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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.