the writers’ adage to “show, not tell Your Domain Name.”  Showing the characters in this book takes a while, but seeing their souls grow is worth it.

People of faith and people of no faith are touched by Robinson’s ability to capture the mind of a woman who can carry her worldly possessions in her hands for decades, and how this woman becomes a wife – a pastor’s wife, at that.

Robinson is a rare theologian who can translate the deepest theology into life-giving words.  John Ames says:

I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. The father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, and he lets the child feel the risk it is taken, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his fathers…I was going to say safety, but there is no safety.  And there is no choice, either, because it is the nature of the child to walk.  As it is the want of the encouragement and attention of the father.  And the promise of comfort. Which it is in the nature of the father to give.  

She is also an accomplished student of the Bible, using  a book as difficult as Ezekiel as the place where Lila encounters the God who rescues abandoned babies and is the source of hope that seems to grow out of nowhere.

I remember Gilead, as a warm and tender book that a give me much joy to read.  Lila is a stand alone prequel to Gilead and a  part of a trilogy that includes Home.  Any of the three stands by itself.  But as soon as I finish this review, I intend to start reading Gilead again, with a new understanding of how the characters arrived to the beginning of the story it tells.

 

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