I repeat: read the essays of Marilynne Robinson. Last night Matthew Sleeth and his family were most kind enough to invite a bunch of us Chelsea Greeners to their place for dinner (a birthday party, in fact). He gave me a copy of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and we talked Christian writers a little, and that got me thinking again of Marilynne Robinson. If you like essays; if you like beautiful prose; if you like honest intellectual rigor; if you like Christianity… you should read Robinson’s collection The Death of Adam. Meanwhile, here’s some thinking along the same lines as one of Robinson’s recent (but not publicly online available) essays. (I like the below, but I like Robinson more.)
The Boston Globe
Long before the age of Falwell and Robertson, evangelical Protestants from William Jennings Bryan to Billy Graham were anything but right-wing zealots. Today, a new generation of evangelical leaders are rediscovering their progressive roots.
By Harvey Cox | July 9, 2006
IN THE SPRING OF LAST YEAR, President Bush flew to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Because of its conservative religious reputation, his advisers thought it would be a safe and friendly place, but the visit did not turn out as expected. He was greeted by a petition, signed by a third of the faculty, and a large student demonstration. Both denounced the invasion of Iraq as not meeting the classical Christian criteria for a just war.
Indeed, as the president has tried to shore up support among religiously conservative voters in preparation for this fall’s congressional elections, returning to such issues as a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he has found himself grappling with a new challenge. Evangelical Protestants are becoming increasingly concerned about a wide range of issues-the Iraq War, the environment, torture, and poverty, for example-which put them at odds with much of the Bush agenda.
This interest in what are often considered “liberal” issues marks the rise of a younger and more moderate leadership among evangelicals. Paradoxically, these new leaders are more “religious” than the old guard of the religious right. The difference, one could argue, is that they are more concerned about actually following Jesus, who had much to say about violence and the poor, but said nothing about gays or a strong military, and who was put to death by torture. The appearance of these new social concerns means that something important is afoot in the vast evangelical community of America. It is simply no longer accurate to identify “evangelical” with “religious right.”
You don’t believe me? Well, you don’t know me so maybe have plenty of reason to mistrust. And you don’t know Roger Kimball either, so maybe his review won’t matter either. But then again…
John Calvin Got a Bad Rap
Marilynne Robinson’s essays are tough and contrarian.
By ROGER KIMBALL
THE DEATH OF ADAM
Essays on Modern Thought.
By Marilynne Robinson.
254 pp. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company. $24.
[Review in the NYTimes]
Toward the end of her novel, ”Housekeeping” (1981), Marilynne Robinson has her narrator remark: ”Fact explains nothing. On the contrary, it is fact that requires explanation.” As the 11 essays in ”The Death of Adam” show, the inadequacy of fact — of brute fact, fact unredeemed by human meaning — is a leitmotif in Robinson’s thought. One might think that preferring human meaning to brute fact implied something easygoing. Not a chance. There is a core of remarkable toughness in Robinson’s thinking. If she is bent on rescuing humanity from sundry depredations, it is more in the manner of Dante or Jonathan Edwards than a promoter of self-esteem.
She describes ”The Death of Adam” as ”contrarian in method and spirit.” She isn’t kidding. One would have to search far and wide to find another contemporary novelist writing articulate essays defending the theology of John Calvin or the moral and social lives of the Puritans. We all know that Puritans were dour, sex-hating, joy-abominating folk — except that, as Robinson shows, this widely embraced caricature is a calumny. ”The way we speak and think of the Puritans,” she writes, ”seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism. Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”
There is a lot about Marilynne Robinson that is politically incorrect — beginning, perhaps, with her obvious suspicion of easy categories like ”political correctness.” The essays in this volume range widely, from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1945 for ”antiwar activity” (his unpardonable sin was attempting to save people from extermination), to William Holmes McGuffey, the 19th-century Midwestern radical who gave America the famous McGuffey readers.
One of Robinson’s great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity. ”Everything,” she writes, ”always bears looking into.” Her judgments are the result of grappling anew with the issues and authors she writes about. All too often, she observes, ”to say that a certain text is essential to the development of American culture or consciousness is as if to say: Do not bother reading it. You know all you need to know.”
She occasionally overstates matters. Her prose is sometimes richer than her argument is rigorous. She is fond of locutions like ”when people still had sensibilities.” And although admirably solicitous of certain damaged reputations, she sometimes overdoes her impatience with acknowledged giants. Thus when she sniffs that a ”more brilliant sociologist” than Max Weber would have been more sensitive to Calvinism, one wonders whether the world has ever seen a more brilliant sociologist than Weber.
In the end, though, these are small matters, dwarfed by the current of high moral seriousness that animates ”The Death of Adam.” The subtitle tells us the book contains ”essays on modern thought.” ”Against modern thought” would be more accurate. In particular, Robinson is against that aspect of modern thought — a large and immensely influential aspect — that inculcates cynicism. We often take the extent of one’s disillusionment as an index of one’s wisdom. Robinson’s deeper purpose is to remind us of the culpable folly of such a view. For some time now, she notes, we ”have been launched on a great campaign to deromanticize everything, even while we are eager to insist that more or less everything that matters is a romance.” Thus it is that ”when a good man or woman stumbles, we say, ‘I knew it all along,’ and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.”
Puppet theories of human nature are always popular, partly because they are so simple, partly because they endow their proponents with the illusion of elite knowledge. How thrilling to know that human culture is really only a reflection of economic forces (Marx), that love is merely an alibi for lust (Freud), that altruism is a blind for genetic propagation (some followers of Darwin). Robinson is at her best when she sets out to expose the arrogance and reductive wrongheadedness of such scientistic versions of science. ”The modern fable,” she writes in her longest essay, ”Darwinism,” ”is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth. It can give us no grounds for preferring what is excellent to what is sensationalistic. And this is more or less where we are now.”
Of course, even to title an essay ”Darwinism” is a provocative gesture. Few educated people today deny that the process of heritable variation Darwin described accounts, in his phrase, for the origin of species. The question, as Robinson puts it, is whether ”all that has happened on this planet is the fortuitous colonization of a damp stone by a chemical phenomenon we have called ‘life.’ ” Or, in the words of an eminent sociobiologist, ”an organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.” Think of Plato, Bach, Newton, Rembrandt, Shakespeare; then consider the implications of that ”only.”
A phrase that recurs often in these essays is ”human exceptionalism.” Puppet theories of human nature are always out to dissuade us from thinking words like nobility, honor, courage, loyalty, love and virtue actually mean what the dictionary tells us they mean. Robinson urges us to take another look. In her poignant essay on Psalm 8 (”What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”), she offers an alternative credo: ”I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.” Who is rash enough to declare her wrong?
Roger Kimball, the managing editor of The New Criterion, is the author of ”Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education.”