Marilynne Robinson is a quiet yet persistent presence in the American literary scene. Her first novel Housekeeping—which astounds me more every time I read it—appeared in 1980 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. It was another 24 years before her second novel, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer for Fiction. Her most recent novel, Lila, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In between novels she has written nonfiction books as well as articles and essays for magazines and journals such as Harper’s and the Paris Review. She shares with Gary Wills the distinction of being one of the few public intellectuals in America who is also a practicing Christian. Her writings have won her no less an admirer than Barack Obama, who quoted her in his eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckley, and met her to have a conversation that was published in the New York Review of Books.
Robinson’s latest book, The Givenness of Things, is an essay collection on topics ranging from theological concepts in Shakespeare to the pervasiveness of fear in post-9-11 America, but two themes are paramount. The first is our cultural impoverishment due to an overvaluation of the material and tangible, which in Robinson’s view ranges from the mindset that prompts an adult to ask an undergraduate English major, “What are you going to do with that?” to the current practice of neuroscience, which in her view denies the existence of self and soul. Her second theme is that contemporary white American Christianity is the dried husk of what was once a living force at the heart of our culture, concerned more with maintenance of a racial and cultural order than with enacting a message of radical love.
Robinson’s prose is, as always, dazzling. And her vision of what human beings are and what society should be is both wise and profoundly moving. Her voice is a much-needed antidote to the prejudices and small mindedness that dominate public discussion in this country, as when she writes, “Very few of us know enough about a religion that is not our own to venture any judgment… We cannot know how another faith is felt by its real adherents, the peace or the sense of rightness and truth it brings to them in its own terms, by its own means.”
When Robinson asserts, “we are no ordinary participants in nature… what we do is a matter of the highest order of importance, however minor our transgressions may seem to us,” she is speaking from her Congregationalist faith; nevertheless it’s a statement worth pondering by people of any religion or no religion. Yet in her battle with the seemingly more sterile strains of modern life she often takes on straw men, as when she criticizes neuroscience for reducing human beings to nothing more than a collection of signals sent from neuron to another. However intellectually committed any neuroscientist is to the tenets of her field, I find it difficult to believe that she doesn’t think of herself as a self, or that she considers her love for her spouse, children or friends simply a sign of a functioning limbic system.
As for her critique of what passes for religion in picket-fence America, I can agree with her on its shortcomings, but I am also loath to believe that the faiths of our past were more vibrant. It is true that the nineteenth century witnessed the work of the evangelicals who fought slavery and founded liberal arts colleges such as Oberlin and Colby to which so many Americans owe their educations. It is also true that there is no contemporary clergyman with the intellectual stature and influence of Henry Ward Beecher. However, that doesn’t change the fact that most nineteenth-century American churches also opposed women’s suffrage. Almost every single church in the antebellum South defended slavery as part of God’s Plan. Most religious institutions, as institutions, are committed to preserving the status quo. And the liberating spirit that motivated the abolitionists and suffragettes is still with us. Yes, the members of many churches cling to homophobia and are terrified of admitting Middle Eastern refugees because they can’t distinguish between Muslims and terrorists, but six religious denominations in the US have embraced same-sex marriage and churches across the continent have pledged to accept Syrian refugees.
As a sympathetic as I am to Robinson’s viewpoint, her voice often sounds as if she’s in an intellectual echo chamber. I am as critical as she of contemporary capitalism, but when she lamely jokes, “If I could have one wish, it might well be that all contact between the economics department of the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics would instantly and forever be impossible,” I wince. Even when one is sure of one’s audience, the esoteric is a risky subject for humor, as when she refers to the financial agreements and deceptions that scuttled the world economy as “bankerly razzle dazzle.” Her essays cover a great deal of fascinating history, which she often uses to great effect for educating her audience. At other times it’s almost impossible to follow her train of thought. For example, before reading this book I knew nothing about the Lollards, medieval English precursors to the Lutherans, and I was completely ignorant of the influence of French Protestants on life and thought in Shakespeare’s London. I am grateful to Robinson for enlightening me on these matters. But she often skates too nimbly from subject to subject. After reading her essay “Value” for the first time I had no idea how she got from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the Fabians to Mitt Romney and Chinese factory workers and back to Bonhoeffer. And after re-reading it, I still don’t.
I wish an editor had helped Robinson get out of her own way, but there is so much to love in The Givenness of Things.