Missing Church, Not Religion: Why I Read Marilynne Robinson
Returning to the incredible sensory memories of church — and the feel of religion without evangelism.
“He spoke with a tenderness he wasn’t even aware of anymore, that you could read if you knew how, like reading the bottom of a river from its pools and flows .. His preaching was a sort of pattern of his mind, like the lines in his face.”
That quote is from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, and it describes the “old man” pastor who would eventually become the titular character’s husband. It’s also the passage that, for me, forcefully evoked an expansive set of memories: a particular posture of attention, staring up at the pulpit, and an overarching sense of warmth, listening to words that, as a young child, I understood only intermittently. I was deep in the dinge of the 23rd Street subway station, waiting for the F train, but in my mind, I was a 7-year-old kid, legs dangling from the pew, so excited for the service to end and coffee hour, with its cornucopia of cheap, stale cookies, to begin.
If you grew up in the Protestant church, as I did, you likely have a similar spiral of memories: singing the Doxology (from whom all blessings flow), reciting the Lord’s Prayer (forgive us our trespasses), figuring out the best ways to distract yourself during the sermon when you were too old to go to kid’s time in the church basement. I can see the Sunday morning light slanting in through the old stained-glass windows, catching the floating dust in the lemon air; I can feel the scratch of the crosshatched pew cushions, and the smell of the hymnals with their broken spines, and the ripped cheap plastic of the welcome pad that we’d pass down the aisles, signing our full names with much self-importance.
There was a homeless man who came every week for a year; massive, sweating, but refusing to take off his giant blue coat, and a Southern couple, birdlike in their angular elderliness, that prided themselves on being 10% more dressed up than anyone else in the congregation. There were the warble-voiced sopranos in the choir and the yellowing felt of the Bible verse banners and the squish of the cubes of Communion bread and shame at potentially smashing the body of Christ.
Catholic churches always had a suppleness and darkness to them: There was something so exotic and mystical about their thick-stoned walls, the smell of incense, the calm pool of the holy water. Protestant Churches, especially those in the Calvinist tradition, always seemed so spartan in contrast. The defining feeling is lightness, like the air is thin. I have no memories of being in the church when it was raining, or even dark (save Christmas); it was always so light in the sanctuary that it felt like God was very deliberately keeping you awake.
And then there was the sound of the pastor’s voice, its particular mix of warmth and gravity and knowledge that the passage from Lila evokes so clearly. From the time I was 6, we had a pastor with a thick beard and kind eyes; several years later, we added a second, younger pastor, with a voice slightly less rounded by age. Those two gentle and intelligent men functioned as the figurative voice of God, but in two distinct ways: Both came from the Calvinist tradition of a learned clergy, meaning they attended Presbyterian seminary (both of them at Princeton) and found their way to our small and steady congregation in northern Idaho.
Each pastor had a necessarily bifurcated personality: There was the pastor who was a moderately goofy guy, who wore a lot of Hawaiian shirts and white tennis shoes. But then there was the pastor in the heavy black robes, so comforting in their endless folds, like a grandmother’s muumuu in its capacity to provide asexual love. The robes also conferred a necessary otherness, a set-apart-ness, amplified when they took the pulpit, first to welcome, then to read the selected Old and New Testament readings and, most importantly, to give the sermon, which seemed to stretch for miles, at least to my 10-year-old self, both in time and depth.
My pastors would often use what I know now as close reading but then understood only as intensely intelligent, going down to the specific wording of a passage, evoking the complicated specifics of the original translation. They spoke seemingly without notes, with beautiful lilts and pauses. Never fire and brimstone; seldom the deeper, shadier, Calvinist interpretations of the Elect that I only really understood after a college-level religion class. The sermons were almost entirely of grace and love; of charity of spirit and openness of heart. There was never a call to arms or a political invocation; rather, a call to generalized empathy, an awe at the complexity of a god that is at once loving yet demanding and often confusing in his commandments.
Those are my best and purest memories of the church, and religion before Youth Group and True Love Waits and Praise Songs and Giving Your Heart to Jesus. A Protestantism without evangelism. And that’s the religion I remember with fondness, both for its intellectual rigor and the righteousness of its teachings, which seem, at least in hindsight, the closest translations of the transgressive, progressive teachings of Jesus. A form of Christianity rooted in selflessness, contemplativeness, self-interrogation. A Christianity absent of the suffocating, contradictory ideologies that characterize much of its popularized iteration today.
Which is why I find myself so tethered to Robinson’s work. She’s the closest thing I have to return to those rhythms of early belief, the best at translating their palpability and comfort and challenge.
There’s been a lot of writing about Robinson in the weeks leading up to the release of Lila, the third in what could be called her “Iowa trilogy,” which traces life in the small town of Gilead from the perspective of a dying Congregationalist pastor (Gilead), his Presbyterian best friend (Home), and his young wife (Lila). They’re deceptively simple novels, offering voice to a small cast of characters in a tiny town, as they wrestle, without pomposity, with what can only be described as the most important questions of life. What does it mean to be good? To forgive? To die? And what might a life of striving toward those answers look like?
If that sounds like a slog through the worst of self-help or the most impenetrable of philosophy, that’s because there’s no suitable language for a text that manages to simultaneously function as a novel and a piece of profound meditation. The trilogy has been called one of the “unlikeliest” in American literary history, but it’s also one of the most indescribable: an unapologetically religious, profoundly lyrical text that is the opposite of “preachy.”
Still, the way I’ve always gushed about the books has been a variation on “she makes me miss church.” Church, but not religion. My pastors, not men issuing commandments on how I should live my life. The rhythms and imagination of theology, not the constraints thereof.
Robinson writes in a way that manages to seem at once spare and expansive. I can’t tell you whether her sentences are short or long, simply that they make my life and thoughts seem like they have a meter. It’s incredibly soothing and yet — remarkably, inexplicably — the opposite of soporific. Even as her characters wade through sorrow, there’s a sharpness to her work, an abundance, an alacrity. I want to swim through the deep lake of each chapter. It’s that immersive and, in its attention to the smallest details of the reflective mind, that otherworldly.
But maybe I feel that way because Robinson and I were reared in the same landscapes, literal and figurative. Both of us were raised in northern Idaho — Robinson in Sandpoint, I in Lewiston; both of us were raised Presbyterian.”I was brought up in a household where I was aware of having a certain kind of identity, which was Presbyterian,” Robinson told the New York Times Magazine. Like the characters in her first novel, Housekeeping, which takes place in Idaho, we were “chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.”
Robinson’s spiritual upbringing did not pivot in high school, as mine did, to conform to the growing evangelism of the ’90s, replete with praise songs and “See You at the Pole” performances of belief. In this (and myriad other ways) I find myself jealous: that she followed a path that led deeper into the thickness of scripture and theology, whereas mine led to shame and alienation.
Now I find myself writing for the internet in Manhattan, which seems the very opposite of the contemplative and largely solitary life Robinson has arranged for herself in Iowa City, Iowa. But the inclination toward solitude is part of our regional heritage: “there’s a very strong tendency among people to be kind of isolated,” Robinson says of Idaho, “more hermits per capita than you’d find most places. We were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with.”
A mind with which you would like to live: the most sensible and difficult of goals. And the goal, too, of the brand of faith articulated and interrogated by Robinson throughout her work.
The deftness with which Robinson evokes the sensory landscapes of my childhood church is remarkable. But the degree to which she compels me not to return to that childhood church, but to continuously, and reflectively, return to my own mind — that’s revelatory.