Reading the Season 2020: ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

Time for Ripple’s Christmas read, an annual post I name Reading the Season.

In the Pulitzer winning book Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to the aging Rev. John Ames in the fictional Iowa town Gilead set in the 1950’s. The book is a letter Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, leaving him with a legacy of family memories, love and forgiveness.

In Home (2008), we enter the house of Ames’ lifelong friend, Rev. Robert Boughton, and meet her daughter Glory. For an ephemeral moment, his son Jack––Ames’ godson––the black sheep of the family appears. Jack returns home after twenty years of self-exile, looking for solace but sadly leaves again without reconciliation.

Lila (2014) is the story about Ames and his young wife Lila, who is homeless and aimless when the old Rev. first finds her on a country road. A beautiful story of how love bridges the great chasm between two utterly incompatible beings and leads to a magical union.

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Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Jack (2020) is the fourth and last of the Gilead novels. It brings us back to the prodigal son in Boughton’s family, Jack, but this time, describing a sweet romance, albeit pointing to a challenging future. In terms of the time setting, Jack is a prequel to Gilead and Home. So we know how life unfolds for him. But for a moment, we dwell in some pleasant thoughts. The novel is like a reversal of Lila; here, Jack is the stray redeemed by Grace.

Nothing short of divine providence, Jack Boughton first meets Della Miles on the street, helping her in the rain to pick up papers blown by the wind. Della is a schoolteacher of literature, lover of poetry, witty, intelligent, and fearlessly independent. But, as fate would have it, she is a Black woman in segregated St. Louis during the 1950’s. Herein lies a precarious yet beautiful love story.

Jack and Della meet again one night in a cemetery serendipitously. Jack is destitute, just released after spending two years in prison, albeit for a theft he did not commit outside a pawn shop. Surely, justice isn’t on his side. Jack often gets roughed up or taunted, sometimes for no good reasons, but deep inside, he knows he’s not an innocent man. He’s destructive to others and himself, sometimes steals, and tries hard to remain sober. As mentioned in Home, years ago while still living at home in Gilead, Jack gets a girl pregnant, then just leaves town and disappears. The death of the baby later only adds to more burden and regrets.

Yet in Jack, Robinson’s depiction of the wayward protagonist is not without humour. Take this as an example:

Jack went out walking, trying to get tired enough to sleep, staying sober, so that if he did jump into the river, he could feel his demise has the dignity of considered choice.

Della has no reason to fall in love with Jack, the punishment for miscegenation is jail and being ostracized from her own family and both racial communities. The Miles are a reputable African American family of strong traditions and deep religious roots, the father being a Bishop in the Methodist denomination. No doubt Della is young and not tuned to the laws of a racist society that rewards the conformist and punishes the deviant. Yet, it is her internal light that leads her to defy unjust norms, look through Jack’s outward appearance to cherish his soul.

Della is Grace personified. The concept of ‘unmerited kindness’ is ubiquitous in the book, and Jack knows and is grateful to be the recipient of such. Receiving kindness might just be an understatement. He is redeemed and given a new life upon meeting Della.

Saying grace over pancakes in Della’s home after the cemetery meet, Jack recites spontaneously a verse from the poem “The Paradox” by African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) :

Down to the grave will I take thee,
Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me––
Death, then, no longer, but life.

Indeed, the paradox of finding life among the dead is the pivotal moment in the book. They talk through the night as soulmates, treasuring the freeing experience inside the locked gate of a cemetery; for Jack, Della is like an epiphany, life in death.

Flannery O’Connor’s notion of the ‘intrusion of grace’ comes to mind as I read the book, light shining into darkness, even just a spark. Also emerged in my mental association is Dostoevsky’s Sonya, the Christlike figure that is a saving grace to Raskolnikov. Not that Jack is an axe murderer, but he knows too well that he needs to be rescued from himself.

Insight and wisdom come packaged in lightness of heart and humor, often embedded in the bantering between Della and Jack. And yet, they are lovers in limbo; while the subjective force of love prevails, there are uphill battles to be fought in the social and systemic front, and an arduous journey awaits. As the story timeframe takes place before Robinson’s Gilead and Home, we know how their lives turn out, which makes reading Jack such a bittersweet experience.

And here’s an imaginary scenario… if the love which surpasses all human barriers could be frozen in time, and let Grace have the last say, that would be heaven.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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2020 has been a most extraordinary year when we find and admit how fragile human beings are. We all need to be rescued not just from a physical virus but a spiritual one and be saved from ourselves. The Christmas Season is an appropriate time to ponder once again on that first crack of light, the epitome of the Intrusion of Grace.

Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Related Posts on The Intrusion of Grace:

Homage to Flannery O’Connor: Looking for Intrusions of Grace in Films

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation by Robert Bresson

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

Reading the Season: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

For the tenth year, I’m sharing a Christmas read here at the Pond. For the first time, it’s a book written for young readers but is ever so relevant for us grown-ups. Herein lies the ingenuity of writer Madeleine L’Engle. Time to dig out that copy that you might have read when you were a youngster. If you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.

 

A Wrinkle in Time

 

Newbery Medal winner A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in the Time Quintet series of fantasy YA fiction about the Murray family, scientist parents and four children Meg, twins Dennys and Sandy, five year-old genius Charles Wallace, and that special friend of Meg’s, Calvin O’Keefe. The deceptively simple odyssey in time and space is packed with wonder and wisdom.

The book not only exudes insights but shows L’Engle’s remarkable foresights. Take this for an example, dematerializing and materializing  for easy transport. Published in 1962, the book came out four years before Scotty beamed Kirk up using the same method in the first season of Star Trek.

Or this fancy idea, ‘tesseracting’, that is, travelling through space and time via a wrinkle in time. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but through a wrinkle when two points are folded. That’s fifty years before Christopher Nolan sends Matthew McConaughey interstellar travelling.

All concepts held in a simple plot. Meg, Charles Wallace, together with friend Calvin, go on an interstellar quest to look for Meg and Charles’ physicist father who had gone missing for almost a year while doing some classified scientific work for the government. This little, unequipped search party is initiated and aided by three celestial beings: Mrs. Whatsit, who’s much wiser than she appears, Mrs. Which, who doesn’t bother materializing but remains as a shimmering beam, and Mrs. Who, who speaks in quotes.

The more a man knows, the less he talks.

Their odyssey brings them finally to the planet Camazotz, where they find Mr. Murray confined by the evil Dark Thing, or IT (Surprise! 24 years before Stephen King’s book and now movie) The smart alecky Charles Wallace is easy prey and quickly influenced by IT. (And for Luddites, what better parallel to address our technology now, the evil IT) Ultimately, it’s Meg, our reluctant and timid heroine, who has to be the one to go fight IT to rescue her little brother.

The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.

Meg knows Charles Wallace is not himself but trapped and deceived, and must be snatched from the evil force IT. She has just one weapon as her ammunition, given to her by Mrs. Whatsit, that one thing IT doesn’t have: LOVE. With her single act of bravery, she brings the family together again.

When I was a child, I read like a child, I thought like a child. When I became an adult, I can read like a child and like an adult too. That’s the joy of reading A Wrinkle in Time. One can find pleasure in the adventure and feel the vulnerability of the children, as well delve deeper into its symbolism and parallels, and ponder its layers of meaning.

L’Engle writes to the child and the adult in us. She can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that both young and old (and those in between) can enjoy. There’s no conflict between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.

That first Christmas day when a baby was born in a lowly manger, the war against IT had started to win. Although the last, painful battle on the hill of Calvary had not been waged, the outcome was cast, just because LOVE came.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

 

The Movie

‘Tis the Season to read or reread A Wrinkle In Time before the movie adaptation comes out in 2018. Helmed by Selma (2014) director Ava DuVernay, screenplay by Frozen (2013) scriptwriter Jennifer Lee, with some stellar beings including Rees Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine et al.

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Past Reading the Season Selections:

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

The Ultimate Arrival

Spoiler Alert: This post contains a major spoiler of a current movie with a similar name.

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If you’d known the future, would you change anything?

In the movie Arrival, what’s most moving for me is at the end, when we realize, ah-ha! Dr. Louise Banks has seen it beforehand—knowing full well that years later, her husband Ian will leave her, and her dear daughter Hannah will die of illness at a young age—she still chooses to embark on this journey of love and motherhood, a small idea to illustrate a bit of the Ultimate Arrival.

In the words of the story writer Ted Chiang:

“From the beginning I knew my destination, and I chose my route accordingly.”

arrival-1

And here’s another life…

If you’d known that you’d be born in a smelly horse stable, had to flee from a death threat on your life while still an infant, and later, you’d be misunderstood, criticized, rejected, plotted against, deserted and denied by your intimate friends, betrayed, beaten, spat upon, taunted, and finally hung on the cross with just three nails holding you up until death of asphyxiation, and that’s after living a short life of only 33 years, would you rather not be born?

Yet, He chose to arrive.

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The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

— Madeleine L’Engle

***

Other Related Posts:

Arrival: From Short Story to Film (a spoiler-free review)

Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading the Season: Arti’s Annual Christmas Reads 

Reading the Season: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Click for ‘Silence’ movie review and thoughts.

For this year’s Reading the Season, I’ve chosen Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece Silence. Unlike previous years, it’s not as pleasing and exulting a read at Christmas time.  Rather, it’s unsettling and disturbing. It will interfere with your festive mood. It presents an excruciating dilemma that we hope we may never need to confront, and a question that more likely for us to face: Where is God during our suffering?

silence

Why so unpleasant a read at this time? We’re all busy with our festivities. Who would want to think about such a somber question? Director Martin Scorsese thinks it’s seasonal; Dec. 23 is the day his adaptation of Silence will be released in North America. Mind you, before showing here, it will first premiere at the Vatican. What a diversion of Christmas over there.

Thanks to Scorsese, I dug out Endo’s book and reread it. This time around, it’s even more disturbing for me. However, I also see the light seeping through the cracks of a broken human scene. I sure hope Scorsese’s film — twenty-five years brewing in the director’s heart — can lead to some quiet meditation amidst the cacophony bombarding us these days.

Historical Note

First off, very crucial before reading Silence is to establish a frame of reference; this is furnished by the Historical Note at the beginning of the book. Christianity was introduced to Japan by Francis Xavier in 1549. It was very well received at that point, despite an expulsion order later in 1587 by the Shogun Hideyoshi and the subsequent crucifixion of twenty-six Japanese Christians and European missionaries. By 1600, there were an estimated 300,000 Christian converts living in Japan.

By the time the second expulsion order was issued in 1614, however, the Christian Church in Japan was driven underground. Warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu was resolute in wiping out all traces of Christianity that from 1614 to 1640, an estimated five to six thousand Christians were killed. He later found out martyrdom wasn’t as effective an eradication measure as forced apostasy, especially with leaders of the faith, so torture was widely used towards that end.

crucifixion

In 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that the stalwart leader of the Jesuits mission in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira, had disavowed his faith and become an apostate after being tortured at ‘the pit’ in Nagasaki. No news of him came after that.

Upon this setting Endo begins his story. The historical novel describes the journey of one fervent young priest from Portugal, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, who has had the privilege to be taught and mentored by Father Ferreira years before. Upon hearing Ferreira’s apostasy, and with the reluctant approval of the Jesuit Superior, Rodrigues and fellow priest Father Francisco Garrpe board a ship and sail all the way to Japan to look for their beloved teacher and to investigate the situation. They have been forewarned, the magistrate Inoue is ruthless.

While still on the ship, the priests encounter Kichijiro, a sly, cowardly, and ambiguous figure who later will wade on shore ahead to guide them to some hidden Christians. For a while, the two Fathers have to hide themselves in a hut on a mountain during the day, and minister to the needs of Japanese believers who, despite the danger, come to seek them out for spiritual matters at night.

Later Kichijiro leads them to a nearby island to meet with more hidden believers. To the welcoming relief of the villagers, the fathers secretly conduct mass and baptism despite the risks. The evasive Kichijiro hangs around like a phantom nemesis.

The people suffer greatly under the rule of magistrate Inoue, yes, that Inoue who Rodrigues was forewarned. He extracts from the poor peasants harsh revenues and infuse the utmost fear into those of the Christian faith with his deathly measures. Rodrigues observes that “The persecutions of Christians make their faces expressionless. They cannot register on their faces any sorrow —nor even joy. The long years of secrecy have made the faces of these Christians like masks. This is indeed bitter and sad.”

Never before has Rodrigues felt so deeply about the meaningfulness of his mission:

“… like water flowing into dry earth … For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings. It was the human kindness and charity of the fathers that touched their hearts.”

But such a firm conviction begins to shatter when Rodrigues comes closer and closer to the reality of persecution. No, not just of his own, but those of the Japanese peasants, his flock. Many are faithful to the end. When discovered, they would be tied on trees in the shape of a cross at the seashore, the rising tide slowly consumed their bodies after two or three days.

The ultimate punishment is ‘the pit’. Believers are tied up and suspended upside down above a pit. Blood would flow out of their eyes, ears, nose and the slits on the neck. They would be literally drip dry into a slow death through several days.

fumieA way out of such torture is to trample on the fumie. The fumie is a wooden plaque with a copper plate on which the image of Christ was artfully engraved. A person’s willingness to trample on the fumie is Inoue’s way of testing if one belongs to the outlawed Christian religion. It is also a convenient way to turn a believer into an apostate upon the threat of torture and death. One only needs to put one’s foot on the fumie, trample or even just step on it, then one can be released immediately, a most easy and convenient ‘formality’ to show one’s denunciation of faith. This was what happened to Father Ferriera.

The officials would say: “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is only a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”

To a believer, this may sound like a temptation, or self-deception. Or, is it a necessary choice to survive?

In this historically based novel, Shusaku Endo (1923 – 1996), a Japanese Catholic, paints a vivid picture of the crisis of faith in the face of extreme suffering, the doubts that often lie hidden even in the most devout. In the midst of persecutions, where is God? Why is He silent?  Endo is not depicting so much about the hubris of foreign missionaries coming with the hope and optimism to preach and convert, but just the opposite, he has exposed the lowest state a believer, let alone a priest, can possibly experience, the utter humiliation of being the one to denounce and betray his God, albeit under duress.

The duress is horrific indeed. The priest sees no glorious martyrdom but is witness to unbearable torture of these peasants. For several nights, the screams and moans of five Christian villagers accompany him in his sleepless nights. Father Rodrigues is thus being dragged into the ultimate dilemma: He only needs to place his foot on the fumie and all five of these suffering peasants will be released right away.

In a court of law, a statement or action made under duress cannot stand as evidence to lay blame, as the subject is under threat and coercion like Father Rodrigues is here. But in the court of the priest’s conscience, it is an ironclad verdict: Apostasy!

As he is struggling with this painful dilemma, trample on it and denounce his faith or five peasants will be suspended in the pit till death, Father Rodrigues seems to encounter an epiphany. Seeing the well-trodden, blacken face of the Christ image on the fumie, the priest hears a voice breaking through the silence:

“‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.”

Indeed, the allusion to Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crows points to Christ’s forgiveness, the light that sheds through the cracks of human failure. After his denial, Peter later served his Lord with transformed fervency and love. Yes, even the Rock, upon whom the Church was to be built, had once denied Christ.

When I first read Silence a few years ago I could not accept Rodrigues’s action. This time around, I’ve come to see that Endo is not discussing theology here, but depicting an imaginary scenario. In the darkest hour of a believer’s journey—likely Endo’s own as well—when a devout is entrapped in an excruciating dilemma like being suspended in the deep pit of spiritual conflicts, Endo draws our attention to the response of a compassionate Christ.

As to the seeming silence of God, Endo lets us hear these internal dialogues:

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’
‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

At the humble manger some two thousand years ago, God had spoken, with a birth that pierced the darkness of that silent night.

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Reading the Season of Christmas Past:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Reading the Season: The Book of Ruth

For the past seven years, I’ve a special post at Christmas which I’d named Reading the Season, just to help me dwell on the Reason behind all the festivities. Some past authors I’d read include Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw. This year I’m going back to the source material, The Bible, for my Christmas read. And no, my selection isn’t from Luke 2, which Linus so eloquently delivers every year in the delightful A Charlie Brown Christmas.

I reread the little love story in The Book of Ruth, one of the earliest parallels pointing to the Christmas story. This time I found it particularly relevant. So here it goes…

moonrise

 

A long time ago in a land far, far away a man named Elimelech and his wife Naomi, together with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, had to pack up and leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah to escape from a famine in the land. As migrants, they travelled to a foreign country called Moab.

Alas, Elimelech died soon after and left behind Naomi and their two sons. Years passed, the sons married two Moabite gals, Orpah and Ruth. Could it be the food there, for not long after Naomi’s two sons also died. Bitter and despondent, Naomi sent her two daughters-in-law back to their own family and began her lone journey to return to Bethlehem.

But Ruth was adamant to follow Naomi back to where she came from with this moving vow:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Touched by her loyalty, Naomi let Ruth travel with her back to Bethlehem. She was like a migrant all over again. To the people there Naomi, if anyone still recognized her, was now widowed, sonless, bitter and destitute. The two women didn’t even have a refugee camp to take shelter.

To survive, Ruth went out to the fields to glean the grains left by the harvesters. It happened that they were in the fields of a kind landowner Boaz, who after noticing Ruth and hearing of her love for her mother-in-law, told his workers to leave more grains in the fields for her to glean. Yes, it just happened that she’d come to the right field.

When Naomi learned of Boaz, she saw a glimpse of hope. Definitely this was more than the food bank; this generous landowner actually was a relative belonging to her late husband’s clan. Out of desperation, she sent Ruth on a risky mission: to go to Boaz at night and approach him tactfully, letting him know of their ties in kinship.

Lo and behold, Boaz, an honourable and compassionate man, was harbouring a deep and ardent love for Ruth. That night, though surprised to see Ruth, he received her readily and with respect, restraining and keeping his torrid passion well under wraps, umm like… Mr. Darcy.

According to the law of the land, the closest relative had the first right to redeem the lands that Naomi’s late husband Elimelech had sold and to marry Ruth to carry on the family line. But lo, Boaz wasn’t that person; instead, he did the honourable thing, extending the first right of redemption to the closest relative, yes, like umm… Mr. Collins.

And it happened that Mr. Collins was willing to buy back the land but wait a minute, he couldn’t take Ruth as a wife. There could be reverberations, for Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite. Further, the land was for her to continue with Naomi’s family ownership, and would not be under his name. “I pass,” he said in the sight of ten elder witnesses. Phew!

So only then did Boaz declare not only his willingness to redeem the land once owned by Elimelech, but also his desire to take Ruth as his wife to save her from destitute, poverty, and childlessness. How marvellous it was that Boaz, a legit kinsman redeemer according to the laws, was also truly, madly, and deeply in love with his redeemed.

And we are definitely indebted to the two lovers for producing the line of descendants, for Ruth later became the great grandmother of David, from whose ancestral line generations later came Jesus.

With this beautiful ending I come back to Christmas 2015, and ponder on the lowly birth of Christ at the manger, to become our Kinsman for the ultimate purpose as Redeemer.

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.”  – John 1:14

DSC_0034

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The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

                              – Madeleine L’Engle

***

Previous ‘Reading The Season’ Posts:

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis