May 15, 2016
You may have heard me speak in sermons of the novels Gilead and Home. Now I am reading Lila, the third in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy about people and life in an Iowa village in the 1950’s. Lila is a young woman who had lived a hardscrabble life until she met and married Ames, an old minister with whom she has a little boy. If I am casting the movie, I will take Jennifer Lawrence for Lila, with some make-up to age and rough her up a little. For Ames, I have to reach back for Gregory Peck.
I said Lila lived hard. Compared with her, Huckleberry Finn was middle class. As a child, she was rescued from a wretched family by a woman on the lam. They joined a little family band of working hobos, always moving. Church was no part of their life. Doane, their leader, warned the children that all the churches wanted was their money. The author adds: as if they had any money for the churches to want. 
Now grown up and moving solo, one Sunday Lila ducks into a church to get out of a storm. There was Ames, preaching. He was smitten. His kindness towards her was bottomless. She could hurt him, and sometimes did, but could do nothing to provoke his disapproval, much less condemnation. But there were things he said or did in or out of church that bothered her. One day Ames and his best friend Boughton, another minister, were talking about lost souls. Boughton had read about missionaries back from China . . .
about how they had converted hundreds, and that was a drop in the bucket compared to all the people who had never heard a word of the Gospel and probably never would hear one. Boughton said it seemed to him like a terrible loss of souls, if that’s what it was. He was not one to question divine justice, though sometimes he did have to wonder. Anyone would.[ii]
Listening quietly, Lila was shocked. By now she knew that these preachers and their churches weren’t in it for the money, but their notion of salvation apparently condemmed the very souls who had saved her life. The woman who had rescued her, whom she loved, had not been baptized, did not believe, and scorned church. If her damnation was divine justice, Lila wanted no part of it. By then she had been baptized. After hearing Boughton, one night she went back into the creek alone and tried to undo it.
Lila remembered Mellie, a girl in her posse just older than she, who was never scared, who would poke a snake just to get a better look at it, who tore up her leg trying to ride a bull calf because, Mellie explained, if you rode a bull every day from the time it was young you could ride it when it was growed. Then you go anywhere and folks would say, Here she comes, riding on that bull. [iii]
What faith in what kind of salvation wouldn’t see and appreciate that kind of spunk and spirit, with faith or not? What God would cast a girl like Mellie—unwashed, unsaved, unbelieving—into flames?
Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives.[iv]
Ames saw that Lila was bothered. Afterward he said “Boughton likes to talk about the thornier side of things. You don’t want to take him too seriously.”[v]
As a child, Lila had barely learned to read and write. In Gilead, fed up with her own ignorance, she taught herself to do both. She pocketed a Bible from the church to use for practice. This was before her marriage, when she was squatting in a shack with no electricity. In the dark, she’d wait impatiently for morning.
As soon as there was light enough, she sat at the door with the tablet on her knee and wrote. She copied words, because she wasn’t sure how to spell them, and this was a way to learn.
Primarily, it was the Bible’s words she wanted, but she also noticed what they said. By turns, she found herself repulsed, baffled, and intrigued. Reading a strange passage, she would wonder what the old preacher would say about it. One morning she copied from Ezekiel:
And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire infolding itself, and a brightness round about it . . . and out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one of them had four faces, and every one them had four wings. Well, she didn’t know what to make of that. A dream somebody had, and he wrote it down, and it ended up in this book.
She didn’t know what to make of it, but “she had a notion.” It was a dream, maybe. In dreams, crazy things happen. That is a theory. “Thinking,” we call this. You are doing it right now. Compared with other animals, it is what makes us special.
So let’s think about this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples were together.
And suddenly, from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… and the crowd . . . was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
You be Lila, wondering what to make of that. I’ll play Ames. I will give you an easy to believe interpretation of this story, and then a hard one. You can think them over.
Easy to believe, is the scholarly judgment of my Interpreter’s Bible, published in 1952. Back in the fifties, respectable, seminary educated clergy who could afford it owned a set, bound in blue. Lila’s Ames might have had one on his bookshelf. My father did, and I kept it. Last week, I dusted off volume nine to have a look at what it had to say concerning Pentecost. Here is the explanation:
“It is agreed by most scholars that the ‘speaking in tongues’ referred to in this passage originally had nothing whatever to do with speaking a foreign language. Rather it had to do with a kind of religious ecstasy which exceed the bounds of rationality and was described and deplored by Paul. In other words, in the original experience which the writer of Acts is describing, ‘speaking in tongues’ refers to the tremendous excitement and fervor of the occasion, and a later generation which was impressed by the spontaneous expansion and translatability of Christianity used it as a prophetic foretaste of that event.”
So some people got excited and later someone dressed the story up as miracle. It is easy to believe that. Embellishing a story, we understand. A story somebody told, and wrote it down, and they put it in this book.
Staying with this interpretation, let’s read on.
Amazed and astonished, they asked: “Are not all those who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites… and so forth, all the way through visitors from Rome and Crete, and Arabs.
The Interpreter’s Bible tells us that this list was meant to cover “every nation under heaven.”[vi] On this easy to believe interpretation, that puts a finger on a meaning of this passage that is actually important. The news of God in Christ is meant for everyone and anyone can hear it. It fits to Heights and Hillcrest, East End, Chenal, and Southwest Little Rock; and to Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx; to MIT and UCA; to Korea, north and south; to ML King and RE Lee; and to JS Bach, Johnny Cash, and Prince. In one way or another, Christ will fit to any place, circumstance, and person—respectable and not.
This points to an answer to an old and important question: Is the gospel more like laws of physics or like taste in music? Physics is true everywhere and always, sustaining even those who don’t believe it. Music taste is culturally specific. You can have Beyonce, I’ll take Tedeski Trucks. Acts would indicate that the gospel is like both physics and music: its universal truth will fit to local taste. And, though she doesn’t know it, it envelopes little Mellie and her bulls and snakes. All that was good in Lila’s posse is safe in Christ. I believe that. I hope you do too, because it is important.
But I do not want to stop with that interpretation, because something more is being claimed by Luke in Acts. He reports a miracle. My old Interpreter’s Bible sidesteps that claim as though it were unbelievable and/or unimportant. If true, however, would it not also be important? It would, because it bears on what this gospel is that fits to every tribe and nation.
I am fourth generation clergy, and I can tell you that scholars now are more open-minded in this vein than were those of yesteryear. Of the Pentecost event, my Oxford Bible Commentary, published in 2001, says that Luke reports “a miracle of hearing, a reversal of the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel. Some have speculated that Luke has misunderstood the phenomenon of glossolalia; but among groups that practice speaking in tongues today, there are reports of intelligible speech which is heard as a real language unknown to the speaker.”[vii]
We draw the inference: if it happens now, why not back then? That opens on a much higher-reaching interpretation of this passage: that someoneheardit, “wrote it down, and put it in this book.” Yes: harder to believe, but not impossible.
I own a meticulous book in two volumes by the bookwormish Professor Craig Keener that offers literally hundreds of credible modern miracle stories, including healings of cancer, blindness, paralysis, and even death. For example:
“Deaf and blind for two weeks and nearing death on February 17, 1912, Anglican Dorothy Kerin was mostly unconscious; the next evening, it appeared that her breathing and heartbeat stopped. Then she sat up, declared herself well, and went walking around. She reported that an angel had told her her to rise and walk. Various doctors attested her cure, and X-Rays showed that her tuberculosis-ravaged lungs were completely healed.”[viii]
Keener wrote his book just to prove that Biblical scholars who had dismissed or reinterpreted stories of the miraculous solely on the assumption that such things simply do not happen in the world, were working from a false premise and thus very likely misinterpreting the Bible.
If you like movies, you can still get out to see “Miracles from Heaven,” which tells the true story of Annabel Beam, a nine year old girl who was suffering terribly, and dying, from pseudo-obstruction motility disorder, and then had a nightmarish fall from a tall tree. Annie Beam awoke to say that she had met Jesus in heaven, who had healed her. And healed she was. Jennifer Garner played her mother in the movie, and was moved by that to return to church. You see the gospel also fits to Hollywood: Ben Affleck’s kids are now happily ensconsed in Sunday School.
So, Lila, my advice is to take both interpretations I have given you to heart. First, the gospel is for everyone, certainly including Mellie and the others who showed kindness to you. Do not imagine that the things you appreciate in them are lost on God. That is impossible.
And as for miracles, you can believe what you want, but my confidence that they occur is high. I’m as confident of that as I am of the big bang and evolution. We are left with wondering why miracles are rare—which they are, by definition. A woman of your intelligence could come up with some reasons why that might hold some benefits for now. I’d bet you have some thoughts on that. I would like to hear them sometime.
[i] Page 11.
[ii] Page 20.
[iii] Page 37.
[iv] Page 101.
[v] Page 98.
[vi] Interpreter’s Bible, 1954, Volume IX: Acts, page 40.
[vii] Oxford Bible Commentary, 2001, page 1032.
[viii] Craig Keener, Miracles:The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011) volume I, p. 546.