Lila Bloody Lays

Article by   June 2015
Lila is a swelling tide. The prose and themes slowly overwhelm, lifting and submerging the reader on grace's stormy sea. For Lila, the novel's namesake, flailing in this tide comes naturally. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, "Live." 

My own fascination with Lila, and with Robinson, arises from a deep appreciation for the Old Testament's leading role in both. Any literary laurels I pass her way are amateurish at best. I have no credentials for such. I do, however, pay my mortgage by teaching the Old Testament. As my children are wont to remind me, I'm not the kind of doctor who can really help someone. But if you could use some assistance on an airplane identifying a hifil verb, I might be useful. 

I should add that my approach to reading, teaching, and thinking through the Old Testament springs from my commitment to do so as a Christian theologian. I understand, or better, confess that Jesus of Nazareth is insolubly linked to the singular identity of the named God of the Old Testament, Yhwh. The Old Testament makes its presence known throughout Lila, heightening my own interest in the novel. But there's more.

Lila represents a modern attempt at figura or figural interpretation. The result is both beautiful and penetrative. Erich Auerbach's celebrated essay, "Figura," defines it as follows: "Figural interpretation creates a connection between two events or persons in which one signifies not only itself but also the other--and that one is encompassed or fulfilled by the other."[1]  Lila resides in an elevated plane of theological connections, particularly with the first part of the Christian canon.

In a similar manner, Flannery O'Connor affirms the force of symbolic reading. "I think the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once, more happens than meets the eye."[2]  A novel, she claims, operates on several levels. "The truer the symbol, the deeper it leads you, the more meaning it opens up." Lila's symbolic frame "opens up" in spades.

Lila is Lila. In the narrative world of the novel, she keeps close to the gritty floor of life. She arises from the depth of human despair only to be met by the unexpected kindness and love of an aging minister. The minister's love is Christ's love, the two loves resisting easy differentiation. Reverend Ames baptizes Lila. Reverend Ames also marries her. The essential relationship between Ames and Christ's love only exacerbates Lila's ever-teetering psychological state. At once, determined to plunge into the waters of baptism, Lila's singular focus then turns to washing it off. All the while, the kindly and aged minister-husband reminds Lila that baptism doesn't wash off. Neither does his love.

Never quite able to escape the clutches of her ignoble past, Lila wrestles with the discontinuity between her current world in Gilead and the gypsy life she once knew. Before, life was movement, uncertainty, episodic. Now life is stable, predictable, and kind. The stark contrast between the two worlds creates a cacophonous conversation in Lila's mind. We're never quite sure if she will stay or leave. This wanderlust leaves the reader uncomfortable. I failed to mention that Lila had a stint as a prostitute back in St. Louis. It was a failed attempt, mind you, but an attempt nonetheless. Now, she's the minister's wife. Up is down; down is up.

In Robinson's narrative world, Lila is Lila. As a species of figura, however, Lila is much more. The invitatory symbolic clues arise from within narrative itself. Lila is an incessant reader of the Old Testament. Lacking the overfamiliarity with Scripture that plagues so many of us, Lila comes to Scripture with fresh and wide-opened eyes. She's discovering the strange new world of the Bible, hard angles and all. All the while, Scripture's presence remains tyrannical and disorienting for the neophyte. Scripture is doing what Scripture does best. It's dislocating the self, drawing reluctant sinners to the severity and mercy of God. 

Lila is my kind of gal. She's drawn to those dark alleys of Scripture that betray easy codification or explanation. Given her penchant for the unconventional, Lila's favorite text isn't John 3:16 or the Psalm de jour. Lila's stolen Bible falls open to Ezekiel 16. The themes and imagery of this (to say the least) dark text arrest her. "As you lay in your blood, I said to you, 'Live'." The startling and haunting prophetic oracle is strangely familiar to Lila. Though new to the text itself, Lila's reading of it feels more like a recollected memory than a new encounter. Lila is Ezekiel 16. 

When Lila reads Ezekiel 16 she stares in the mirror: a girl's ignoble and uncertain lineage, the certainty of infanticide/child neglect, the unexpected saving kindness of a stranger, dissolved relationships, life in the brothel, and the redeeming grace of a loving husband. Naturally, Lila is a novel and does not seek to make these symbolic connections obvious. Nevertheless, Lila's lived experience is an intra-textual one with Ezekiel 16 providing the requisite characterization. Little wonder Lila as a narrative figure is so mesmerized by this text. And pressing beyond Lila herself, one might read the entirety of the novel as a figural account of Ezekiel's most controversial chapter. Given the art form, Robinson's novel is more than a figural account of Ezekiel 16. But I don't think it is less so. 


The novels of Marilynne Robinson take time. I often find myself on the front end of her books, fiction or essays, steeling myself toward the finish line. Friends of mine have sheepishly admitted, "I'm not really a fan." The furtive glances anticipate a sharp reaction. "How dare you?" I understand, I think. Every sentence is so carefully crafted; prolixity verboten from beginning to end. From the afterlife, John Calvin applauds. In his rhetorical arsenal, lucidity and brevity are the fertile soil for eloquence and wisdom. Robinson agrees with her theological paragon. Lila is lean and sleek, trimmed of all excess. The sheer enormity of the art form requires patience.

The inability to articulate my delight with Lila resides in that border region where language strains after the inexpressible. Saint Augustine's distinction between signum (sign) and res significata (thing signified) continues to provide readers with an important hermeneutical tool. The thing signified cannot be exhausted by our various acts of signification, literary or otherwise. The thing is always more. If that's the case with chickens, for example, how much more so the grace of God.

Any encounter with art--whether music, painting, sculpting, or writing--makes fuller sense when a Christian metaphysic is deployed. Few intellectual historians have trumpeted such a claim with more verve and depth of penetration than George Steiner. He reminds us of the necessary metaphysical underpinnings of our encounters with art by asking a simple question. "Have you ever tried to explain why you enjoyed a concert as much as you did?" It is difficult to give an account of these encounters because they whisper to us from beyond: psst, hey you. Even the doleful Schopenhauer understands music as the one place where we are momentarily suspended from the vortex of our frustrated longings and boredom with met desires. So too, I would add, with good fiction. Lila uplifts.

Misgivings about Robinson's own "liberal" account of Scripture and John Calvin, for that matter, are not without warrant. I recently read an interview with Robinson where she recounts her preaching in a Unitarian church, John Calvin in tow. Robinson's Calvinism is selective, to be sure. Don't forget Servetus, Mrs. Robinson, uncomfortable as that memory may be. Trinitarian theology mattered and matters. All to say, I'm willing to take my rose-colored glasses off when reading Robinson for the sake of understanding real points of discrepancy between her account of the gospel and an account recognizable by Calvin and his progeny. 

For now, I'll keep my glasses on for a bit longer. Lila's too rich and beautiful. It heightens the awareness of God's grace and draws one back into the world of Ezekiel 16's familiar yet unfamiliar terrain. After all, Ezekiel's strange tale is the church's narrative too.

Mark Gignilliat is Associate Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School and Canon Theologian at The Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Spinoza to Childs (Zondervan, 2012)


[1] Erich Auerbach, Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach: Time, History, and Literature, trans, J.I. Porter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p.96

[2] Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962), p.71

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