Watch Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” redeem every tired, stupid plot in Christian fiction

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f_lila_robinson_fSome years ago I was on a panel of editors and book critics talking to Christian novelists about overused trends — the same plot contrivances and characterizations that we kept seeing again and again.

On the top of my list: Please stop having so many widowers in romantic roles.

Why widowers? My guess was that the novelists wanted a way to create sympathetic male characters who were responsible enough to have been married in the past (no immature failure-to-launch types here, thank you very much). Obviously, they could not have men who were currently married.

So the novelists kept hammering on the widower plot. In these books a stable, kind Christian man would reach out to an attractive but stubborn woman who had managed somehow to put up walls to resist both love and God.

Bonus points if she was a city slicker who had ventured to a small town in order to learn these important lessons about life and love.

Extra bonus points if she had red hair and green eyes – a combination that is genetically rare in real life but ubiquitous in Christian fiction.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila does not have a redhead in the starring role, but it does fit just about every other tired trope of Christian plots. And damned if it doesn’t redeem them all.

Set in the fictional Iowa hamlet of Gilead, Robinson’s slow-moving novel tells Lila’s story only in small pieces via flashback. At the beginning we see that she is recently married to an “old preacher” — just how elderly is unclear, but old enough to defy the stereotype of the handsome young eligible bachelor of Christian fiction. His wife and child died decades ago and he has been left alone with his books, his Calvinist beliefs, and the trials and tribulations of his small town.

Lila is a piece of work. Given to long and contemplative bouts of silence, in the early months of her marriage she’s like a wild animal, one foot ever out the door of the rectory. Any minute now we expect her to abandon the settled life she has found with her preacher and hop on the next bus going God knows where.

As she sorts through her past she keeps trying to read the Bible, about which she knows next to nothing. Her husband remarks that she has a knack for choosing the most difficult bits, including Ezekiel and the book of Job.

But of course she would read Ezekiel; having survived life in a brothel, she understands passages like Ezekiel 16 or Ezekiel 23 better than most of the sheltered residents of Gilead. What she does not understand is grace, such as she experiences in the devotion of her unexpected spouse.

Without a doubt, Lila features the most hackneyed plot in contemporary Christian fiction. That is exactly why the plot was so in need of redemption, which is what it receives here in Robinson’s masterful hands.


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  • I just heard about this novel today on NPR. Sounds like a good read!

  • I missed that NPR story & will have to go look for it. Thanks for the tip.