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There is a haunting passage in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Jack (2020), the fourth in her quartet of novels revolving around two mid-20th-century families from the fictional southwest Iowa town of Gilead.

Jack Boughton, ne’er-do-well son of a Presbyterian minister and godson of a Congregationalist minister, is living a hard-scrabble life in St. Louis, self-exiled from Gilead and filled with self-loathing for his destructive impulses. He encounters Della Miles, daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop and an English teacher at a segregated high school.

Almost a year after their initial meet-cute goes awry, they encounter each other again, this time in Bellefontaine Cemetery at night, where Jack is loitering, and Della has accidentally been locked in. They pass the night together, wandering the cemetery and talking. Toward morning, Della tells Jack “You are living like someone who has died already”; and then, moments later, “I think it’s kind of – beautiful.” Then, this:

She said, “I’m just trying to tell you that there are reasons why you should, you know, keep body and soul together.”
  ”To beautify, no, beatify, this tedious world. I can’t tell you what multitudes are unmoved.”
      ”Well, there’s Jesus,” she said, which startled him.
      He said, “A gentleman I am at considerable pains to avoid.” He thought, Sweet Jesus, don’t let her try to convert me.
      ”I’m sorry. I know how that sounded. I really just meant that there is – anyone, any human being, and then that person’s actual life, everything they didn’t mean or couldn’t say or wished for or grieved over. That’s reality. So someone who would know the world that way, some spirit, seems kind of inevitable. I think. Why should so much reality, most of it, count for nothing? That’s how it seems to me.”
      ”That spirit would not always be impressed, depending on cases.”
      She shook her head. “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it. I hope that doesn’t sound harsh.”
      Who could object? But she was very serious. How to put an end to this without offending her in a way he would have to regret? “Not harsh at all,” he said. Something worse, something he lacked a word for. (p. 74)

That last sentence gave me pause when I read it, and still does.

What is “worse” than harsh about what Della says? Jack actually likes harsh; he wallows in his remorse. But – perhaps this is Robinson’s point – when he encounters love, grace, being called beautiful, he recoils. Why should this be so? Perhaps because it calls him beyond remorse to repentance.

The distinction between remorse and repentance is often described in terms of motivation, with remorse being driven by a shallow fear of consequences, while repentance arises from a genuine recognition of our wrongness before God and a desire to change. There may be something to this view, but I wonder whether Robinson points us to a deeper understanding.

Jack’s remorse is not driven by mere self-interest. He wants desperately to not be the person he is. He hates his tendency to kleptomania and addiction and casual cruelty. He tries to live “harmlessly,” as he puts it, although even that effort repeatedly alienates him from his family and thwarts his life. He is rigorously honest with himself and with Della. “In your own way,” she tells him, “you’re kind of – pure.”

But that purity is powerless to rescue him from the self-destructive cycle of his life. He has floundered in the water for so long that he sees the lifeline Della is throwing him as a greater threat than drowning. Jesus, to him, is a gentleman he is at considerable pains to avoid. The dramatic crux of the novel is Jack’s struggle to accept that he is loveable, and that he is loved.

In his classic book, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a well-known distinction between cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace, he says, is grace as a Get Out of Jail Free card, a legal reprieve that leaves one untouched at the core. Jack is not at all tempted to avail himself of any such offer. He knows his need is for something much deeper.

Costly grace, on the other hand, even though it is (paradoxically) free, calls us to enlist in a relationship of faithful obedience to Christ, to die and rise with Christ, to look at the world and ourselves through Christ’s eyes and find it all loveable at the core, whatever sin may stain its surface. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow. It is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” Such following is faith, repentance, metanoia.

Does Jack rise to the challenge of being loved? Robinson offers no easy answers. But in her quartet, she does pose the question within a rich tapestry of language and life.

David Timmer

David Timmer taught religion for 40 years at Central College in Pella, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Ja, ja. A good window into Robinson’s world. Thanks for the measure of remorse and repentance. Because I liked this novel the least of her quartet, and gave up on it. I didn’t have the charity for Jack’s mind, I guess. I was impatient with the novel. The wonder of her quartet is her exploration of the extended Puritan mind in both light and dark, from the glory of Gilead to the exhaustion of Jack. (I note Jim Bratt’s recent piece.) Or as in her other writings, the American Calvinist project, from public libraries to state universities. You touch this with “pure.” Let’s talk more about this in a few weeks. Does Ames stand for a public university or an early Puritan theologian who was at the Synod of Dort? Or, of course, both?

  • RZ says:

    Very thought-provoking . Thank you. Paradox.
    So grace is free and yet not cheap. It requires us to accept it. And perhaps, like the talents (actually more like elements of truth than abilities or materials) in Jesus’ parable, grace must be reinvested and utilized in order to become fully functional.
    ” He has floundered in the water so long that he sees the lifeline Della is throwing him as a greater threat than drowning.” This is such a great quote and I have known skeptics like this. I also wonder about the apathy that plagues us all. Have we ” floundered in the water” of cheap grace, comfort, doctrinal certainty, tradition or whatever?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And I should add that I guess I didn’t find him very lovable. My weakness.

    • Henry Baron says:

      But why does Della, or is she being foolish?
      What is Robinson’s purpose here, we need to wonder.

      • Daniel Meeter says:

        Indeed, my puzzle. She’s been working on the Jack character since Gilead, so she loves him, it’s clear, but I guess I don’t trust him, and she hasn’t helped me to trust him. His selfish misery and his miserable selfishness must touch some button in me.

        • David E Timmer says:

          Our human loves are (mostly) calculated and parsimonious, with an eye to our own happiness and safety. That’s understandable. But divine love is extravagant and uncalculating – “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be,” as the old hymn says. Maybe Della’s love for Jack, however foolish from our perspective, is a parable of God’s love for us.

  • Leo Jonker says:

    Thank you for this article and the good questions it raises. I found Jack the most interesting and most intriguing of Marilynn Robinson’s four books in this series, precisely because it searches for the heart of the one person who is most troubled and most lost. In my own desire to follow Jesus, the one who searches far for even one lost sheep, I would want to know the heart of someone who is caught in the kind of dark fear that entangles Jack, so that I may enter into that dark place with him, knowing myself always safe in the care of my Lord as I do so. Solving Jack’s problem is more than is asked of us. Being there with Jack may be enough. I thank Ms. Robinson for leading us there.

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