Native Speakers

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Native speakers


<ul><li><p>Christianity and LiteratureVol. 61, No. 1 (Autumn 2011)</p><p>Native Speakers:Identity, Grace, and Homecoming</p><p>Rowan Williams</p><p>An address delivered on the occasion of the Archbishop receivingthe Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on</p><p>Christianity and Literature.</p><p>Oh, it was the loneliness none of them could ever forget, that wry distance,as if there were injury for him in the fact that all of them were native totheir life as he never could be. (Marilynne Robinson, Home, 249)</p><p>Marilynne Robinson's much-praised and much-discussed pair of novels,Gilead and Home, deal, as she has herself said, with the unfinished businessof the parable of the Prodigal Son (see the interview in Christianity andLiterature 58:3, 2009, 487-88). After homecoming, what? And what doeshomecoming actually mean? As the quotation with which I began suggests,the notion of homecoming is a very ambivalent one when there is no"home" to start with. The words represent what the prodigal's sister. Glory,is thinking as she picks up the pieces after her brother Jack returns from anepisode of desperate alcoholic escape. She has had to become "resigned" toforgiveness; as she reflects on why she cannot help but forgiveeven as shecontemplates withholding her mercy "for an hour or two"she recognizesthat it is partly because of the (lifelong?) sense of alienness that Jack carrieswith him, as if he has always been at a distance from their ethos and speech,even perhaps parodying these, unconsciously or not. He cannot but be anironist. And being an ironist means, in this context, never having a nativetongue. His father and his father's friend, his own godfather, John Ames,cannot speak with him without suspecting that he is somehow subvertingtheir own habitual discourse; and he is cripplingly conscious of this andfrequently silenced by it.</p></li><li><p>CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE</p><p>Jack covered his face with his hands and laughed. "The Lord," he said, "isveryinteresting.""I know you don't mean any disrespect," his father said."I really don't know what I mean. I really don't.""Well," the old man said, "I wish I could help you with that." {Home 157)</p><p>But of course he cannot. "I always seem to give offense," Jack says toAmes at one point, and Ames, denying any offense, responds, "I do wish wecould speak moredirectly" (Gilead 169). Even when, in their last heavilycharged conversation, John Ames gives him his blessing as "beloved son andbrother and husband and father" {Gilead 241), Jack's reaction makes Amesthink he has "named everything I thought he no longer was," although thisis "the exact opposite" of what Ames means. Ames has been trying to namewhat cannot be taken away from Jack's identity; but Jack cannot hear thesewords in a native tongue. He cannot help receiving them as an ironist, andthus receiving them as ironical, whether the irony is or is not intended. Atone point in Home, when Jack reads to his father, we are told that "therewas a kind of grace to anything [he] did with his whole attention, or whenhe forgot irony for a while"; and this can still surprise his father {Gilead146). Jack's irony is, we might say, the wrong kind of attention, an attentionto himself in the eyes of others rather than to the act or the word or therelational reality itself. But his virtual paralysis in relationship reminds ushow very difficult attention is, and how little it is a matteras his fatherthinksof being "wonderful when he wants to be" (ibid.).</p><p>In the great set-piece conversation about grace and predestinationrecorded in both novels. Jack's serious theological enquiryare some people,so to speak, born to sorrow and to foreignness and ultimately to hellisheard uncomfortably by both Ames and his father, and their response is, ashe says, "cagey" {Gilead 151). They suspect him of quiet mockery, but thetruth is that he has no language for the question that will sound sincereexcept to Ames' unconventional young wife, who is the only one able to givehim a reply that actually addresses him: "A person can change. Everythingcan change" {Gilead 153). Afterwards, affectionately and reproachfully, shesays to her husband that "Maybe some people aren't so comfortable withthemselves" {Gilead 154)almost a paraphrase of Glory's thought that Jacksees his family as "native to their life" in a way he is not and carinot be.</p><p>Yet Ames' wife. Lila, is capable herself of an impact not unlike thatwhich Jack has. When her husband first encounters her as a member of hiscongregation, he feels "there was a seriousness about her that seemed almost</p></li><li><p>IDENTITY, GRACE, AND HOMECOMING</p><p>like a kind of anger. As though she might say, T came here from whateverunspeakable distance and whatever unimaginable otherness just to obligeyour prayers. Now say something with a little meaning in it'" {Gilead 21).She is no more a native than Jack is; yet, despite the strong sense she conveysto Ames that his words from the pulpit are judged and found wanting, shecomes to inhabit her identity as Jack never does. Later in the same book,as they sit together in desultory conversation, with Ames half-asleep. JackoflFers her a cigarette, and she declines on the grounds that "it just isn'tseemly in a preacher's wife"; and when Jack picks this up with a touch ofmockery, she replies, "I been seemly so long I'm almost beginning to like it"(Gilead 199). She has, though with difficulty and over a significant period oftime, learned to pass as a native, yet without losing her critical liberty. Her"unimaginable otherness" has not made a native tongue impossible for her.</p><p>Lila's irony is, we might say, a reconciled irony as opposed to Jack'sunreconciled irony. She retains the capacity to question the attitudes of thosewho are too much at home with themselves or their world; and we mustassume that it is she who makes Ames able, after a painful conversation withJack, to acknowledge that the town of Cilead's surface decencies conceal asystemic untruthfulness, a refusal to ask what is to be learned from crisisor challenge: "we didn't ask the question, so the question was just takenaway from us" (Gilead 233-34). Its very existence depended on its role, inwhat is now a remote and forgotten past, as a stopping stage on the routeto Kansas for escaping slaves and anti-slavery radicals, "in the heat of anold urgency" (Gilead 234); but it has lost the capacity to ask what it is therefor. And because it has forgotten its history, and the question of its history(a forgetfulness reflected in the half-buried memory of the burning of a"negro" church, in Jack's father's unthinking racism and in Jack's knowledgethat he can never bring his African American wife to Gilead), we have toask what it now means to be "native" to a place like this. Lila's reconciledirony does not mean that her ability to pass for native is a muffiing of thequestion; on the contrary, she is able, as Jack generally is not, to give voiceto the possibility of change. She is able to speak, where Jack's paralysingawareness of the oflence he may give leaves him silent.</p><p>What makes the diflference? Jack and his father clearly love each other,yet are trapped in a painful inarticulacy toward each othermost poignantlyexpressed when the old man says that Jack has never "had a name for me.Not one you'd call me to my face," and Jack replies that he has never knowna name that didn't "seem wrong": "I didn't deserve to speak to you the way</p></li><li><p>10 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE</p><p>the others did" {Home 311). Jack cannot use the "script" of unselfconsciousfamily intimacy; but equally it is clear thatas his sister recognizesthisscript is presented to him both as an obligation and also as coriditional onbehaving appropriately. The language of "natural" family relationship, inother words, is a text that cannot accommodate Jack's self-awareness, hisconsciousness of himself as predestined to be a stranger, morally, culturally,religiously, an "exile from the ordinary world" {Home 201): as h says to hisbrother, "Sometimes it seems as though I'm in one universe and you're inanother" {Home 267). Glory, his sister, thinking of herself as '(resigned toJack's inaccessible strangeness" {Home 249) comes closest to seeing what theproblem is and knowing what is needed to resolve it, though her instinctivesense of what Jack needs comes somehow too late to make a difference tohim, or to his awareness of himself.</p><p>Being resigned to strangeness means also that Glory is unresigned toaspects of Gilead, aspects of the native and natural environment. Shewhohas herself been a prodigal of sortslooks at the town and all it means andsees it as "dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence" {Home 281). Hersuddenly vivid perception of the curse of sameness is like the moment inGilead when Ames sees the town as having forgotten the possibi ity of truth.Sameness cannot live with the question that history poses. The deceptivelytimeless surface of Gilead's life, the illusion of a life in which everyone is anative in an undifferentiated present, is a curse, is even, as Ames {Gilead233) calls it, hellish. What Jack perceivesand hears as a kind of sentenceon himselfis the stipulation that homecoming is necessarily a return tosameness, something that challenges both his own acute self-consciousnessof being a guilty outsider and his deliberate and costly alliance with othernessby way of marrying into an African-American family (in which he is, ofcourse, also a guilty outsider). His own personal "doubleness," his constantperception of himself from the other's standpoint, his acute ajwareness ofthe offence of his language and perhaps his very existence, all this is subtlyfused in the narrative with the doubleness of the history of racial division.the inbuilt possibility in the society and the cultural moment that Gileadrepresents of more than one story being told. That is the possibility Gileadhas buried, for Jack as an individual as for the neighbor of another race.</p><p>Lila's story is different not because she finds Gilead any moreunproblematic than Jack does but because the "text" she has encountered isnot simply that of sameness. Her unsettling presence in Ames' congregation,her "unimaginable otherness" (which Jack's "inaccessible strangeness"</p></li><li><p>IDENTITY, GRACE, AND HOMECOMING 11</p><p>echoes, surely deliberately), is recognized for what it is by the preacher,an invitation to native speakers to grasp the possibility of other narrativesand discourses. She is able to find a "home" in Gilead, specifically in Ames'world, because the text of Ames' preaching is able to live with the possibilityof its own failure or lack of truthfulness. It is not that Ames simply rejectswhat he has had to say: Lila looks on as he baptizes two children, and hesenses himself asking a question back to her: "If you know a better way todo this, I'd appreciate your telling me" {Gilead 21). He challenges her angerwithout denying her seriousness, and this, we must assume, is part of whatbuilds not only her relationship with the Church but the possibility of hereventual marriage to Ames.</p><p>Thus we are gently directed back to the question of what it is aboutAmes' own preaching that makes this possible. Robinson gives us a fewhints, particularly when Ames muses wryly about the books he would liketo be found clutching in the event of a sudden death: "The ones I considered,by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth's Fpistle to the Romans andVolume II of Calvin's Institutes. Which is by no means to slight VolumeI" {Gilead 115). Karl Barth appears again at the end of the conversationwith Jack about predestination. Ames suggests that Jack might find Barthhelpful, and Jack's response is sardonic: does Ames recommend Barth totormented souls on the doorstep at midnight? Ames turns the remarkaside, but reflects to himself that "I don't recall ever recommending him toany tormented soul except my own" {Gilead 153). It is the other side of thecoin from what his wife's loving rebuke about some people not being "socomfortable with themselves" implies. Ames knows that he stands underan alien judgment, and Barth's theology is one of his resources in learninghow to abide its scrutiny. As his recollection of his first encounters with Lilais filled out furtherquite late in Gileadhe describes her presence andhis increasing obsession with her as "a foretaste of death," an experience inwhich he is "snatched out of [his] character" {Gilead 205). "I simply couldnot be honest with myself, and I couldn't deceive myself, either" {Gilead203). But a Barthian theological perspective (certainly one informedby Barth's Romans commentary) would suggest that precisely such asimultaneous recognition of truth and falsehood is the expected conditionof the person who has faith. Faith is not the acknowledgement of a simpleconsonance between what I think/believe and the truth of God, but thetwofold acknowledgement of the incalculable gulf between the truth of Godand my own subjectivity along with the inseparable commitment of God</p></li><li><p>12 CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE</p><p>to the self-deceiving and helpless heart. "There is no other righteousnesssave that of the man who sets himself under judgment, of the nian who isterrified and hopes" says Barth early in his commentary {Romans 41); andlater, "the questionableness of our situation becomes a source of strength"{Romans 156), and "Christ in us is ... both the place where we are judgedand the place where we are justified' {Romans 286).</p><p>For Ames to be found with Barth's Romans in his hand rnakes goodsense. And, without elaborating details at this point, the same holds of thesecond book of the Institutes, which deals broadly with "The Knowledgeof God the Redeemer" including the whole question of what it means tomaintain the apparently shocking and counterintuitive claim that we are inno way "free" to collaborate with the act of God. Redemption is to do withthe ways in which grace brings alive the life of Christ in the human self. Anindependent human will as source of transformation and life would makenonsense of anything like Ames' simultaneous recognition of^ truth anddeceit: Calvin's idea of faith and the restoration of the divine image is morelike a connection always already made, appearing now from this angle,now from that, within the hopelessly unstable experience of the believingsoul; never a possession, yet always a presence because it is the presenceof an active savior. And hence the absurdity of suggesting that grace is afusion of divine and human initiative, as if the divine and the human wereagencies operating on the same level, potentially in competition] potentiallyin harmony. If Calvin's perspective is the foundation of Ames' preaching,we can see a little of why he isjustable to hear the question that Gileadoverall has lost. He may be broadly "comfortable," as Lila suggests, but itis not a comfort that defends itself by refusing what is strange. His settledfaith is based on awareness of a strangeness at the very center of his identity:Christ in him, in Barth's terms, is a given, a presence not depen...</p></li></ul>


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