At a White House ceremony in July, President Obama told this year’s recipients of the National Humanities Medal, “Your writings have changed me—I think for the better.” He then turned directly to novelist Marilynne Robinson and said, “Marilynne, I believe that.”
It was a spontaneous acknowledgement of Robinson’s prominence in American life and letters, another honor atop the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and host of other prizes her work has collected. For a writer whose novels barely have plots and whose essays plumb the thought of John Calvin, Robinson is astonishingly popular—and not just among readers who share the president’s politics.
Her conservative admirers include Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth and a contributor for over 50 years to National Review, in whose pages he hailed Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead as a “masterpiece.” In Gilead, Hart found a rare spiritual gravity: “Despite the unaccommodating phase of ordinary culture through which we live,” he writes, Robinson’s “subject is holiness.”
As he explains further in his critical work The Living Moment, Robinson’s novel “consists entirely of a long letter written by the Reverend John Ames; it does have a plot, but it does not drive the reader urgently ahead. Rather, the letter, while recounting incidents, establishes a meditative pace, inviting you to read patiently, and soon with wonder. Precisely that is the philosophical point of the book: the experience of wonder, of Being.”
Gilead not only won the Pulitzer but sold enough copies to become “one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times”—as James Wood put it in the New Yorker—thanks to passages like this one, near the end of the book (and of Ames’s life):
Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? … Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.
Chief among the “precious things” Robinson honors is America’s religious heritage. She is in a sense a culture warrior, striving against what her essays call our “impulse … to disparage, to cheapen and to deface, and to falsify, which has made a valuable inheritance worthless.”
For this reason her nonfiction, like her novels, attracts the attention of thoughtful conservatives. In a Weekly Standard review of last year’s essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Houston Baptist University professor Micah Mattix praises Robinson’s contrarian projects: defending America’s Puritans (and their forefather, John Calvin) from their caricature as dour fundamentalists, championing the Old Testament as wise and humane, and critiquing the reductionist materialism of the New Atheists. To all this, Robinson brings a “penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument.”
The thread that unites these concerns is a tradition neglected today by left and right: liberal Christianity. Though the themes of Robinson’s work resonate with “crunchy conservatives” and others who emphasize virtues like duty, rootedness, and tradition, the author herself is a member of what she calls “that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.”
The decline of the Protestant mainline churches has transformed American religion since the protagonist of Gilead wrote his letter in 1956, as has the political polarization of Christianity. While there are exceptions—a small “secular right,” a more substantial religious left—in general the more often an American goes to church, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. In 2012, the overwhelming majority of religiously unaffiliated voters (70 percent) cast their ballots to re-elect Obama; an even larger majority of white evangelicals (80 percent) voted Republican.
Yet Robinson grounds her liberalism in her Calvinist tradition. She responded by email to a question from TAC about the identification of American Christians with the right:
Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.
Though Robinson has written that she is “extremely reluctant” to talk about her faith, “chiefly because my belief does not readily reduce itself to simple statements,” her work is suffused with her religious sensibility: distrustful of over-precise dogma, emphasizing spiritual wonder and acts of love.
Like John Ames (and Barack Obama), Robinson is a Congregationalist, a member of the mainline United Church of Christ. And like Ames, she preaches—the occasional guest sermon for her congregation in Iowa City. Unsurprisingly, author and character at times echo one another.
Ames writes “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” Likewise, Robinson, responding to a TAC query about her understanding of the Second Coming, demurs:
I expect to be very much surprised by the Second Coming. I would never have imagined the Incarnation or the Resurrection. To be astonishing seems to be the mark of God’s great acts—who could have imagined Creation? On these grounds it seems like presumption to me to treat what can only be speculation as if it were even tentative knowledge. I expect the goodness of God and the preciousness of Creation to be realized fully and eternally. I expect us all to receive a great instruction in the absolute nature of grace.
As Ames writes, “I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us.”
Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.
As she tells TAC:
Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.
Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.”
“Our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull,” she continues in When I Was a Child, and proposes an alternative anthropology: “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?”
Calvin writes in the Institutes that man’s creation in the image of God establishes a duty of unlimited love: “The image of God, by which he is recommended to you,” he writes, “deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.” The social consequences, Robinson believes, are clear: an “unqualified requirement of generosity” that is repeated again and again in the Christian tradition: in Deuteronomy, the Gospel, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.
In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”—a lecture she delivered at the Princeton Theological Seminary—Robinson observes, “There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings, and that we should return to them if we can.” This would mean a return to the moral seriousness with which our ancestors undertook their duty to the poor and needy.
“Those among us who call themselves traditionalists, and who invoke things like ‘religion’ and ‘family’ in a spirit that makes those honest words feel mean and tainted, are usually loyal first of all to a tooth-and-nail competitiveness our history does not in fact enshrine,” she writes in The Death of Adam. Later essays in When I Was a Child continue her attack on these purported traditionalists.
Conservatives are taken aback by the bracing tone here. As Mattix contends, when Robinson turns her eye on contemporary politics, her typical nuance and generosity can fail her. In her anger at what she sees as depredation, Robinson caricatures conservatism as a bundle of jingoism, mean-spiritedness, and tribalism, dismissing out of hand the notion that Christians who are conservative espouse limited government because they believe it best secures not only liberty but also prosperity—including prosperity for the poor.
Yet the caricature, if uncharitable, is at least understandable—just consider the willingness of Republicans to cut food stamps, but not corporate welfare, from the recent farm bill. As Robinson writes in When I Was a Child, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.”
Asked about “compassionate conservatism” and whether a Christian can fulfill the duties of love while being skeptical of government redistribution, she tells TAC:
Skepticism is appropriate in all cases, especially where money is involved. There should always be checks and balances. We all know of non-government charities whose CEO’s have done very well for themselves. As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.
It’s little wonder conservatives are drawn to the liberal Robinson, when she not only writes beautifully but does so with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies. Robinson’s critiques, if at times broad-brush, provide an always-needed reminder that the church should never allow itself to be simply the Republican Party at prayer. As Robinson writes in “Open Thy Hand Wide,” the Christian story is “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale.”
Robert Long, a summer 2013 editorial assistant for The American Conservative, studies philosophy of mind and of religion at Brandeis University.