The best writing is hardest to review. The most essential writing, after all, is essential precisely because it says what no one else can say. It achieves a subtlety of expression that allows for a subtlety of thought which is otherwise impossible. Marilynne Robinson’s voice is, by this definition, essential.
Robinson recently interviewed President Obama on a podcast and posed for the cover of Poets & Writers Magazine; she is reviewed almost everywhere with near-pious praise. There’s something mildly distasteful in the fad she is enjoying, driven as it is by the secular liberal hunger, not just for the sacred, but the for the moral authority conservatives claim for Christianity. But the irony of the voguishness of Robinson’s work is that her books are very far from superficial. Erudite Christian cultural criticism is having its 15 minutes.
The preoccupations that run through her latest collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, are as far-flung as they are weighty: Shakespeare, the Reformation, vernacular literature, love, egalitarianism, quantum physics, American and European history, the Civil War, politics, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, and even a foray into economics. Three or four of these are liable to be at work in a given essay. But the essays are unified, internally and from one to another, by a contrarian spirit. Robinson’s overarching project is to argue for the legitimacy of faith and the value of a Christian ethics centered on generosity, humility, love, and—her favorite word—grace.
Robinson worries that we have made the mistake of reducing our conception of reality, and especially of the human, to what is observable by science. Positivism, per Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a theory that theology and metaphysics are earlier imperfect modes of knowledge” displaced by the empirical sciences. Robinson sees traces of this attitude not only in neuroscience and physics—fields whose findings are sometimes said to discredit religious ideas of the self or God—but also in the American Christian right wing.
To summarize the essays’ topics is to say very little of the experience of reading them. Robinson, whose novels have won most top-tier literary awards, is, needless to say, a master stylist. She largely subordinates style to the task of making sublimely subtle philosophical distinctions, but that’s not to say she isn’t capable, or fond, of irony. She plays at times on her prose’s dryness, making extravagant claims with arch understatement, as in the sentence: “I think the prohibition against teleology must be an arbitrary constraint, in light of the fact that we don’t know what time is.”
Marilynne Robinson’s brilliance and moral profundity are more important than her oddness, but her oddness is notable. Readers can recognize the particular stamp of a writer’s mind. Why is the sense of recognition appealing? We are transfixed by anyone who freely gives themselves up to the unfolding of the pattern singular to, and innate in, them—whether David Bowie or John Wayne Gacy. Robinson’s language has such an odd, Latinate, wry, sternly poetic character, which links and equalizes her many interests. These essays are the products of a resplendently self-realized intelligence.
It is difficult to know what to make of the form of the essay on display in this book: it is part sermon, part scholarship, radically open-ended in a way that might be incoherent in less trustworthy hands. The pieces were delivered originally as lectures at institutions ranging from Yale to Western Theological Seminary, and the essays toward the book’s end address themselves unabashedly to Christians. When one reads of Jesus’ life that “the story is so familiar to us that we can forget how strange it would have sounded” to certain ancient peoples, one might suddenly realize he falls outside the target audience. To some among us, the story still doesn’t compute.
The essays in The Givenness of Things were clearly not written to be read straight through. Each stands alone and recycles ideas and phrases from other essays. Luckily, this is not a problem—there is a lifetime’s worth of wisdom here. I’ve chosen the word “wisdom” advisedly—it is one whose sad status in our culture Robinson laments. This is why we need her—her ability to resurface from the deeps of history, theology, and novel-writing to gaze on our society with surprise, delight, and critical distance, passing her observations through the prism of her convictions.
Who writes with her grace? Who else can say: “So slight a thing as a thought can assume weight and dimension through so slight a thing as a word.”