When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2013.
Summary: A collection of essays reflecting on the state of the nation and our culture, the values of literacy, liberality, and Christian generosity that have shaped us, and what the loss of these values to austerity, utility, and secularist atheism might mean for us.
As a life-long bibliophile, this book had me at the title. I thought, “you, too?” More than this, I’ve delighted in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, having read Gilead, Home, and Lila (reviewed here) . As an accomplished writer who combines theological acuity with a keen eye to the character of our culture, she has become something of a public intellectual, so much so that she was even interviewed by Barack Obama. And several years ago, I had a chance to hear her speak at Northwestern University, a delightful evening I recounted in this blog post. But I had never read any of her essays.
This is a wide-ranging collection. If I could identify any recurring themes, they would be the current state of the American experiment and a rebuttal of recent writers who seem determined to cast Christian faith and its biblical underpinnings in the worst light to suggest that these ideas might be relegated to the dustbin of history for a new, more enlightened atheist materialism. And then there was one essay (“Who Was Oberlin?”) that sort of fits both and neither, but that as an Ohioan, I enjoyed. It turns out that Oberlin was a social activist pastor from Strasbourg, Germany, who came to the American Midwest and started a college in the marshy lands between Cleveland and Sandusky, fulfilling its activist roots when the abolitionist Lane Rebels from Cincinnati joined with revivalist Charles Finney to make Oberlin a center of activism.
The title essay explores her reading of the writers of the American West and the kind resilient individualism of the homesteaders that is being lost to our detriment, she believes. Yet for her, this individualism is not an “every person for oneself” outlook. She writes trenchantly against the emphasis on austerity, and rational utility, that frames everything these days from social policy to the commodification of higher education that sees little utility in the study of foreign languages or classics. Important for her is the quality of imagination, practiced in her writing that allows characters to take shape and begins to imagine how they might respond to different turns of plot. This quality is important in real human communities, in our understanding of the “other.”
Two of her essays concern Moses: “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses.” In both, she takes on contemporary writers and scholars who would lay everything wrong in our civilization at the feet of Moses and other monotheists. In particular, the phrase “open wide thy hand” is important as representative of the tenor of Mosaic laws that uphold the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Critical scholars, she argues, overlook these texts, and selectively cherry pick others to fit their constructions. Likewise in her final essay on “Cosmology” she takes on atheists who use science to attack Christians and other theists.
Aside from the polemics, one of the most delightful essays, “Wondrous Love,” (also a favorite American hymn of mine), speaks of the power of many of the old American hymns. I was caught off guard, however, by her comments about one that hasn’t particularly been a favorite because it seemed a bit sentimental, “I Come to the Garden.” She writes:
“The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who ‘walked in the garden alone,’ imagines her ‘tarrying’ there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of a dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, Let there be light.’ The song acknowledges this with fine understatement: ‘The joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known.’ Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’s as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’s passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world” (p. 125).
I will never think of this gospel passage nor hear this song in quite the same way again! She does turn later in the essay to things political and makes an interesting observation that we often close public messages with “God bless America” but rarely do we affirm how God has blessed America–that we may have far more cause for gratitude than we often acknowledge.
This essay illustrates something that I encountered in a number of these essays. Where Robinson begins, and where she ends, and how she gets there is often a circuitous process. One feels you are on a ramble, perhaps a marvelous and sparkling ramble, and in the end, you can see how the various stages of the journey all connect, but this is often not where one starts, or necessarily where one expected to have gone.
Robinson’s is a distinctive voice. On many things, she sounds a bit the Obama liberal and in fact speaks critically of one of my favorite commentators, David Brooks. And then she writes of Calvin, and Moses, and takes on forces from Freud and Skinner to the new atheists. I suspect just about everyone gets mad at her at points! Perhaps the best explanation, and a good place to end, are her opening words, in the essay “Freedom of Thought”:
“Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what humans are and how human life should be understood” (p. 3).