Nonfiction by Genre, Robinson, Marilynne

Marilynne Robinson’s Blind Spot

Image result for the givenness of thingsI am currently reading Marilynne Robinson’s most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things (2015). I bought the collection because I enjoyed her novel Gilead and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Man. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, and she openly admits that her faith tradition inspires her works. Indeed, nearly all of her essays deal with John Calvin or Puritanism in some way. Calvin has a fairly negative image in the popular imagination, but Robinson believes that this negative image is based more on myth than actual history. She insists that Calvin was quite a meditative writer, and many Puritans in America were abolitionists.

Marilynne Robinson is generally a great prose stylist and her writings are very thought-provoking. I don’t know a lot about the Reformed tradition, but I do know a thing or two about John Calvin’s Geneva. I admire Robinson’s courage in defending a much-maligned historical figure. I didn’t know about the prophetic/social-justice orientated history of American Puritanism before reading Gilead, which has since inspired me to read more of Robinson’s writings.

Unfortunately, Robinson has a glaring blind spot: an uncritical love for Calvin and the Reformed Tradition. In Death of Adam, for example, Robinson condemns the medieval Inquisition, but she almost sympathizes with Calvin’s decision to execute the non-Trinitarian Michael Servetus! Although she ultimately condemns Calvin’s decision, she does so only after explaining WHY non-Trinitarianism was such an attack on the Christian faith. Evidently, Michael Servetus crossed the line, but John Calvin didn’t when he protested the Catholic Church’s sacraments, religious art, etc.

I am part-way through The Givenness of Things, and so far the essays have been hit and miss for me. Robinson’s essay “Reformation” inspired a recent post on the democratizing influence of translation. I appreciate her defense of the humanities. In “Decline”, she examines and challenges our nation’s obsession with science and math education.

But while she is a careful reader of current events, she tends to have a utopian view of both Reformation history and American Puritanism.

In “Awakening”, for example, Robinson suggests that the decline in church-attendance in America is largely due to the Protestant rejection of Calvin. If only Americans had understood their Puritan forbearers, far-right Evangelicalism wouldn’t exist. Everything good in America can be traced to John Calvin’s restoration of the Gospel, and everything terrible can be traced to a rejection of this tradition.

I’ve heard from numerous scholars that Calvin was a beautiful French prose stylist. I look forward to reading some of his writings. I’m sure they are quite thought-provoking and, in parts, even revolutionary. But I don’t find Calvin’s Geneva very appealing. He had a particular vision for humanity, and he was going to bring it about, through force if necessary. I doubt Robinson would have liked living in Geneva either.

I share Robinson’s political vision, but I am not convinced that Calvinism holds all the answers. She could make the same arguments without invoking religion. Using religion to get away with murder is not unique to Catholicism or conservative Evangelicalism. The Genevan Consistory was basically the Protestant version of the Roman Inquisition, but Robinson never addresses the Consistory. She never acknowledges the millions of Calvinists who supported slavery. I don’t think a return to Calvinism (or Catholicism for that matter) would improve American society. There will always be people who use religious texts to maintain power and privilege.

In The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson tells the reader more about herself and her views than about Calvin and his views, even and especially when she is dealing with Puritan history. She presents the Puritans as progressive social justice advocates because she wants American Christians to hold more progressive views. But such views aren’t uniquely Calvinistic or even Christian. I wish she would just state her opinions without pretending that they are inspired by a close reading of Calvin or Puritan history.

But like I said, I’m only part-way through the essay collection. Maybe she will stop referencing Calvin in every other sentence. But I’m not holding my breath.

Literary Fiction, Modern Detour, Robinson, Marilynne

Review of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gileadcover.jpgWhat was it about?

Rev. John Ames is an elderly congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa writing to his 7-year-old son about his ancestry and his relationship with Jack Boughton, the troubled son of a close friend. Rev. Ames’ father and grandfather were also ministers and were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement in the region. Throughout the epistolary novel, Rev. Ames’ influences include the reformed theologian Karl Barth and the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He sees God’s hand everywhere but never thinks he’s somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. He recognizes his flaws and his doubts, disagrees with his father’s pro-war beliefs, and wishes he could have had a better relationship with Jack. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson shows how Rev. Ames’ story and life experiences shaped his faith and the sermons he preached on Sunday.

What did I think of it?

I am not the first person to compare Robinson’s prose to Willa Cather’s. The narrative of Gilead is as lyrical and character-driven as Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like Cather’s works, Gilead is not a conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes about the lives of one or two individuals. Because I prefer character-driven, philosophical works to fast-paced thrillers I really enjoyed Gilead. Rev. Ames has a very holistic view of life; he clearly recognizes how everything is interconnected. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, so there are themes from the reformed tradition strewn throughout the work. I was surprised by how ecumenical Rev. Ames was; he attends a Quaker service and appreciates the Methodist presence in Gilead. It is amazing how many sermons Rev. Ames has written throughout his long career as a minister. He has boxes filled with sermons in the attic, but never has the courage to reread his old sermons. After a lifetime of pondering existence and salvation, Rev. Ames is still overwhelmed by the most basic mysteries of life. Gilead certainly deserved the Pulitzer it won in 2005.

Favorite Quotes

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in a twinkling of an eye.”

“It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and darknesses, just as native as water.”

“I pity [Jack]. I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor, knowing as I do what an uneasy spirit he is. That is disgraceful.”

“At that point I began to suspect, as I have from time to time, that grace has a grand laughter in it.”