Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Givenness of Things

The givenness of things

The Givenness of ThingsMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays drawn from various lectures questioning our prevailing ideas through the lens of John Calvin, and others in the Reformed and Humanist tradition.

If you have read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, you have the sense that there is a world of theological thought undergirding her narratives, particularly reflected in her lead character, Reverend John Ames. To read her essays is to enter into that rich theological world, and the extent to which this woman reads.

It is also to experience a voice that seems from another time, questioning our prevailing ways of thought. Like C. S. Lewis, Robinson is a reader of old books, particularly old theologians like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and she allows these voices of another time to question our accepted ways of looking at things.

One example is the essay from which the title of this collection is drawn, “Givenness.” The essay focuses around the ideas of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections and the intrinsic character of the affections of love, joy, hope, desire, and others in our experience of faith. Here, and in other essays, she argues against the scientific reductionism that reduces the affections to the firing of neurons. Similarly, the opening essay on “Humanism” describes the glories of the works of the mind that came out of the Renaissance, and challenges the reductionism that would explain all of this through evolutionary mechanisms and physical processes. It is not that she is anti-science. It is obvious that her reading includes and delights in a great deal of science writing. It is the scientism that asserts hegemony over all domains of human experience to which she objects.

The book consists of seventeen essays, most with one word titles like “Reformation,” Servanthood,” or “Limitation.” Perhaps the most striking for me was her essay on  “Fear.” These statements were particularly arresting:

“First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind….As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (p. 125).

She explores how this drives the fearful nationalism evident even when she was writing these essays, and the stress on preserving and extending the Second Amendment in the acquisition and proposed “right” to concealed carry. She also wonders about the financial interests exploiting this culture of fear.

Her essay on “Theology” explores not only theologians like Jonathan Edwards, but the theological content of the plays of William Shakespeare (whetting my appetite to read some Shakespeare). She explores particularly the ways Shakespeare handles reconciliation and matters of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

These are simply tastes of what you will find in this rich collection representing Robinson’s thought. Prepare to read rigorously, and to explore the intellectual by-paths Robinson will take in exploring an idea. One must pay close attention to follow the thread of her arguments. Again, like Lewis, one has the sense that she brings everything she has read to anything that she says.

Finally, the book concludes with a two-part conversation with Barack Obama while he was president. As much as anything, he is interviewing her and what a delight to listen in on this wide-ranging conversation between two literate persons. One of the moments that reflected one of the president’s deep regrets was his struggle to close the gap between Washington and Main Street, the ways we engage with each other in everyday life, and the distance between that and our political discourse–our compassion toward the needy near us and our fears of “them” — a comment evoked by Robinson’s essay on fear.

One might critique her essays as reflecting a very Euro-American focus and a lack of engagement with writers outside the Western theological, philosophical and literary canon. There may well be some validity in that critique, but perhaps she is doing something very similar to those calling for other voices, in drawing on voices no longer a part of our cultural discourse, and who speak to our contemporary ideas from another perspective, and from another time.

 

Review: What Are We Doing Here?

What are we doing here

What Are We Doing Here?Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology.

“I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite–in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared” (Preface, p. ix).

The thread that connects these essays, mostly transcriptions of talks given at universities (I was present for and blogged about one of these, here presented as “The Beautiful Changes”) is that in much of our intellectual discourse, we have “surrendered thought to ideology.” We unthinkingly tout maxims from Marxism or Darwinism, often without real acquaintance with Marx or Darwin. We speak critically about Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards without a real appreciation of what they thought and wrote (apart from a brief excerpt of one sermon of Edwards), and the culture they helped shape. She introduces this theme in her opening essay, on freedom of conscience, maintaining that we have Cromwell and the much-maligned New England Puritans to thank for the idea of freedom of conscience, in contrast to the Anglican controlled South that enforced uniformity of worship and upheld slavery.

In the second and title essay, she pushes back against the much touted demise of the humanities, asking “what are we doing here, we professors of English?” She argues for the recovery of a discourse about the beautiful in an economy that tries to monetize everything, and that we do so with depth and eloquence. In the next essay, on theology, she contends for a recovery of a concept of Being, recognizing both the greatness of God and the greatness of human beings. She goes on to challenge the modern assumption that we are simply thinking animals with Edwards conception of us as capable moral agents. She questions the eclipse of the terminology of the divine and what is lost in our discourse in consequence. She explores Emerson’s idea of the “American scholar” and the very different idea of university education’s end–monetized and measured by its ability to propel a new generation into a cultural elite.

The next three essays explore further the ideas of beauty. Both “Grace and Beauty” and “The Beautiful Changes” argue for a kind of divine freedom that precedes reality and that the ordered grandeur and elegance seen by both scientists and theologians bespeak the grace of God. Between these two essays is a tribute to a different kind of beauty and comes out of the personal friendship Robinson enjoyed with Barack Obama. She writes,

“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are” (p. 125).

The longest essay, “Our Public Conversation” is a sprawling reflection on America’s conversation about itself, and particularly its history, which in Robinson’s estimation, it often gets wrong. Here again, her example is the Puritans, and how in fact the rights we so cherish arose out of Puritan culture, rather than in spite of it.

The latter part of the work focuses on questions of character–our conceptions of mind, conscience and soul; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; integrity in our modern intellectual tradition, the richness of intellectual and moral life of the New England Puritans (yes, those Puritans again!), and finally a challenging and convicting essay on slander and the scriptural warnings against every careless word. If everyone engaged in public discourse could read and take this to heart, it would turn out public discourse upside down!

Robinson is one of those you need to read closely and more than once as her mind ranges widely with rich use of allusion and metaphor while exploring a chosen theme. When I didn’t, I lost the thread of her argument. It is also true that in this collection, Robinson belabors her defense of the Puritans (although essay collections often recur to their author’s favorite themes). At the same time, one finds a forthrightness in challenging unthinking assumptions, including those of her fellow Christians, who wonder if she is fearful about her open portrayal of religious themes in her novels and other works. Her response is that she has always written what she is interested in, and simply is glad there is an audience that has also found it of interest.

Perhaps Robinson’s love of the Puritans and the intellectual rigor she finds in Calvinism offers her a unique point of view in her critique of American intellectual culture. As C. S. Lewis has argued in his case for reading old books, two sides may be “as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions.” Reading books from a different age, in this case the Puritans, and other great theologians of the church, may give Robinson that ability to spot those common assumptions–the ideologies we unthinkingly embrace that substitute for thought, that foster our disagreements and stifle our public discourse and intellectual life. We may delight in pointing out the flaws in the Puritans but do we let them speak to ours? This is what I believe is implied as Robinson asks, “what are we doing here?”

Review: The Death of Adam

the death of adam

The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays taking modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward its intellectual antecedents.

Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction discovers a view of life framed in older, theological modes of thought that trace back to the Reformation and beyond. Her appreciation for that framework is evident in this collection of essays that takes modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward, and often uninformed rejection of these older modes of thought. Much of this is grounded in one of the fundamental premises of Robinson’s thought–go back to the primary sources!

She demonstrates this in an introductory essay where she takes Lord Acton and others to task for misrepresenting John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as his name appears in French), often failing to actually read Calvin himself. She returns later in the collection in two essays on Marguerite of Navarre to defend Calvin against charges of religious bigotry and to recover the contribution Calvin has made to democratic ideals. In particular, she addresses the case for which Calvin is most excoriated, that of Michael Servetus, noting that Calvin was not among the civil authorities who sentenced him and that his execution for heresy was the only such to occur in Calvin’s Geneva, mostly because of the troublesome character he had been. She doesn’t excuse the execution or Calvin’s role but tries to set it in a context of a restrained policy, considering the times.

This “contrarian approach” is taken up in her initial essay on Darwinism as she explores the much more brutal human ethic of survival, selfishness, and progress, contrasted with the older one of human dignity as creatures in God’s image, as well as an understanding of human fallenness that does not excuse human evil with socio-biological explanations.

She notes the struggle of modern thought to face reality when confronted by the crises of life that raise profound questions about our existence. She writes of an older way of understanding such things:

“The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us. Oddly, people in this culture have been relatively exempt from toil and pangs and death, to, if length of life may be regarded as a kind of exemption. So why do these things seem to terrify us more than they do others? One reason might be that, as human populations go, we are old. A few decades ago the median age was in late adolescence, and now it is deep into adulthood. Midlife has overtaken the great postwar generation. So the very fact that we have, in general, enjoyed unexampled health has brought us in vast numbers into the years when even the best luck begins to run out. This is true of the whole Western world (pp. 81-82).

Two of her essays concern Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Holmes McGuffey. In the case of Bonhoeffer, we see a contrarian who withstands Nazi ideology drawing on wellsprings of an older faith. In McGuffey, whose famous readers are taken to task for bourgeois values, she observes his associations with abolitionists from Charles Finney to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane radicals of Cincinnati. His readers shaped a consciousness in the American Middle West that had no place for slavery in human society.

This is followed by a delightful essay on “Puritans and Prigs” in which she contends the Puritans were a far more joyful and liberal band that stands in contrast with modern liberal, fish-eating “priggishness’ and that the Puritans understanding of human fallenness makes room for forgiveness and the restoration of people, rather than their outright removal from society. She also challenges, in her essay on Psalm 8 the idea of the “transcendent” that has been such a part of American religious and philosophical thought. She writes”

“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous” (p. 243).

Whether writing about family or wilderness and ecology, as she does in other essays in this collection, or Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and McGuffey, Marilynne Robinson challenges modern ways of thinking about these issues and persons. Some will no doubt be angered by this, hearing in Robinson a call to return to some former repressiveness. That, I think, is to misread her. I think rather her argument may at times be one of, “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and substituting the polluted waters and questionable heroes of modernity?” What her essays do is question our intellectual conventions, and suggest that we may not want to believe everything we’ve been told in school.

Review: When I Was a Child I Read Books

when I was a child

When I Was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne 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).

Review: Lila

lila

LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014.

Summary: The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor.

“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.” (Ezekiel 16:4-6, American Standard Version)

These verses and the remainder of Ezekiel 16 are ones to which Lila is strangely drawn when she begins reading the Bible she took from the pews of John Ames church. The verses, really a parable of Israel, seem to parallel her life, and perhaps more than she knows.

Lila was a neglected toddler, stolen away from her family by Doll, which probably saved her life. They fell in with other drifters on the road during the Depression and became fiercely loyal to one another. Eventually Doll is in a knife fight where she kills a man, possibly Lila’s father, nearly dies, but eventually escapes custody and disappears. Lila drifts to St. Louis, works for a time in a house of ill repute, and then flees the city with a woman returning to Iowa and ends up in a shack near Gilead, Iowa. One Sunday, she wanders into the church of Rev. John Ames, an older, widowed pastor. And so begins a relationship, a searching dialogue between the two with questions like “why do things happen the way they do?” He and the church help her out and give her work. She asks him to baptize her. She tends the grave of his wife, cultivating roses. At one point Ames thanks her for caring for the grave and wishes there were something he could do for her. She says, “You ought to marry me.” and he answers, “Yes, you’re right. I will.”

And so begins a most unusual marriage, where Lila, who has never trusted anyone but Doll, must somehow believe this man really loves her. The beauty of the story is that he does, and yet gives her the room to believe it for herself. And in the midst of it all, she finds herself pregnant with his child. Much of the story is her reflections on being the motherless child, and her life on the road as the months of her pregnancy progress, interwoven with the careful, tender love of Ames, never forced, but ever present; fearing she might leave, yet never compelling her to stay, but simply offering his love, his home, and himself.

Robinson uses the device of telling the story of her former life as memories Lila reflects upon as she embarks on this new life with Ames. She muses on the strange, dangerous, and sometimes unseemly life she has lived even as she wrestles with the possibility of having really found a home, a love with this man, and that she can be the mother she never had apart from Doll. The answer to her question of why things happen they way they do must remain somehow with the sovereign God, but the working out of the way things happen is a story of grace, the discovering of an incomprehensible but unwavering love.

The third of the “Gilead” stories, Lila explores the deepest questions of existence and the searching question of how far may grace reach. Can it reach Lila? Doll? And what about us the readers? It’s worth reading to find out.

An Evening with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College."Marilynne Robinson" by Christian Scott Heinen Bell - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.”Marilynne Robinson” by Christian Scott Heinen BellOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I read Gilead and Home several years ago and have Lila on my “want to read” list. So when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was speaking at Northwestern University while I was at a work conference near O’Hare Airport, I jumped on the opportunity to go hear her. She was speaking on “Our Elegant Universe: Is Beauty an Accident?” as part of a program called The Veritas ForumShe gave a prepared talk on the theme and then participated in a question and answer period with an audience of at least 500. I scribbled some notes from the talk and Q and A time. This is not a verbatim rendering, but rather a summary that I hope is faithful to her words and thought. I thought others who love Robinson’s work might enjoy this, and those who have not discovered it might try one of her novels.

In her presentation, she argued that the beauty of the world, the elegance of the universe (of which she sees us a part) is no accident. She thinks that science and theology ought not be at war over these things when in fact both perceive the grandeur of the creation. She contended for a “divine freedom that precedes reality” and that materialist explanations don’t allow for that which is beyond our own experience. She sees in the sheer variety of beauty,rather than being one thing, the grace of God.

Here are some of the questions she discussed following her presentation:

What is a day like in the life of Marilynne Robinson? Has that changed since Gilead?

Not really. I am a solitary creature surrounded by many, many books. My sister visits me a couple hours a week to connect me to the outer world. Otherwise I stay in my house except for walks which I’m told are good for my circulation. Otherwise, I stay in my house. I like my life but many would not find it enviable. I’m a monk, basically.

Was there a “conversion moment” in your life.

I can’t remember any “dawning”. I never thought of myself as other than Christian. I almost went to divinity school except that there weren’t many opportunities for women. I went to graduate school instead. I was always good at writing. My brother encouraged me and Housekeeping was kind of a family artifact. But as for my Christian experience, I would describe it as uniformity with enriching.

Have you ever thought that the Christian subject matter of your novels would limit your audience?

I never considered it. I was never a careerist. I wrote about what interested me. I was surprised by the reception of Gilead. I don’t think about my readership. I’m just glad they are there. Writers should trust their own insights and trust the interests of the public.

When you look at the world, do you ever think evil overcomes beauty? Does this argue against God?

Most people throughout history have lived with great afflictions and yet many have produced works of incredible beauty in the belief that there is something beyond evil and suffering.

Is God beauty?

Beauty is a signature of the divine. But nothing is identical with God — that would be blasphemy.

What challenge would you leave with students?

Two things:

1. Remember who you are, the flower of the universe. You can do all kinds of things and you won’t know until you try!

2. Read the primary sources!

This is a much-edited version of 90 minutes of presentation and dialogue. Besides the fact that she lives surrounded by many books (!), it was a delight to spend an evening considering the beautiful aspect of our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Others may see beauty in a world without God but what struck me was the seamless arc between her perception of the beauty that finds its source in God and the beauty manifest in her writing. I for one am glad she simply writes what interests her. I’m thankful that she has given expression to this and trusted to the interests of her audience for in so doing she has given us great works of beauty.