Marilynne Robinson’s Latest Novel Probes the Mysteries of Predestination and Grace


Jack Boughton, the wayward pastor’s son, is a central character. So is Jesus.

John “Jack” Ames Boughton is a wayward preacher’s son who always seems to find himself close to Christians. He often feels the need to let them know he is actually an atheist. His Christian acquaintances, however, somehow don’t feel the need to take his confession at face value.

Perhaps Jack bears some blame for this ambiguity. He talks about his “atheist soul”—a soul he suspects has been predestined (he definitely believes in predestination) for perdition (he is definitely not a universalist). Yet he still seeks out Christian worship, pastoral counsel, and even a hoped-for blessing. He loves to play hymns on the piano. He is also a habitual thief, liar, drunkard, and—in his own unflinching self-assessment—a “confirmed, inveterate bum.” But perhaps that is just another way of saying that he starts from the same place we all do, as a son of the old Adam.

Jack is the fourth in a series of novels by Marilynne Robinson. It follows Gilead (2004); Home (2008), which adds Jack’s perspective to the events of Gilead; and Lila (2014), all of which were lauded by critics and readers alike.

Robinson is widely considered among the greatest American novelists writing today. She has also emerged as one of America’s leading public intellectuals. Many of her addresses and essays have been collected in resonant volumes such as The Death of Adam (1998), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), The Givenness of Things (2015), and What Are We Doing Here? (2018). Barack Obama is such an admirer that while he was president, he did an interview with Robinson that appeared in The New York Review of Books.

What makes all this especially intriguing is that Robinson is also very …

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