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Grace in Marilynne Robinson’s Jack

[Editor’s note: This is the second of Amy Stimson’s posts engaging with Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Click here to read the first.]

I have been thinking a lot about grace lately. It occurred to me today that we have seasons in the church calendar dedicated to the attributes of God.

If you, like me, grew up in a church in which “church calendar” meant either Easter or Christmas, let me paint you a picture: at Easter, we meditate on God’s great love in terms of sacrifice, atonement, and eternity and at Christmas we rejoice in hope, peace, giving—though of course there is overlap. The grace of God doesn’t seem to have its own period.

Recently, I asked a friend for an unchurched definition of grace, and his response was, “Oh I don’t know, like elegance?” It strikes me now as funny that for many people like him, women named Grace are assumed to be named for a quality of person rather than a quality of God.

What prompted this discussion in the first place was this passage from Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Jack (2020). A pastor is talking with the titular character, a man who is broken, lonely, and despairing. Jack is not a Christ character, at least not deliberately, and yet he is (as many of us might believe ourselves to be) “a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). He and Reverend Hutchins have been talking about forgiveness, and the pastor muses: “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” (167). What struck me though was Jack’s response: “It’s not always clear to me how to tell grace from, you know, punishment.”

Grace as punishment.

Grace as punishment.

Rachmaninoff’s piano music always used to unsettle me because it sounded frenetic and on the brink of utter chaos. This idea was like that, jangling discordantly within me, mostly because it didn’t feel like chaos. It felt true.

I suppose it’s a lot like feeling the power of a large wave. Its full force, its threat, its life-taking power only bears down upon the one who is determined to remain unmoved. Amy Stimson

I have often found that Robinson’s writing makes unseen things seen. She writes about loneliness in a way that is profound and all-seeing, but somehow private and human and unobtrusive. The tragedy of Jack is that he appears to be irredeemable. The prodigal son of a forgiving minister, the beneficiary of an understanding brother, the love of a wonderful woman, and yet he finds himself at odds with the world in so many seemingly insubstantial ways that you cannot but despair with him. His greatest hope for his life is to be harmless, to avoid inflicting harm upon his fellow man, but even this seems too much to hope for. Ever since I first met Jack in Gilead (2005), the first of this collection, questions about what grace is for Jack have been on my mind.

We talk so often about grace as amazing, in the words of the great hymn. And indeed it is. It is grace that reaches far, that reaches where no one else would, that does the unthinkable, and redeems the irredeemable. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that the message of the story of Beauty and the Beast was that “a thing needs to be loved before it is lovable.” The redeeming grace of the story is not in it being a tale of unlikely romance, but of something irredeemable being redeemed, humanised, made new.

But what about grace as punishment? Grace as burdensome? Grace as a heavy weight, obligation, requiring response? To come back to the conversation with my friend, we began to talk about whether grace could exist if you didn’t believe in God. Well, yes, I said. Grace is as water to a fish; in it we live and move and have our being. We are complexly and inextricably wound up in it, so that everything is a grace in our lives. Granting those terms, even what feels like a punishment might even be considered a grace.

I’m reminded of a story Corrie ten Boom tells of her days in Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp. On top of everything else, their barracks were infested with fleas. In her prayers, attempting to be thankful in all circumstances, Corrie’s sister Betsie even thanked God for the fleas. Corrie felt this had taken it too far. It became apparent, however, that the guards who may have separated them, confiscated the smuggled Bible, and punished them, were avoiding that room—because of the fleas. 

Can one distinguish grace from punishment?

I suppose it’s a lot like feeling the power of a large wave. If you swim with it, if you’re carried along by it, you are aware of its power only in a small way. It’s only felt when you resist; its full force, its threat, its life-taking power only bears down upon the one who is determined to remain unmoved.

Timothy Keller has written that “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” To have someone know the worst and be loyal all the same—this is what grace is. It stares baldly into the fathomless depths, and it doesn’t baulk at what it sees; “illusionless compassion” is one way of looking at it. 

It is unbearable. Most of us come from cultures that have privatised vulnerability: it is revealed only to the select few. If it escapes us accidentally, if we show weakness where we wanted to be perceived strong, we feel insecure and exposed. Robinson uses the imagery of an unbearable light, exposing, “light indeed, rid of the dilutions that sometimes made them into warmth and illumination, those blandishments.” Something similar happens when you read Psalm 139 as if you were a fugitive evading capture: all that light imagery suddenly becomes terrifying, and the promises that you will be seen, you will be revealed wherever you are, whatever you are, make the light fearsome and terrible.

In the same way, amazing as it is, grace can also be terrible. That devastating awareness of how far grace had to descend in order to find you. It is knowledge you can’t un-know once you do. It is heavy and huge. The thing that Jack eventually comes to verbalise is the question of whether you could enjoy a moment of grace and refuse it at the same time.

I have sat with these ideas a long time, and as I have prayed over them, I am reminded of how pervasive grace is as well. Pervasive is not really a hymn-like word, but it describes the kind of complexity I have been pondering. God pursues relentlessly, and his grace manifests and envelops in ways we cannot even understand. His grace is both terrible and great, but also small and moment-sized.

Jack is a book all about grace. The grace of moments—small mercies, as some would say. And the grace of eternity, bearing down like Francis Thompson’s hound of heaven upon a fleeing man.

To conclude all these barely-tethered ponderings, what is grace? The meeting of guilt, perhaps, with the knowledge of good—and all the weight of glory that brings.


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