Whenever I read a book by Marilynne Robinson, I always think of my visit to Iowa City a number of years ago and having the chance to meet her and attend an afternoon workshop that she presented to around a dozen ministers. It was striking to me that Robinson talks with and embodies the same measured poise with which she writes. Robinson, the author of three novels and four works of non-fiction (I’ve read all but two of her books), has a remarkable mind and writes in a controlled, exact, and precise manner. I was not surprised to learn that there was something like a twenty year gap between her first and second novel. Her writing was so perfect that I imagined her taking a week to craft a sentence. According to a favorable review of Robinson’s most recent book in the Wall Street Journal, “The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose.”
When I Was a Child I Read Books contains ten essays, each seemingly better than the one before it. Robinson writes as a liberal Christian who merges Christian theology with the humanities. These essays return again and again to a series of themes: the Biblical commandments about generosity, the sinister ideological roots of modern economic theory, the rejection of ideologies that would limit our humanity, and the glory of the human mind.
In her opening essay, Robinson writes, “I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood… For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them.” Immediately, Robinson goes on to critique behaviorist psychology. Less proximately, she goes on to question the economic ideologies of modern day capitalism, Darwinian attempts to explain human behaviors, and the rejections of religion by the New Atheists.
Her essays are always fascinating, and sometimes go off on puzzling tangents, as when she writes about reclaiming the figure of Moses as an exemplar of liberalism. She considers four books that seem to hold a negative opinion of Moses and the Old Testament. Those four books include popular religion treatments by Bishop John Shelby Spong and Jack Miles, along with obscure scholarly titles by Jan Assmann and Regina Schwartz. I get what she’s doing here. A lot of the condemnations of Jewish scripture are nothing more than the “moldy theories we learned as sophomores.” But this essay, unlike the other essays, is so narrow and specialized that it seems inessential when compared to the topics she tackles elsewhere. How many people are interested in reading a three page refutation of Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism? (For the record, I read Assmann’s book as part of senior-level college seminar in the history of religions. It is a wild book. It freely admits to being a wild book. And, I think that Robinson could have treated it more generously.)
Robinson is at her best in her essays “Who Was Oberlin?” and “Cosmology.” In “Cosmology” she thrashes Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other neo-Darwinians. It is Robinson’s way of thinking here that I find most liberating and most in line with the theological thinking to which I aspire. In “Oberlin” she considers the historical importance of nineteenth century evangelical Christians like Johann Friedrich Oberlin and Charles Grandison Finney, who played an important role in the end of slavery, and in forming Midwestern intellectual and cultural institutions, such as Grinnell and Oberlin. Robinson’s essay provides an alternative history to the history of evangelical religion offered by Jeff Sharlet in his exposé The Family. Sharlet seems to treat Jonathan Edwards and Finney as the precursors of modern day Christian dominionists. Robinson shows this not to be the case, but in doing so she inadvertently understates the threat of the right wing.
Part of the joy of Robinson is also part of what makes this amazing book a bit frustrating in retrospect. She does not suffer fools gladly. “[A]nother identification I hold passionately is with the academic community, which has its fair share of skeptics and agnostics, some of whom are well enough informed historically to mention Michael Servetus from time to time, to make an occasional offhand remark about the Thirty Years War.” Robinson holds that the complexity of the human mind and the complexity of the cosmos are deserving of reverence. Her efforts to praise and defend that larger reverence and wondrous love are sometimes noble and sometimes quixotic. Not all sins are equal.
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