I realize I’m cross-posting with Facebook here, which seems a little off, but this is such a wonderful quote that it needs to be preserved here. It’s from Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. The book is a letter written by an aging/dying pastor to his young son. It is a sort of reflection on his life? for the future benefit of his son.

…six months later I baptized her. And I felt like asking her, ‘What have I done? What does it mean?’ That was a question that came to me often, not because I felt less certain I had done something that did mean something, but because no matter how much I thought and read and prayed, I felt outside the mystery of it.

Ah, mystery. Western Christians tend to not like it. We like everything explained in detail. Yet it often seems like we’re trying to paint a picture of something we have experienced and witnessed but not actually seen, if you know what I mean, and so these explanations can never be more than a blurred “impressionist” depiction.

Anyway, Gilead has been wonderful so far. It has that “Pulitzer Tone,” to use a term I just made up a second ago, kind of like The Shipping News or Buechner’s Godric (which was nominated) or Alistair MacLeod’s short stories (which were not nominated, but probably should have been).

5 thoughts on “Mystery

  1. Toni

    This quote is from a novel?

    Occasionally I get cross with Chris – not often or badly so, but enough to notice – when she treats novels like real life. I don’t know the background in the story, but while I’m happy for people to explore concepts and ideas in novels, I won’t treat what they say as if it’s reality.

    I don’t know what this quote means, because stripped of context I can, and have, read it several ways. Looks like the old Marc V blog is back now that study is finished.

  2. Marc

    Hmmm… I feel like the last paragraph of your comment is somehow loaded, Toni, but I don’t want to read into it.

    I must respectfully disagree with your sentiments. This is a quote from a novel and often fiction (as well as poetry) can express truth and reflect reality much more effectively than a “plain” statement of the facts (as in non-fiction). They may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean they do not contain truth or “reality.”

    In fact, now that I think about it, it is not at all clear to me why the author of a novel cannot grapple with truth and reality in the same way as the author of a “technical” work of non-fiction (say, a book on baptism).

    That aside, my quote here wasn’t intended to be taken that way. My thoughts on “mystery” were only an afterthought, partially written to round out the post. The quote just struck me personally–well written (though much of the effect is lost outside of its context, I suppose), thoughtful, and true in one way or another.

    Dixie said, “I don’t really get the quote either,” but another friend who read the quote in my Facebook status, where it was given no context whatsoever, said, “Just this line makes me want to read the book!” So there you have it. To each his (or her) own, I guess.

  3. Andrew

    Gilead is a terrific book. Good subject too, given the vocation you’re about to start. I recommend reading Marilyn Robinson’s other stuff too.

    I think everyone should read more fiction… Novels have the ability to wrestle with and convey the subtleties of experience and the un/certainties of life in a way that non-fiction never can.

  4. Toni

    On one level fiction=philosophy. You can use it to discuss ideas, but it’s important to remember it’s just some guys (or girls) thoughts on a topic. Even where they have direct personal experience, it is still fiction.

    I like fiction, but as a vehicle for transmitting ideas it remains, for me, firmly in the land of ‘what if’. I’ve been grumpy with preachers making up characters and situations to illustrate their point, but presenting the story as factual and reality.

    Presently I’m reading Don Quixote, which is interesting for someone who’s shut themselves away with theology a long time. Were I to take the book seriously it would likely make me write off what I’m presently called to do and try to sow seeds of doubt into Marc, Randall, Linea and anyone else I know who felt God had a call on their lives. But in a way, Don Quixote also illustrates very well the problem with treating fiction as though it were real, and why I won’t treat it as more than someone’s thoughts and ideas.

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