I have tried to avoid talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Christianity, but it’s not going to work. To do that would be to pretend that her faith is not almost immediately encountered in When I Was a Child I Read Books — or her other books, for that matter — so acknowledging it is inevitable. Marilynne Robinson is a Christian. She is also a writer, and may perhaps be a “Christian Writer,” whatever that means. But rest assured that she is not pictured smiling and looking dynamic on her dust jackets, and her writing bears no resemblance to thinly veiled self-help. Like the Bible, her work offers no assurances that Jesus wants you to be rich, quick or otherwise.
Some readers may be more comfortable with the title of Theologian, but Robinson is not exactly that either. While she mentions Christianity early and often, her essays are not focused on that single subject, and When I Was a Child is not exclusively or explicitly a Christian book. Her faith is more akin to armor than insulation, equipping her for taking on issues like economics, history, education and democracy. Much like Reinhold Niebuhr, her nearest predecessor in a line that traces back to Whitman and Emerson, Robinson is deeply fascinated with the nature and destiny of human kind, and what we tell ourselves about those things at our moment in history. I worry about calling her a Christian writer out of a reasonable fear that readers will hear it and deny themselves this thoughtful, exceptional, and important book.
FOR THEIR CHRISTMAS DAY ISSUE, the New York Times Sunday Book Review is running an essay by Marilynne Robinson, author of “Gilead” and “Home,” about “What Literature Owes the Bible.”
You don’t need to be a particularly pious or especially bookish to see what Robinson sees in both the Good Book and good books:
There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes.
The “aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have significance” are the heroes (and anti-heroes) from Salinger, Franzen, Kate Walbert, James Joyce, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan and of course Robinson, among others (not to mention Star Wars and Harry Potter). David Foster Wallace may not adhere strictly to literary realism, but few authors are more focused on the significance Jesus’ “the least of these.” More:
The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected…In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life, the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our civilization.
Read “The Book of Books” by Marilynne Robinson.