Marilynne Robinson


BOB ABERNETHY, host: We have a profile of the much-honored writer Marilynne Robinson. She received the Orange Prize for fiction this past summer, in Britain, for the best writing in the English language by a woman. Five years ago, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead, and her latest book, Home, has also had glowing reviews. Robinson is a mainline Protestant with great respect for Calvinist theology and strong opinions about the world around her.

Marilynne Robinson’s view of the world was formed in the mountains of Idaho, where she grew up. In the solitude and wilderness she sensed a larger presence.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: That never felt like emptiness. It always felt like presence. It always seemed as if there was something extraordinary around me. The holy is at the origins of everything that exists. Everything.

(reading aloud from one of her essays): “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.”

ABERNETHY: In Iowa, where she lives now, teaching writing at the University of Iowa, Robinson tells her students to think for themselves.

ROBINSON: I want them to know that they have their own testimony to offer, that if they are good observers, if they are thoughtful people, if they have the courage to evaluate things independently they will give the world something new, something worth having.

ABERNETHY: Which is exactly what her admirers say Robinson herself has done.

Robinson is a regular churchgoer at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, and she sometimes preaches there.  She loves the old Protestant Mainline.

ROBINSON: I think of them as being people who are serious about things that deserve, you know, serious attention, for example, social problems. They are very open to acknowledging the value of other religious traditions and tend very much away from harsh judgments.

ABERNETHY: Robinson has great respect for the 16th-century reformer John Calvin, who she says was far more compassionate than his stern reputation suggests—for instance, about forgiveness.

ROBINSON: The assumption is that forgiveness is owed wherever God might want forgiveness to be given, and we don’t know, so you err on the side of forgiving. You assume your fallibility, and you also assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God—or is God himself.

ABERNETHY: So you cannot judge. You have to forgive. But Robinson is very critical of the work of the so-called new atheists.

ROBINSON: I think this sort of avalanche of literature we have gotten lately is very second-rate. It simply is not well informed and not well considered. I mean I consider it to be kind of noise.

ABERNETHY: She is deeply worried about the degradation of the earth’s environment, especially its oceans, and she is scathing on popular, commercial culture.

ROBINSON: The idea that everything always has to push some extreme, you know, be more violent, be more sort of disrespectful of human life, and so on—there’s a cynicism about it, things that have to do with mayhem, that make it look like it would be a lot of fun, you know, to wipe out your adversaries or something like that, that really treat people like dispensable, you know, items.

ABERNETHY: Do you see it as a barrier to religious life?

ROBINSON: I think it’s a severe distraction. We have to think that people are sacred. Human beings have to be considered sacred. That’s the beginning.

ABERNETHY: And the political climate?

ROBINSON: It’s a little shocking when you hear people say, like about this health thing we’re going through now, what’s in it for me, you know? That’s a huge change in the basic values of the culture. I got sort of tired when I was a kid of hearing people say you have to leave the world better than you found it. But now I think I would burst into tears if somebody said that to me—just, what a lovely thought, you know?

ABERNETHY: In spite of her love of solitude and lonely observation, Robinson’s reputation as a novelist and her strong opinions have made her a popular speaker—a soft-spoken prophet. At a forum at Georgetown University she was asked about being a contrarian:

ROBINSON (speaking at Georgetown University): I don’t feel as if I am contrarian. I feel as if everyone else is. No, that’s an exaggeration, but I do think there is a great deal in the culture that abrades and offends people in general.

ABERNETHY: She made it clear that at the same time that she embraces Christianity she is also respectful of the secular.

ROBINSON (speaking at Georgetown University): I know many, many, many, many people who authentically deserve to be described in that word whom I cannot imagine that God would not love. I have no conception of God that would not include love for these people.

A lot of the things that I criticize, I think, are in their impact inhumane. My loyalty really is to human loveliness, and the deep experience of self that every self deserves, you know, and the deep acknowledgment that everyone owes to everyone else.

If you were to think of yourself looking back on life, I think that some of the things that would please you most deeply are that at some moment you were—you comforted your child, or in one way or another you soothed, you fed, you were adequate, you know? These things are very beautiful and, I think, sacramental.

ABERNETHY: Back in her house in Iowa City, Robinson writes in whatever room she feels will be the most supportive. She is working now on a book about the Bible. She writes fiction in longhand with a ball-point pen in a college-ruled spiral notebook. Nonfiction goes in her computer. She also walks her toy poodle, Otis, named for the late musician Otis Redding. As she walks, she says, she thinks—how to fix “the rattle,” as she called it, in a sentence she had just written. Maybe, too, how to fix the world she says, echoing Calvin, the world God has given us to enjoy.

  • Jeffrey Eyges

    I’d never heard of this woman, and I must say I found her condescending, opinionated and ill-informed. She considers the writings of the New Atheist authors to be “second-rate” and “a kind of noise”. I couldn’t disagree more. I suspect, rather, that despite her claim to the contrary, she is uncomfortable with the objective world view they espouse. It’s easy for her to claim to have respect for Bertrand Russell; he’s dead, and isn’t a threat to her belief system. Her counterargument,

    “I don’t think that we have a basis in our experience that allows us to put together a case for the existence of God. I don’t think that’s intended. I think that people who feel that they have to be able to put it together in that way, arrive at it rationally, as it were, simply lack acquaintance with the extreme fallibility and limitedness of human capacities for reason and for gathering relevant information and all the rest of it. I think the feeling of amazement that I think is appropriate to an alerted sense of what being is leads very naturally to deep comfort with the assumption of God.”

    is nothing but sloppy, sentimental thinking. It’s completely disingenuous intellectually, merely a somewhat more refined way of presenting the same rationalization offered by the least sophisticated of believers – “I feel it must be true, therefore it’s true.”

    Also, I have absolutely no patience for people who participate in these recent, unfortunate attempts to rehabilitate John Calvin. You “assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God”? Lovely – but Calvin is also the man who, following Augustine’s lead, bequeathed to us the notion that there are those who are NOT precious to God – those whom he created for the sole purpose of enjoying the spectacle of their eternal torment. Calvinism exerts a tremendous influence today within the evangelical subculture, even upon those who don’t consider themselves to be Calvinists. Calvin is one of those chiefly responsible for giving us today’s evangelicalism – a subculture that has spent the past thirty years voting into office the criminals and lunatics whose behavior has resulted in our current economic crisis. As we have the potential to take the rest of the world down with us as we deteriorate, I think it’s fair to say that John Calvin may end up being directly responsible for the destruction of our global civilization. Anyone who chooses to ignore this, and to portray Calvin sympathetically, is simply seeing what he or she wants to see.

  • Maureen M. Ribeiro

    As I read what Marilynne Robinson has to say about her beliefs, I wrote down the names of her last two novels, to access more of her ideas.
    I am so surprised to read Jeff Egyes’s take on how her faith in Calvin is deteriorating somehow. It sounds like he is overboard in the intellectual dimension and hasn’t experienced faith. Anyway, personally I feel more disposed toward Calvin than I did before reading this write-up.
    Maureen M. Ribeiro

  • Byron G. Curtis

    I read _Gilead_ and _Home_ this summer, and found them to be filled with grace, wisdom, beauty. I’ve also read some of the “New Atheists,” or heard them in debate, and found them to be ill-informed. If I had to pick a universe to live in, and had only these two choices, I’d want it to be Robinson’s.

    I am currently writing a book about John Calvin. The mental image of him that I get from his books and letters is much closer to Robinson’s than it is to Jeffrey’s (above).

  • Pam Wilson

    Robinson’s writings have spoiled me for all other modern American fiction. The reviewer who found in them “the ecstacy of pure wisdom” turned it well. Now I have discovered the word, “entacy,” in Meditations on the Tarot and find it perhaps an even better descriptor. Robinson’s wisdom rises up from below as much as it shines from above. As clear and elemental as water.

  • Kent Quisel

    I find insight in all of the above comments. John Calvin is not yet a compelling focus for me. We should be able to seperate his heart-felt beliefs from the harsher ideas that were an extreme reaction to the Catholic practice of the times. Rituals or payments to the church could earn the way to Heaven. Robinson’s Rev. Ames waffles on predestination and finally does the difficult act of foregiviness and blessing. I admire her personal openess and grace to all walks of life, an inspiration to me and an example that can heal the world. I can only hope that her vision of a Universal spirit would come closer to a pure compassion that is the best we can vision, leaving the possibiity of a condemmed life in the dust. As I have led panels of all religions, the glimpse of a flow toward a caring harmony is a source of hope and purpose.

  • Linda Slater

    I enjoyed Housekeeping and Home,but could not get into Gilead.Her writing is so good it can be an example to any student.Home made me uestion different aspects of what we consider to be a religious person. Is it religious to say that my religion is the only oe that will get people into heaven? Can a person be kind, compassionate and not go to church every Sunday or tell others what to believe? Home dealt so well with forgiveness and healing within a family

  • Ted Jones

    Those who discount Ms. Robinson without reading her work and those who discount her Calvinist heritage without reading her are cheating themselves mightily. Those above who have read her work are unanimous, nearly, in their appreciation for her narrative works. Her taking of the ordinary as the arena in which life’s deepest values, graces, temptations, failings, reconciliations, humiliations and exhaltations are known and forged is right on with the Calvinist humanistic tradition: every life is sacred and all worthy human endeavor is to be honored. From this fountain rose many of Western culture’s finest fruits: public academies and universities, publicly elected officers in church and state, clear separation of church and state, representative constitutional government, hospices and hospitals for the public, libraries, the dignifying of common work and labor, public provisions for the poor, and more.

    May I suggest to those who think they have grievances with Calvin and Calvinism they read Ms. Robinson and then turn to Robert Reymond’s, John Calvin: His Life and Influence. That great reformer was a man of his time and had flaws and Servetus terrible exectution in Calvin’s Geneva is a terrible stain. Nonetheless, many of the great liberal values the religious right so vehemently today attack had their headwaters in Calvin’s mind and Geneva’s Reformation. It is these values of pursuing the common good, safeguarding human rights, educating and disciplining the human mind, revering nature, freeing scripture from literalist interpretation, dignifying work, distinguishing beauty from crassness, and practicing reconciliation in place of revenge that Mainline Protestantism still upholds.

  • Jeffrey Eyges

    Ted Jones: “clear separation of church and state”; “Servetus terrible execution”

    These two statements cancel out one another.

    “many of the great liberal values the religious right so vehemently today attack had their headwaters in Calvin’s mind and Geneva’s Reformation. It is these values of pursuing the common good, safeguarding human rights… ”

    It is the Calvinist influence pervasive among the Religious Right that has empowered them to commandeer the political arena and attempt to deprive so many of their “human rights”.

    As I said last fall, I have no patience with people who participate in these misbegotten attempts to rehabilitate John Calvin. People cling to iconic figures out of sentimental attachment, and see what they want to see.

  • Jamey Findling

    I have no patience with people who “have no patience with people” who disagree with them. Civil discourse requires, among other things, enormous patience — above all with those with whom we disagree strongly. Mr. Eyges sounds angry, arrogant, and insecure in his comments here.

  • John Bradshaw

    I find that when I read what Marilynne Robinson has written, and more so now that I have heard her speak, that she is putting down on paper and saying in words what I have long since thought and felt. I was born in 1964 21 years earlier than this writer and I hope in the years I have left I can learn and develop my thoughts as she seems to have done based on the firm foundation of a search for meaning and truth.
    How refreshing to hear a voice telling people to think and feel for themselves rather than being pushed and bullied into line by Darwins disciples.
    I was told when young that a lot of scientific thought came from British clergy and those connected to it. What a shame that aggressive athiesm cannot be as tollerant of religeon and its virtues as religion was (and rightly so) of these men of science.
    I hope this author keeps writing because I enjoy and get so much from the content of her work.

  • patricia s cook

    I heard Marilyn Robinson speak this spring for the first time at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. I had previously read all of her fiction and the last two spoken of so frequently above spoke to so many of my questions and my pursuit for truth.

    Today I heard a beautiful statement that addresses a very prominent current complaint about Christianity. A world traveler knowledgeable about multiple cultures said Christianity teaches that Jesus is the only way to God, but it also teaches that there are many ways to Jesus. He spoke to a man in another culture who had never heard of Jesus and told him the Biblical account of Jesus. When he finished, the man said that would be just like God!

    Try asking if God is there and be willing to listen; agree that if God reveals Himself, you will be willing to do what is required. If who you hear is the most amazing goodness you’ve ever known anywhere, follow that voice. The former first part is a rough paraphrase from John Stott. The second is mine. Blessings and goodness abound!!
    May that kingdom come.