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A friend recently emailed to ask if I'd read Lila, Marilynne Robinson's recently-released novel.
"No," I wrote. "Stupidly, I've decided to reread all of Robinson's novels before starting Lila."
A month into this endeavor, and I've finished Housekeeping and have arrived halfway through Gilead, the long letter John Ames, a man well into his seventies (and terminally ill), is writing to his seven-year-old son. He pens the letter in the hopes that his son will read it many years after his death, when he's an adult—as a way to know his father.
I've always counted Gilead my least favorite of Robinson's novels, but more recently, I'm wondering if that's because I am having to work a little harder at it. As the novel is written from John Ames's point of view, I'm not sure how much to trust Ames as a narrator. To what extent can we count on the reliability of his motives? You have to read a bit suspiciously in order to find reality between his perceptions and the truth.
If John Ames is sometimes unreliable, he waxes quite eloquently on theology. (And this makes the book beautiful and instructive, worth every mustered effort.) Ames has been a pastor his entire life. His father was a pastor, his grandfather a pastor. His life has been devoted to the ministry, and because he was into his sixties before he married and had a child, he spent many solitary years in the company of great books, including great theological works. He seems particularly fond of Calvin (as Robinson herself is).
"Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience," writes Ames. "That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense."
"I like Calvin's image because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God's enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart."
God enjoying us. We think too little of that.
This is our ninth word of faith: laughter.
Laughter stands at the foreground of the Abrahamic narrative. First, there is Abraham's incredulous laughter when God insists Sarah will bear the child of promise.
“Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham speaks these words silently to himself, laughing at the sheer impossibility of what God has said. He has too little faith to believe this reality into being, so he bargains with God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:17, 18)
The second laughter scene arrives on the heels of the first: Sarah is eavesdropping at the flap of the tent opening, having just prepared cakes for her and Abraham's three unexpected visitors. Different than other annunciation scenes in Scriptures, the news of impending pregnancy is delivered to the father, rather than the mother. But Sarah overhears, receiving the news just as Abraham had earlier.
“After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:12). (Robert Alter's translation is particularly vivid: "After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure and my husband is old?")
Sarah laughs—and denies that she laughs. It is difficult for her to own how the years have desiccated her faith, disappointing her desire for child and wringing out all fertile hope.
Then, a third scene, without any intervening commentary about the movement that has obviously been made.
Isaac is born to the stooped man and woman who had, at times, laughed bitterly at the prospect of promise.
His name means, "He laughs."
And Sarah, as her breasts leak, speaks words that are a magnificat:
"Who would have uttered to Abraham—Sarah is suckling sons!" (21:7).
This is a tender scene. God's promise has been fulfilled, and there is laughter.
Of course. Because joy is fundamental to who God is.
The laughter is silenced so quickly.
In chapter 22, Isaac—He laughs—is the son whom Abraham is asked to sacrifice. To read the soul-rending climb to Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 is to note the stark silence of the drama. There are so few recorded words, and certainly there is no laughter.
Only the father willing to sacrifice, He laughs.
Laughter, crucified. The God, to whom joy is fundamental, forsaken.
Jesus is our Isaac, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly goes to his death in order to restore the world to its joyful wholeness, to return laughter to every desiccated hope and barren desire.
And what will heaven be if not laughter? "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
Laughter: a word of faith, especially when we are Sarah and Abraham, waiting, abiding disappointment, losing hope, laughing bitterly.
Our incredulity at God's goodness does not handicap his faithfulness. In all the intervening space between promise and fulfillment, God is clearing the way for laughter, birthing an Isaac, making room for his (and our) eternal joy at reconciling humanity to himself.
God enjoying us. We think too little of that.