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Marilynne Robinson: Why are we so afraid?

'Do we never expect to have a bad time?' Robinson asked an audience at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing. 'Every generation or so, something goes haywire. It's human history.'

By Yvonne ZippMonitor fiction critic / April 24, 2012

Author Marilynne Robinson says her new collection of essays, 'When I Was a Child, I Read Books,' is partly drawn from talks she's given to conservative Christian audiences.

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Why are Americans today so afraid, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson wants to know.

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“If there have ever been people on earth who should have been able to take a deep breath and say. 'Thank God,' we're the people,” said the author of “Gilead” to an audience of about 2,000 at Calvin College's Festival on Faith & Writing. “Why not enjoy it?”

Instead, she said she sees people hunkering down in psychological bunkers, as if they're living in an alien and hostile land. “There's an increasing normalization of fear in this culture,” said Robinson, who has a new collection of essays, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books.”

“This is not the siege of Paris,” Robinson pointed out.

Robinson's speech echoed a certain president who is not generally beloved by conservative Christians: She sees “the accelerating problem of fear” as one that's causing individuals everywhere to lower the bar on what they can accomplish in their lives. “There are all these anxieties we internalize, and we create a smaller model of ourselves around them.”

As for the Great Recession and the current lukewarm recovery, Robinson asked, “Do we never expect to have a bad time? Every generation or so, something goes haywire. It's human history.”

Robinson said she can't figure out when people decided that previous generations' sacrifices and accomplishments should be used to create a “satin cushion that our generation is supposed to be carried on. It's bizarre. Not to mention not particularly admirable.”

But she said she rejects the notion that the United States is in decline or that our culture is “sprouting mushrooms.”

“I can't idealize an earlier generation of youth,” said Robinson, who sits on the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. “These people are wonderful.”

Nor is she opposed to technological advances that some see as putting pressure on publishing. “I love the Internet. If I can find out what 17th century colonial law is in Maryland, I'm a happy woman.”

Robinson, who calls herself a Calvinist by adoption, also rejected the fear-mongering she says certain figures have used to co-opt religion in strong terms. “A great deal of what I see among my students is anxiety that is aroused by the identification of religion with exclusivism …. what I think Jesus might have called Phariseeism.”

For example, there's a segment of the population that really detests liberal college professors that teach at secular universities. “That's me,” said Robinson. As far as any plot to destroy Christianity or patriotism goes, “I did not get the memo, I'll tell you that.”

When an audience member Friday morning pointed out that her speech “could have been ghost-written by Bill Moyers and aired on PBS,” and asked how she could have credibility among Fox News-watching conservative Christians, Robinson said, to audience applause: “I don't recognize any other obligation than to say what is true.”

Her new collection, “When I Was a Child, I Read Books,” is partly drawn from talks she's given to conservative Christian audiences, she said. And she's found that, if she's honest about what she believes, they'll listen.

“I think that's how a Christian conversation should proceed.”

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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