Balm in Gilead:
A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson
edited by timothy larsen and keith l. johnson
ivp academic, 232 pages, $28
In 1901, Rev. Maltbie Babcock wrote in a well-known hymn that God “shines in all that’s fair.” Like Calvin, Edwards, and Babcock before her, Marilynne Robinson presents in her writings a world suffused with theological significance.
Robinson is known primarily as a novelist, but anyone who has read her books acknowledges her indebtedness and devotion to the Calvinist tradition. Now, a new volume has confirmed Robinson, once and for all, as a theologian. Balm in Gilead presents essays from the likes of Rowan Williams, Timothy George, and Lauren Winner on topics ranging from Augustinian theology to metaphysics to the practice of preaching (a task Robinson takes up at her church—the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City—from time to time), all through the lens of Robinson’s novels and essays.
Broad swaths of evangelical Protestantism and mainline Protestantism are presented in the thinkers here, but the volume lacks a more diverse engagement with Robinson’s corpus (for instance, no Catholic thinkers contributed). Robinson has spent much of her career working to “rescue wounded and discounted reputations.” It seems safe to say that hers will not be in need of such rescuing, at least among most Protestant thinkers. Whether she will be given her due across a wider theological spectrum remains to be seen.
Robinson the novelist is praised for her ability to craft characters that make real to us the action of grace. In Robinson’s world, such action is not always, as Simone Weil wrote, “secret and silent,” but widely proclaimed from creation all around us. She often tells her students to “forget definitions, forget assumptions, watch.” When reading her novels, we are called to do the same. And what Robinson the theologian ultimately shows us is this: “God reigns; let the earth be glad.”