Marilynne Robinson, Garrison Keillor, and Sufjan Stevens on the Blessings of Middle America
What was monotony in my teen eyes has metamorphosized: green vistas and golden fields spread flat as far as the eye can see, undulating slowly with the passing miles. Anyone who has traveled across the American midwest can attest: boring can be beautiful.
From the outside this might appear to be a land of flatness and cold. But those who have rested within its embrace know the truth. Miracles happen here. Epic betrayals, too, but hope springs eternal and the fields are ripe with redemption.
In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson provides the text of a dying father’s letter to his 7-year-old son. “I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime– the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars. It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand…. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” (233) Every life is a miracle, every act of forgiveness is an act of God. The more prodigal the son or prodigal the land, the more bold a “wild gesture” it is to stay on and love anyway (247). Even a dead father can reach from the grave with the promise of unconditional love. Such wonders can happen in the city, too, but in a simple land, stripped of all worldly sophistication, such blessings taste all the sweeter. Only in the darkness can a light shine the brightest.
Somewhere in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon eckes out its existence. The mix of nostalgia and parody helps sweeten the sometimes bitter truth: life is difficult. The title of last week’s headline: “In Lake Wobegon, all of the beautiful weather makes ones thoughts turn to death, of course.” Yet this is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Even ordinary places can know greatness, however contrived, and in the dead of winter, thoughts of God and his provision are never far from the locals’ minds.
The strangest proponent of the blessings of the Midwest is Sufjan Stevens. They say that he will write one album for each of the fifty states. Maybe so, but he is taking his sweet time with the land he knows best. Michigan wavers between the hopes and questions of faith. “For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” reads like the promises of Jesus to the widows and ophans of southeast Michigan. Yet we hear also the longing of “Oh God, Where are You Now?” The land is “paradise,” but it is greatly in need of God. llinois is the haunt of aliens and of serial killers. This is a land of repentance. The most memorable refrain is “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” from “Chicago.” This is also a land of love, but of a love that loses, whether to the complications of pre-adolescent same-sex attraction, or to the complications of cancer. Yet thoughout all this, the glory of God can be seen.
This flat land speaks of wonders, if this land can speak, any land can. It’s enough to “make me homesick for a place I never left” (Gilead, 235). Love where you are!