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Why You Should Read Marilynne Robinson

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Marilynne Robinson is an American author whose books express her humane theism with sympathy and imagination. Her four novels are Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer prize, and Home the 2009 UK Orange prize for fiction. Of these, Gilead, Home, and Lila are complementary, in that they describe the same group of people in two families from the perspectives of three different members of that group. The people are ordinary, but the description and narratives are extraordinary. Each person shines with clarity, and the progress of their lives is described in powerful detail. Because of the place and time in which they live, their lives could be described as quiet, but the narratives are sustained by intensity of observation and reflection. Simone Weil commented that in fiction evil people are interesting, and good people are boring, whereas in real life, good people are interesting and evil people are boring. Marilynne Robinson has the extraordinary gift of evoking good people as interesting in her fiction. And it is her humane theism which enriches her writing, as does her perceptive sympathy for the lives of ordinary people. She shows how people are shaped by early experiences and background, and how people grapple with the givens of their lives.

Marilynne Robinson has also written books of essays, in which she articulates the values of her humane theism. These include The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012).

These are remarkable, and each chapter is brief, powerful, and incisive. From The Death of Adam, I especially love her two chapters headed “Marguerite of Navarre” and “Marguerite of Navarre II”. She begins the first of these with an apology, for the chapter is actually about John Calvin! She explains that if she had titled the chapter “John Calvin” many would not have bothered to read it! She explains why they would have responded this way, and then why they would have been wrong to reject or ignore such a significant and remarkable person. Her cultural appreciation of Calvin is powerful, and has led to a renewed interest in Calvin in North America in circles that have previously ignored or rejected him without knowing anything of him. The next chapter is an equally compelling appreciation of Marguerite of Navarre, a close contemporary of Calvin, and an equally extraordinary person.

In this book, Robinson also provides a sympathetic appreciation of Jonathan Edwards, in the chapter titled “Puritans and Prigs”. In When I Was a Child I Read Books, we find a wonderful defence of the moral vision of Moses, in the chapters “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”, and, “The Fate of Ideas: Moses”.

Absence of Mind is a powerful critique of contemporary atheism, which demonstrates how such humanism effectively de-humanizes humanity. If we ignore God, we will not understand people.

These books show a remarkable combination of a penetrating mind, deep human sympathy, and elegance of expression.

We should read these books of essays. They will stimulate our own thinking and reflection. They show how to commend theism in the modern world. And I hope that they will challenge us to write and communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with a similar depth of thought and clarity of expression.

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