Marilynne Robinson: The Novelist as Theologian

by David E. Anderson

“Great theology,” novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote in an essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or saga.”

Robinson’s own work—three novels and two books of nonfiction—may not approach the definition of epic or saga, yet it is infused with a theological sensibility. It stands as a contrarian, revisionist comment on modern life and thought and bids well to be seen as the most theologically acute body of work by a contemporary writer.

Born and raised a Presbyterian and always a churchgoer, Robinson has “shifted allegiances the doctrinal and demographic inch that separates Presbyterians from Congregationalists,” she has written, adding, “but for all purposes I am where I ought to be, as sociologists calculate, and I should feel right at home.” Certainly her twinned novels, Gilead and Home, which center on the families of a Congregationalist and Presbyterian minister, respectively, show her perfectly at home in the inch-apart strains of Reformed and Calvinist theology. Indeed, the seriousness with which theology in general and Calvinist theology in particular is woven through the two novels makes Robinson unique among modern writers.

Portrait of John Calvin

In some sense, the recent novels might even be considered something of a reclamation project, an effort to reassert serious theology as part of cultural discourse. As Robinson wrote in a piece on Marguerite de Navarre and John Calvin in The Death of Adam, her collection of essays on modern thought, “This great project, theology, which for so many centuries was the epitome of thought and learning, the brilliant conceptual architecture of western religious passion, entirely worthy of comparison with any art which arose from the same impulse, has been forgotten, or remembered only to be looted for charms and relics and curiosities.”

Or as she put it in an essay skewering what religious and political economic conservatives have done to the family, “Religious beliefs have not been consciously abandoned. They simply dropped out of the cultural conversation.” The result has been that Americans have “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others.” Robinson seems prescient, predicting the angry anti-government tea-baggers when she writes that “our hopes are in fact so very modest that we can be made to fear another teenager might snatch them all away. It is because we hope to acquire rather than achieve—in the old language of religion, to receive rather than give—that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands.”

In both her fiction and nonfiction Robinson seeks—and to a large extent succeeds, for the attentive reader—in dismantling the negative stereotypes of John Calvin, Calvinism, and Calvinism’s Puritan progeny and reasserting the value of his theology in a contemporary context. This is most explicit in the essays in The Death of Adam, where she calls Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion “the first, greatest, and most influential work of systematic theology the Reformation produced,” but it is also true of both Gilead and Home, which are rife with discussions of prayer, predestination, atonement, and even hymnody. In Home, Robinson presents a touching, wrenching scene in which the elderly and dying Rev. Boughton is apologizing to his prodigal son, Jack, for not baptizing Jack’s illegitimate daughter some two decades ago:

His father looked at him. “Maybe you didn’t realize that, that she died without the sacrament, and maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about it, since it might only add to your grief. I was reluctant to mention it. But I wanted to be sure you understood the fault was entirely mine. He put his hand to his face. “Oh, Jack!” he said. “There I was, a minister of the Lord, holding that little baby in my arms any number of times. Why didn’t I just do the obvious thing! A few drops of water! There was a rain barrel right there by the house—who would have stopped me! I have thought of that so many times.”

“Yes, and Ames says it. He’ll take down the Institutes and show you the place. And Calvin was right about many things. His point there is that the Lord wouldn’t hold the child accountable—that has to be true. As for myself, well, ‘a broken and contrite heart Thou wilt not despise.’ I must remember to believe that, too.”

Glory said, “Papa, we’re Presbyterians. We don’t believe in the necessity of baptism. You’ve always said that.”

Robinson calls Calvin “a figure of the greatest historical consequence, especially for our culture, who is more or less entirely unread,” a neglect she sees as intentional. And she takes to task those writers—Lord Acton in his pivotal History of Freedom, Max Weber in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and, more recently, historians Roland Bainton and Simon Schama—who have perpetuated the canard that Protestantism as exemplified by Calvin is essentially a persecuting faith. Robinson challenges Acton’s odd conclusion that “while Protestants did not in fact engage in persecution at nearly the rate as Catholics did, their theology required it, while Catholic theology did not. Therefore Protestantism is peculiarly the theology of persecution.”

As she does for the Geneva theologian, so also does Robinson seek to add her voice to those who would recover the Puritans from the know-nothings and the name-callers. “What does it matter if a tradition no one identifies with any longer is unjustly disparaged? If history does not precisely authorize the use we make of the word ‘Puritanism’? We all know what we mean it, so what harm is done? Well, for one thing, we make ourselves ignorant and contemptuous of the first two or three hundred years of one of the major strains of our civilization.”

Robinson is a staunch mainline Protestant, and her Calvinist Protestantism imbues her with a fierce political liberalism grounded in Scripture. “Modern assumptions about the Old Testament, now an unread classic, make it seem an improbable source for economic and social idealism,” she has written in an essay called “McGuffey and the Abolitionists.” “In fact, it is more insistent than Marx ever was in championing the poor and the oppressed.” In her nonfiction she is scathing in her critique of contemporary capitalism and the imprimatur conservative Christianity and the religious right have given to unfettered competition at the expense of the biblical value to “do justice and love mercy.” “The sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of the widow and orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer.” In a challenge to those who baptize capitalism while maintaining a religious veneer, she says, “If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness.”

Robinson has made the 19th-century abolitionist movement and its religious and social impact on the Middle West a special field of her study. It is a prominent theme in Gilead and a significant part of the background of Home. In the latter novel, there is a sad recognition of how much Gilead, a beloved abolitionist small town, and its would-be ecclesial keepers of the vision of justice—racial justice—have lost or forgotten the values of that past. The two novels are set in 1956, as the modern civil rights movement begins to gather momentum with the Montgomery bus boycott. The violence sparked by the effort to suppress the nonviolent demonstrations led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, another minister schooled in the social gospel of Calvinism, flickers onto the new television in the Boughton living room and generates another source of tension between father and son. The elder Boughton watches the violence surrounding the effort to integrate the University of Alabama and comments: “‘I have nothing against the colored people. I do think they’re going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted. I believe that is the only solution.’ His look and tone were statesmanlike. He was making such an effort to be mild and conciliatory…” And a bit later: “The colored people,” his father said, “appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this—commotion.” How far Gilead and its people have come from the abolitionist “commotion.” In an essay on liberalism and its failure as a movement, Robinson writes what could be a gloss on this passage from Home: “Trivial failures of courage may seem minor enough in any particular instance, and yet they change history and society. They change culture.”

Robinson’s Calvinism, however, is not just a political theology. It is aesthetic as well—not just a matter of topics and themes, but something woven into her style: the luminosity of her carefully crafted sentences, the attentive attention to detail, the respect with which she describes the small movements of character and conversation. She touches on it in Gilead, where narrator John Ames, the Congregationalist minister, writes: “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought to be aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. … I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us.”

In her autobiographical meditation on Psalm 8, Robinson amplifies this sense of a Protestant aesthetic: “So 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 miracle is here, among us.”

What better description of the creative process—indeed, of her own finely wrought work—than this: “So it is possible to imagine that time was created in order that there might be narrative—event, sequence and causation, ignorance and error, retribution, atonement. A word, a phrase, a story falls on rich or stony ground and flourishes as it can, possibility in a sleeve of limitation.”

David E. Anderson is senior editor of Religion News Service. In 2005, he wrote “In Praise of Ordinary Time,” a review of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.