Vilonia, AR.

But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–

–John Milton, Paradise Lost

Much has already been written regarding Marilynne Robinson’s Jack (2020), the latest layer of color added to her portrait on being human. As the fourth novel in the series, it is apropos that Jack is the symbolic last color, he is the “Prince of Darkness” after all. As a graphic designer for several decades, I can’t help but make the association. CMY (cyan, magenta, and yellow) are “subtractive” because the colors get darker as you blend them together, yet not dark enough. Therefore, a true black is added to bring depth (thus, CMYK). Robinson hesitated to add her true black to the Gilead trilogy, stating in 2008 that Jack would be lost “if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible, and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.” Right. Darkness is, well, easy to get lost in. To emphasize the point, Robinson writes nearly one-fourth of her newest novel in a cemetery, where “looking into the dark makes it darker.” Yet Jack, in his deep interior world, with allusions to well-read literature, theological exactness, and philosophical musings, intrigues the reader to want more, not less of his dark arts. Robinson was obliged to deliver him to us after almost a dozen years. As Norman Maclean once wrote, “Grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

I have to admit that I never bothered to read the Robinson sagas until October of 2020, just when Jack was being released. Within days of starting Gilead (2003), I attended the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Virtual Summit on “Deeper Magic and the Serious Business of Heaven,” where Robinson was the un-present presence in many lectures and conversations. “Have you read Robinson? . . .You must read Robinson.” Okay then. Lewis surely would not approve of my chronological snobbery, although he was the one to recommend old books. Guest speaker Malcolm Guite spoke of spells, enchantment, paradoxes. . . and Robinson; then the incarnate sacredness of place, rivers, trees, and Wendell Berry, whom he claimed is an undervalued American treasure—to which Andrew Peterson (The Wingfeather Saga) quickly pointed out the portrait of Berry hanging behind him in his study. Who would have thought of the peculiar convocation of these disparate authors?

Learning more about Robinson, I found her unsettlingly congenial. She raised two boys and enjoys a mostly solitary life of reading, writing, teaching, and hanging out with dead men. Especially, the much-maligned Genevan John Calvin, whom she may thank in no small measure for one Pulitzer Prize (God is witty). Like me, she puzzles over arcane questions having to do with quantum physics. Unproven theories of vibrating strings and multiple universes resonate. It is a quest wrapped in paradox, not unlike that we find in a good book (or spiritual realities). One might think that Robinson and I are practicing science without a license, but I believe it has something to do with literary interpretation. Science tells us that dark matter outweighs visible matter six to one, leaving a lot to be discovered, as does well-written fiction. Robinson observes:

However we decide to think about it, the universe is still vast and complex beyond reckoning, and it might well be only one in any number of universes. The absolute nature of being is still completely unresolved . . . Contemporary science speculates very radically, with fewer constraints of givenness than our ordinary conceptions of existence permit us to imagine. What is time? What is gravity? Then there is the human mind, as great a mystery as anything in nature. It is all glorious. To me it implies divine origins, but it is unfathomable and splendid in itself, without interpretation.

But interpretation is stubborn and her latest novel Jack is firmly planted in “that kind of a universe.” The one infused with meaning, where humans are natural born exegetes. Though we’re not always good at it, it is a skill keen in childhood that diminishes over time. Meaning is carried by metaphor (ferry’d across) in rhymes, songs, and poetry that come easily to the child so fresh in time and space from the eternal. Jack’s sister, Glory, played Ophelia in the family play (yes, there was a time when a minister saw benefit in teaching his children Shakespeare). She was only “six or seven” yet knew intuitively that flowers belong to ghosts, that the mad sing “Jesus Loves Me!” and that someone saw, and failed, to be Ophelia’s keeper. It is the longing of the aging soul to return to the beginning, for “the Father is younger than we,” Chesterton states, and it “is something to come to live in a world of living and significant things instead of dead and unmeaning things. . . . It is old age, a second childhood, that has come to see that everything means something.”

Reading Gilead, Robinson had me at the old man’s goodbye. That is, she ended with the last line from King Lear, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” The aged and sick Congregationalist minister John Ames could die in peace. Like Lear, he learned to know himself more than “slenderly.” To rightly interpret this world, we must begin with ourselves. Without first an inward orientation, as Lewis describes in Book I of Mere Christianity, one cannot proceed to rightly know humanity until they “open that particular man called ‘myself.’” Ames’s interior work came through the deep magic of words written to his son, but in dialogue with himself. It was an epistolary linear history of father/son relations going back three generations. Yet, it was the non-biological, but likewise “unchosen” relation to his godson that cast the good spell upon the old man before he died, as well as on enchanted readers from reviewers in The Atlantic to Barack Obama, to secular and Christian scholars across the globe.

Counter-intuitively, knowing oneself (or loving oneself) is inextricably tied to others. John Ames Boughton (Jack), the son of Robert Boughton (Ames’ best friend), began life by taking from the minister his most prized possession: his name. Their lives became a “spooky” entanglement of Jack’s dark arts, from which neither man would ever be free of the “other.” As with Orual in Till We Have Faces, who realizes that she is the demon goddess Ungit, Ames comes to understand that Jack is more than a son,—he is “another self, a more cherished self.” The harmed and harming, cursed, yet not cursing prodigal Jack goes home after twenty years, seeking the blessing denied him at birth. The balm that might heal all three men. Although Ames believed him “smart as the devil,” Jack the liar held the key to what was true, the meaning to “why we have lived this life!”

The divine incantation Isaac spoke over the deceiver Jacob (Israel), was the theft that blessed all the nations. The familial dark arts of Abraham’s seed weaved into a coat of many colors. Jacob’s right hand crossing his left upon his youngest grandson Manasseh; the final transgressive act to deny the hierarchy of the primogenitor, and the union of Jew and Gentile. Gilead, Iowa is part of that entangled world, where what is meant for evil, God turns for good. Not one vibrating string fails to make a sound.

Between grading literature and philosophy papers this semester, I knocked out Home (2008), Lila (2014), The Death of Adam (1998), and finally Jack. Although Adam is not part of the Gilead narrative, it serves as background to Jack’s belief in predestination. It is a subject that Robinson pursues with vigor, and I might venture to say, a topic that is chased in many good stories.

For instance, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men or HBO’s Westworld. Science, computer technology, AI, quantum theories . . . all run smack-dab into the question(s) of existence. If you are not sure how this works, you might entertain yourself with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), or his other works, Memento (2000), Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), and yes, The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan is in dialogue with Augustine on the nature of time, as well as Calvin (and Paul, Luther, Aquinas, Edwards, Sam Harris, and any number of philosophers) on free will. Nolan’s “What’s happened, happened” and “I’ll see you in the beginning, my friend,” has a familiar ring in “slain from the foundation of the world.” Robinson is kickin’ it old school. No fancy time inversion machine, dead man’s switch, or temporal pincer movements, “just strangers killing time. Remember that.”

Robinson is not just “killing time,” she is redeeming it for both her characters and her readers. In Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (2019), Tiffany Eberle Kriner explores how space-time interacts with the doctrine of predestination in Robinson’s novels. She argues:

Since Robinson considers the failures of humans to account for the concept of time and causation as the main and insurmountable barrier to understanding the coexistence of God’s freedom and human freedom, her fictional thought experiments allow for readers to join in to work toward something better. Her narrative thought experiment in the Gilead novels layers types of time into the novels, dilates time in multiple ways, and entangles scenes and characters to make the doctrine of God’s sovereignty both more mysterious in scope and usable in orientation. Robinson thus renders God’s sovereignty more thinkable, more loveable (128).

The Gilead novels are not time-travel but rather timelines of characters returning to earlier events and experiences, adding clarity and depth to the original story. The outcome doesn’t change; we already know that Jack will go home. He is alienated in the same complicated way that we all are, and we want to know what he did during the twenty “prodigal” years. Incomprehensible as Robinson claims he is, we must know Jack!

Like Tenet, Jack begins in the middle of the story. Readers and protagonist are disoriented. Welcome to Jack’s world. He believes in the “disorder of things.” The existential “nothingness, non-being” of the “shabby life ex-nihlio”—yet he can’t escape the curse of having “ears to hear.” Jack is guilty. He thinks and knows too much. He is caught, like Hamlet and Qoheleth, where increased knowledge brings much sorrow. Ignorance would be temporal bliss.

But here he is, the “Prince of Darkness” in anti-Eden, the garden of the dead, where he fancies himself a “Fiend.” The improbable and undeserved love of Della Miles, a highly educated Black English teacher, daughter of a distinguished Memphis bishop, lets him know that he is just a “talkative man with holes in his socks.” She has come into the garden (forbidden under Jim Crow law), seeking inspiration for her poetry. With her, “[t]he air smelled freshly come from somewhere new, if there was such a place.” We are reminded of Nicodemus’s nighttime visit in John 3, as Jack and Della secretly talk of difficult births and dark-wombed mysteries. Though she is a Methodist, and without much thought to questions of predestination, she admitted to Jack when they first met that “Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. . . And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away.” Grace is nothing, if not arresting; for God so loved the world. The two of them emerge out of the locked cemetery at dawn. Can a man enter his mother’s womb for a second time? Yesterday was Jack’s birthday. Today is his new birth. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The longing created in the reader to want to know Jack is not easily articulated. It is difficult to admit that though we love happy endings, we are inexplicably drawn to misery. Not ordinary suffering, but a particular kind of untamed Kierkegaardian despair. Jack says he is an atheist but behaves as if there is a God. Like Milton’s Satan, Jack has fallen a long way from somewhere beyond Gilead. There is a place we call home, and then there is that other place, the one few of us have the courage to discover. It is a paradox that repels and frightens, while casting a deep spell on our imagination to go there and back again. We are prodigals too, royals in the realm of Darkness where Augustine’s “o felix culpa” (oh, happy fall) sounds amazingly grace filled in the midst of our wretchedness. Jack is us, only better; he is, in his “own way . . . pure.” Some of us, like John Ames in Gilead, are not yet. Predestination being what it is, we will get there.

Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave—
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,—
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

–John Milton, Paradise Lost

Photo credit: Hubble image of MACS J0717 with mass overlay. 

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. A deep dive indeed, but also expansive as you are connecting to so many issues and authors. However, as a Christian Psychologist the “deep” I can relate to, for “to rightly interpret this world, we must begin with ourselves.” And to be deeply entangled with another in their darkness reminded me of Harry Potter and the man whose name we must not utter, just as so many vigorously avoid introspection and connection with their “dark” self, which of course is Jungian thought, or perhaps even our inner child who can bring us either childlike creativity and play or childish impulsivity and rebellion. So health and maturity both require self-knowledge of what we may not admit, and balance in connection to our God, significant relationships, and our purpose in life, “where what is meant for evil, God turns for good. Not one vibrating string fails to make a sound.” For “there is a place we call home, and then there is that other place, the one few of us have the courage to discover. It is a paradox that repels and frightens, while casting a deep spell on our imagination to go there and back again,” which of course is a reference to both The Hobbit and the depth of our mind . . . our self. Great review, Barbara Ann.

Comments are closed.