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Hello, friends! 

Our webinar discussion is less than two weeks away—can you believe it? This month is flying by for me. I can't wait to discuss Jack with you all, and hear your thoughts!

I deeply enjoyed this section of the book (app. pages 160 - 230). The tension and stakes build drastically. There are some poignant, heartbreaking scenes. And my goodness, there were some beautiful quotes that I had to write down and save.

Below, I'm sharing more questions and essay excerpts for you to consider (if you so desire). Feel free to reach out with any thoughts you might have!

Also, feel free to share the webinar registration page with others you think might be interested. All are welcome!

Best wishes,
essays & questions

James K.A. Smith wrote a thought-provoking review of Jack in one of his most recent newsletters. In it, he considers Jack's struggle with stealing, his urges to destroy the fragile, his doubts regarding faith, and his relationship with his father, the Reverend Boughton.

I can't really believe Jack's professions of atheism," Smith writes. "What Jack expresses in doubt is a more wonderful—more faithful—theology than we get from most preachers. The belief he can't quite get to is almost beside the point because his life has so clearly been organized around the story he heard from his father's pulpit. The lack of intellectual assent hardly matters; Jack's life still revolves around the Son."
  • I was rather impressed in this section by the fact that Jack instills a great deal more meaning in objects—books, trinkets, handkerchiefs, geraniums—than most humans. In this sense, his treatment of objects is often rather incarnational: he believes they have mystery and meaning, despite their supposed triviality. Do you agree/disagree? How might this relate to (or complicate) his tendencies toward stealing?
  • In this section, we finally hear the whole story behind Jack's prison time. What did you think of it? Did it surprise you? What does it reveal about Jack's character?

We are super fortunate to have Tiffany Kriner as one of our webinar contributors. In her excellent review of Jack for the Front Porch Republic, she writes that Jack's dialogue reveals "the internal struggle of someone who wants... to not need to be forgiven, to not require salvation nor redemption, to maintain what dignity is possible, given irremediable forsakenness." Jack is constantly "committed to figuring, figuring—how to make up for all the guilt, or, if he can’t extricate himself from guilt, to maintain some sort of dignity or honor in the refusal of rescue."

  • Jack's pride shows up painfully throughout this novel, revealed frequently in scenes in which he's fallen into trouble, or is lambasting himself over some situation he's gotten himself into. He walks into Mount Zion Baptist Church out of embarrassed pride, and cannot escape his humiliation over what he perceives as others' perceptions of himself all throughout the service and afterward. We're constantly impressed, throughout the book, by the "self" that Jack wants others to see. How does Jack's projected self compare, in your mind, with his true self?
  • What do you think is at the root of Jack's pride? What might Jack teach us about our own selves, our own struggles for independence and "harmlessness"? 
  • So much of the book is centered around Jack's fear that he will hurt fragile things. But on page 187, Reverend Hutchins seems to suggest that Jack himself has a fragility about him that he's never considered: "You could get hurt," he tells Jack. "Your feelings, I mean." 

    Jack responds by laughing. "I'm really not fragile," he says. (He ends up in tears, despite his protestations.)

    What do you make of this? Could Jack's fear of encountering or damaging fragility be, in itself, a form of self-protection? Could it be that as he's encountered (and hurt) the fragile over time, he's become more and more vulnerable himself? Or do you think that perhaps Della is the person to finally show Jack his own fragility?
As Kriner points out, Jack's efforts to not cause harm inevitably end up causing harm: "He avoids going home to his father to avoid hurting his family with his failures and other evidences of his predestined perdition—yet his staying away is just as hurtful to them, is a kind of bereavement; he wishes to end things with Della in order to avoid doing damage to her reputation and prospects, but in doing so, she says in the first pages, he is breaking her heart."

Jack has much to teach us about ourselves, our own efforts at love or harmlessness, especially in this strange, unprecedented year. As people increasingly interact in virtual spaces, Kriner writes, "We hurt them even more easily now that their bodies are far from us... . We are as ghosts, all of us, many of us trying to get by somehow, when jobs disappear, when it all cracks."
  • What do you think Jack teaches us about grace and vulnerability? What does this novel have to teach us about fidelity?
  • Della's love for Jack appears mysterious, inexplicable. Her life, inner thoughts, and motivations are most often veiled throughout the book (which makes me, like Kriner, wish for a fifth novel in the series). But it's obvious to all of us that Jack doesn't deserve Della's love—and it's obvious in these pages what this love will cost her. Despite this, Robinson doesn't try to explain Della's love and grace in simple terms: on page 208, Della describes her love and fidelity to Jack as the required response to the miracle of seeing a "holy human soul."  

    "Once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world," Della says. "And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away."

    This is a beautiful description of charity, of a Christ-like agape love which refuses to turn away from the beloved, no matter how stained or broken. What do you think it reveals about Della, about her own conception of what it means to be a "good Christian woman" (as she describes herself throughout the book)?
I grew up in rural Idaho, and now live in Northern Virginia. I have written for The American Conservative, The Week, New York Times, Washington Post, National Review, Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, and others. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
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Copyright © 2020 Gracy Olmstead, All rights reserved.