The Living Word

untitledAll Things New
Marilynne Robinson

Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought, art and literature. It was the center of learning in the West for centuries because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and stand pat.

A preacher friend, describing his personal theology said “I believe the Bible, but I’m not mad about it!”  That’s a bit of an inside joke because religious people often earn a reputation for meanness.  How does that happen?  Well, it’s natural to be defensive when you think you’re being attacked, and the world is assaultive when it comes to Christianity.  The most logical reaction is to put up walls and fire back.

The problem with that of course is that you can’t advance when you are hiding in your fortress.  When we pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we are asking to be part of the process.  It’s messy business.  To be an effective Christ follower, you have to be relevant and that’s impossible without love.  Relevancy is directly related to relationship and relationships require vulnerability.

It’s taking the living God with you. 

IMG_0181Revelation 21:1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.”


Dig Deeper

Art: A Feather Never Sleeps by Josephine R. Unglaub

Josephine R. Unglaub

Josephine R. Unglaub

Unglaub is a German-based artist and photographer with a passion for surrealism. Her work can be found here:

Literature & Liturgy: Marilynne Robinson and Renewal

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

For ages people have drawn inspiration from greatness—from Horatio at the bridge to William Tell to George Washington. But heroism is out of fashion in our time. We don’t even believe in it. Our cynicism is so pervasive that the extent of our disillusionment is taken as the measure of our maturity.

Marilynne Robinson describes this turn of mind in The Death of Adam:

“When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.”

What has happened to us is that we’ve lost our sense of God. And when we lose God, we don’t just lose religion; we lose everything worth living for. But God wants to give it all back. He has a purpose for us yet, even in our brokenness. He says, “I created you for my glory. And I want to fill your life with an inspiring new sense of destiny.”

God intends to renew the whole universe (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). That’s his goal. Do you know where he begins? Right here with us, at two levels. Isaiah shows us the God who reforms people who have lost their purpose (Isaiah 42:18–43:21). Next he’ll show us the God who revives people who have lost their vitality (43:22–44:23). The renovation of the universe begins with us in reformation and revival. Reformation is the recovery of God’s purpose for us. Revival is the recovery of God’s life in us. God loves to renew confused and tired people.

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. and R. Kent Hughes, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 277–278.


Robinson discovered that one voice influential for those writers was John Calvin, a figure Robinson has been working hard to restore. In her preface to John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant (2006), Robinson bristles at the fact that the Reformer has been hidden under a caricature, known only as “an apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city,” his legacy one of “repression and persecution.” Robinson instead finds three liberating themes in Calvin’s thought, and in the preface and an earlier collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), she articulates how they impress upon her literary vision.


For Robinson, Calvin’s theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology,” she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory “shining forth” as we participate in it. “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts.” Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.

At the same time, our ability to perceive God is deeply compromised. None of us sees clearly; indeed, none of us even desires to. All of us turn away from God’s presence, failing “to acknowledge what ought to be obvious,” Robinson writes, inclined instead “to indolence and selfishness, dishonesty, pride and error, cruelty.” She calls the notion of total depravity the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism,” insisting that we can’t understand the one aspect of his thought without the other.

Working together, writes Robinson, these twinned elements of “our strangely mixed nature” mean that the passage of a soul “through the vale of its making, or its destruction” will be marked by halts and recoveries, each attempt to find meaning chastened by a recognition of limits. This almost exactly describes Ruth’s voice in Housekeeping, now traced to one of its sources.

Not everyone, however, carries this realization as a great weight, or senses a chance to find release. The doctrine of election, developed in Scripture but popularly associated with Calvin, is a third element for Robinson, who links it to Calvin’s focus on perception. True perception—“the radical understanding of the presence of God, and of his nature as manifest in Christ”—is something God must grant a person. It is not natural to our fallen state.

And because God grants such ability entirely according to his own mind, we are brought into a chastening—and, to Robinson, exhilarating—encounter with “the freedom and mystery of God.” Far from inducing a dulled passivity, such a doctrine leads to a deepening awareness of the grandeur of God and the fragile beauty of one’s neighbors. To borrow a phrase from Dickinson, it keeps believing nimble.


Thomas Gardner is professor of English at Virginia Tech.

Keeping Perception Nimble: John Calvin Has Given Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson a Way of Seeing That Imbues Her Novels with the Grandeur of God,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today International, 2010)