Seeing the World the Way You Ought

We know nothing of Lila’s parents. We meet her in a home for migrant workers, where, for the most part, she is ignored and neglected. In the opening words of Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse” (3).

To use an Epiphany phrase, Lila’s solitary life twice “shines forth” with love. The first is when a woman named Doll, herself a drifter, takes pity on the child. She steals her, if one can be stolen from those who don’t care. 


There was a moon staring straight at her, and there were sounds in the woods, but she was nearly sleeping when Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, “Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?” (3-4).

Doll raises Lila, as best one might, on the road, during the Great Depression. They join company with other drifters, led by a man named Doane. Honest enough not to steal, clean enough to wash their clothes in rivers.

Life takes Doll away, as suddenly as she entered, but Lila’s life “shines forth” a second time when she falls in love, or at least comes to like very fondly, John Ames, an old Calvinist preacher, twice her age, in the town of Gilead, Iowa. One day she appears in the back of his church. Eventually he baptizes her; eventually she becomes his wife. But what can a young drifter, who spent only enough time in school to learn to read and to call her country the United States of America, make of this Protestant minister and his world? She can only read the Bible with difficulty. She has even more trouble trying to understand the strident Calvinist teaching that only the baptized can have a share in Christ.

Lila went along with him to Boughton’s house to drink iced tear on the porch and listen while they talked, and one afternoon as she listened she understood that Doll was not, as Boughton said, among the elect. Like most people who lived on earth, she did not believe and was not baptized. None of Doane’s people were among the elect, so far as she knew, except herself, if she could believe it. Maybe their lives had gone on, and some revival preacher had taken them in hand. But Doll’s life ended, and no one had rested his hand on her head, and no one had said a word to her about the waters of regeneration. If there was a stone on her grave, there was no name on it. A real name might have made her easier to find, or have added another crime to child-stealing, so she never even told Lila what it was. When Doll gave Lila her knife she said, “It’s only for scaring folks with. If you go cutting somebody it’s going to be trouble no matter what the story is.” So Doll might have been hiding already when Lila first knew her, sleeping in that miserable crowded cabin, coming and going in the night the way she did. Calling herself by that one name. Maybe she died with dark sins on her soul. Lila had heard the preachers talk that way. Or maybe the crime was just some desperate kindness, like stealing as sickly child. And maybe it made no difference to the Lord, one way or the other (97-98).

Lila is an unlettered woman, but the difficulty she faces is a dilemma shared by every disciple of Christ, learned or rude. How does one reconcile the gift given in Christ with the knowledge that most folk will live and die without ever seeing “the glory of the Lord?” (Is 60: 1). What does it mean to call Christ savior and yet to know of many souls, some of whom we love desperately, who cannot say this of him? Or cannot profess it with conviction? 

Love isn’t supposed to be limited, and yet the Gospels insist that salvation comes from choice, from a decision that is born of recognition. What of those who never see, who cannot say? 

The Gospel of Saint Matthew was written to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah of God, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope. And yet even in this story there is another way, a longer road that leads to Christ. The Magi are not Jews. They are guided, not by the Law and the Prophets, but by a star that shines in the darkness.

To know Christ, to know who he is, and to reject him is the very meaning of damnation. But many of those who will never be called Christian have found a longer road to him.  They have followed the star of conscience. We must trust that God will show the way. 

Lila notices that her husband doesn’t preach much about hell. He doesn’t insist on the damnation of Doll and Doane and others like them. He tells her:

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way.

She said, “I don’t know nothing about it.” Then she said, “I don’t understand theology. I don’t think I like it. Lots of folks live and die and never worry themselves about it” (101).

Epiphany is all about “seeing the world the way you ought.” It’s about seeing more love than you can take, and trusting this love to find a way. Marilynne Robinson is our greatest living novelist, and she may well be our best theologian. 

Isaiah 60: 1-6    Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6    Matthew 2: 1-12

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Mary Nolan
4 years 2 months ago
Thank you for this article. I so loved all three books (Giliad, Home and Lila) and find myself going back to them to peruse. Mary E Nolan, subscriber


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