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.