As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
“Your mother’s trying to like him,” writes John Ames about his wife in Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead. By all accounts the sentence is unremarkable—a weak verb whose force is not felt and an infinitive that is equally flimsy. Yet in the context of the novel, the words strike at the vitals of a Christian understanding of maturity.
The “him” in the sentence refers to John Donne, a 17th-century English poet. Ames’ wife, Lila, is described as uneducated and unschooled in religious matters, a novice as to the life of the mind. The poetry of Donne does not come naturally to her or even appeal. We can undoubtedly add other authors that the folks in Gilead would have heard of—Calvin, Luther, and even Feuerbach, who makes an unexpected entrance in the novel. So why is she trying to like him?
Lila wants to be a good mother to her young boy. She knows her husband will die soon (he is 40 years older), and so she will have to raise their child alone. She wants to pass down the wisdom of learned people. Her desire makes three important assumptions:
First, learning is difficult. Making sense of and appreciating poets like Donne is not easy. Likewise, understanding the theology of John Calvin takes time; the works of Shakespeare, Owen, and Melville do as well. Stepping into the tradition of great thinkers is never an easy task. Therefore, liking them is an acquired taste, which can only be achieved through effort even with the encouragement of great educators and guides.
Here is a point about human nature in a fallen world. The easy path, the one of least resistance, rarely is the best one to take. The New Testament makes this point as well when it compares the road that leads to eternal life as narrow and the one that leads to destruction as broad. Cultivating a virtuous mind and life requires hard work. Therefore, a desire to like something difficult is a profound mark of grace, especially because no one completely makes it. Lila is on that road and wants her son to join her.
Second, Lila’s desire to like Donne assumes that Donne’s poetry is worth the effort. Not all literature or philosophy or way of life is equal. I know that in a postmodern world such a sentiment is not popular. Who decides what is good? Without getting too deeply into this conversation, consider the dead as well as the living. The works that have passed the test of time have done so for good reason; they speak to the perennial issues of the human heart and predicament. And because there are no easy answers, this body of literature is necessarily complex, deep, and difficult. Trying, therefore, is the best we can do. We join a conversation, gain invaluable wisdom, and if we are fortunate enough, we add a few lines.
Third, Lila believes the best way to prepare her son for a good life is to place him on this path. When her son is old enough, she wants him to wrestle with what it means to contemplate what is unseen, to think long and hard about unchangeable truths and beauty in a quickly moving world, and to reflect on what it means to live a good life and be a good man. The sum of these assumptions invites people to step into a narrative and to develop habits that produce virtues. Isn’t this the path of discipleship? Jesus calls us to follow him and take his yoke upon ourselves.
It all starts with trying to like. What more can we ask for as ministers, educators, and parents? To be honest, what more can we ask of ourselves?