Lila, in the 2014 novel Lila by Marilynne Robinson, is a destitute and abandoned child who begins to be cared for by a scrappy woman called Doll (who later dies) and ends up marrying the familiar Robinson figure, John Ames. Being a true believer in Christ, Robinson has made Ames an elderly Calvinist preacher, and it becomes palpable to faulty Lila that her Christian husband is a good man. Not so realistic, even so, is Ames’s wedding the unreligious girl since Christians are prohibited by the Bible (in I Cor. 7:39) from marrying non-Christians.
In any event, it does allow the preacher to ponder for Lila’s sake the “mystery of existence.” Ames can explain very little to her, to a wife who does not know, or understand, God. She gets baptized but also tries to wash the baptism off her. She casually declines to believe that the friends she had as a young girl deserve to go to hell, and, to be sure, the novel seems to convey that the doctrine of hell, or “hell,” is too much for humanity to process and handle. This includes Christians. . . Nevertheless, such a thing cannot negate the truth about a life of faith. Ames’s marriage is a “sorrow’ to him (he married a non-Christian) but his faith in the Savior isn’t. Significantly, marvelously, it is an enduring salvific faith which runs from Ezekiel to Calvin to this old man in 1930s-40s rural America.
I had to read Lila slowly, but found it very rewarding. It is a gentle novel whose concern for theology is surpassed only by a concern for character.