Metaphor, Religion, and the Human Condition

This evening I finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack. A blurb on the back cover says that Robinson “is one of the great religious novelists. . . .” Another blurb talks about her “spiritual force.” President Obama listed this novel near the top of his list of favorite books of the year, and a few years ago he met personally with Robinson for a conversation about her work.

I deeply admire President Obama. His rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the service for religious people killed by a young racist echoes in me to this day. But I would never have read this book if I thought it was going to be a religious novel. Spiritual is no longer a word that is very interesting to me.

There is plenty of religion in the book—both of the main and practically only characters are children of pastors, and Jack, the white man who narrates the story, is obsessed with the theological questions his good father wrestled with. Della, the “colored” woman who sees his “soul” and becomes his soul and physical mate, is a spiritual woman in the best sense of the word.

Nonetheless, or rather because of this, this novel has moved me like nothing else I have read this year.

Why? How?

Because these feel like real people. Because Jack is on the edge and often over the edge of being able to function in society (he recently was released after two years in prison; he is alcohol dependent; he is an inveterate thief; he inevitably and purposefully causes harm). Because Jack knows all this and lives all this and still keeps on doing what he can, especially after Della comes into his life, I love this book.

This story is tense. Edgy. Powerfully unsettling. 309 pages about Jack’s thoughts and conversations kept me fearful for him, hopeful for him, unsure whether he would revert to destructive habits or find his way to new ways of living. My thoughts turned inevitably to my brother John, who lived on similar edges, to my children who each have their own battles, to myself.

Edgy thoughts and conversations?

Edgy thoughts and conversations about theology? No. Forget that. Rather, theology as metaphor, life-affirming metaphor, life-questioning metaphor, psychologically profound metaphor.

My friend Alex Caldiero is a mystic. I love mystical writing from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton. I love Alex’s work. I love these thinkers for the metaphorical power of their ideas.

I’m not discounting belief. I’m simply trying to explain why Marilynne Robinson’s book has unsettled and affirmed my human existence.

It’s a hell of a good book.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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