Marilynne Robinson considers herself both a patriotic American and a devout Christian. That’s pretty much where her ideological similarities with people who tend to describe themselves in those terms ends.
“I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gilead” and serious contender for the title of greatest living American author writes in her new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things.”
Those who think the book’s title sounds rather sedate may be in for a surprise. Over the course of 17 provocative essays, Robinson, a “self-declared Calvinist from northern Idaho,” brings both her formidable intellect and powers of plain speaking to deliver a clarion call against the culture of fear that she believes is eating away at American society.
In recent years, she has spoken widely on the topic. “[M]y thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts. First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” Robinson writes. “Fear operates as an appetite or an addiction. You can never be safe enough.”
"The Givenness of Things," she told no less an interviewer than President Obama in The New York Review of Books, is the result of her lectures. "I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book."
For Robinson, one of the operating principles of a democracy is that it requires people to think well of one another, she told the president. For our particular system of government to work on a basic level, "you have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing."
Robinson, whose previous nonfiction title was the 2012 memoir “When I Was a Child, I Read Books,” has little patience for those who wield fear as a political goad or a justification for prejudice of any stripe. Her chief concern is the harm that unleashed fear can have on a society.
“When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy,” she writes in the essay, “Fear.”
The essays combine an astringent diagnosis of today’s cultural malaise with Robinson’s dry sense of humor and love of writers from William Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, to William Tyndale and Jonathan Edwards. (The reading list she covers over the course of the essays could happily occupy a serious bookworm for some months.)
Robinson also raises a passionate defense for the humanities and for children being taught how to think and allowed to follow their own passions, rather than the educational system being employed to create cogs for a business machine of uncertain purpose. “Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us,” she writes in the opening essay. “[T]he spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude.”
And she writes of her concern that for many young Americans, the term “Christian” has come to mean a “redoubt of ignorance” and our society’s need to overcome the polarization that would cause Americans to turn their back on the “great body of art and thought and ethical profundity that has been so incalculable and enrichment of all our lives. Can a culture be said to survive when it has rejected its heritage?”
But Robinson’s worldview is far too benevolent for her writing to ever become nagging or hectoring. And at bedrock, her work always argues in favor of human decency and human progress.
“Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it,” she writes. “When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human.”
As a connoisseur of both the spiritual and the American, Robinson says she is always on the lookout for a good sermon.
“A good sermon is a pure, rare, strangely unworldly gift,” she writes about the “extraordinary moment when someone attempts to speak in good faith, about something that matters, to people who attempt to listen in good faith.”
By that measure, her books are full of such gifts.