When it comes to the pleasures of reading, my tastes grow increasingly promiscuous. My favorite books of the past few years include a father’s outrageous tales of life with his four young sons (Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief); an undertaker’s everyday dealings with dead bodies (The Undertaking, Thomas Lynch); a history of Google (Googled: The End Of The World As We Know It, Ken Auletta); the account of an obsessed lumberjack and an exotic spruce tree in British Columbia (The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant); Jay-Z’s autobiography (Decoded); an anthropological history of modern advertising (The Age of Persuasion, Terry O’Reilly); and David Foster Wallace’s Consider The Lobster, with an essay about tennis that was so bloody good it made me feel like a bona fide tennis fan, despite the fact that I’ve never actually watched a tennis match in my whole life.
If my enjoyment as a reader is broad, my admiration and respect for writers is more measured, saved for those who display that rare human quality: wisdom.
Wise writers help me find my way in the world. They do not deny broad swaths of the daily news in order to protect their ideological or political commitments, or shut out terrible details of history to make the world fit their rubric. They deepen my sense of wonder at the inescapable complexity and mystery of the universe and lead me in that great, perennial human challenge:
How to live well.
With her newest book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson affirms that my deep admiration and respect for her are well-placed. “Every great question is very old,” she writes, and here, as has been the case throughout her career as a writer, the great questions concern her most. Robinson displays an exceptional gift for deciphering the zeitgeist and offering generous counsel. Her reflections on the great questions follow Karl Barth’s advice to preach with The New York Times in one hand, and the Bible in the other. Not only is her book wise; it is full to the brim with clear, resonant, melodic prose.
These essays do two things very well. First, they provide a clear, largely unflattering diagnosis of America. Like Wendell Berry, another wise, fierce national critic, Robinson soundly criticizes her country because she loves it and genuinely believes it’s worth defending against the widespread cultural degradation fostered by “hysterical scientism,” modern economics, and populist politics.
“Our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior,” she says, the overall effect being “a drift toward cynicism and away from mutual respect and from willingness to take responsibility for our life as a community and a culture.” Robinson offers an unapologetically Christian response to the problem, but by no means does her adherence to religious tradition blind her to the deliberate myopia of populist Christianity. “The return to traditional values seems…to mean, together with a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us, the establishment of a religious monoculture we have never had and our institutions never encouraged.” She is as scornful of cheap so-called democracy as of cheap so-called faith.
Second, her essays affirm the extraordinary meaningfulness of words. Maybe it’s not surprising that an Orange Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist and writing instructor (Robinson teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop) would want to defend the idea that words meaning something, but by doing so she swims directly against the current intellectual tide. Postmodern culture tells us meaning is ephemeral, subjective, open to endless interpretation, and elusive, and that images carry more weight than words. Robinson doesn’t argue directly with the proponents of postmodern critical theory, but every page affirms that we live by the words we use, that our language and metaphors are no mere semantic games or matters of idiosyncratic interpretation. How we speak defines how we live.
Her deepest concern lies in words centered on our response to this question: “What is a human being.”
“I am persuaded,” she says, “that we educate ourselves and one another to think in terms that are demeaning to us all.” The grand narratives of human origins and our place in the cosmos “seem to have been dismissed together with metaphysics as meaningless,” she writes. “The theories of human nature that have developed in the modern period attempt to fold us into great nature by making human complexity accidental.”
When science claimed to have supplanted the religious explanation of who we are and how we got here, the biologist’s diagram replaced the priest’s blessing. The scientist’s sermons define the human as nothing more than a sneeze of stardust, a random product of blind, evolutionary chance in a vast, cold, utterly indifferent universe. No longer do we think of ourselves as created. We’re simply weird flukes.
The consequences of this shift in language, “the embrace of essential beastliness,” Robinson calls it, have been brutal, justifying a “war of each against all, whether a hot war that compels them to go armed to Starbucks or to church or a cold war that makes a virtue of craftiness and guile, the ability to loot and wreck the national economy without getting caught.” No wonder our benevolent rhetoric about human rights, which still shows remnants of religious inheritance, looks and sounds so cheap in the face of global economics, where survival of the fittest has fostered empires of opulence and luxury at the direct expense of starving billions.
But if, as Robinson argues, the religious explanation still carries weight, if the human being is a soul—not has a soul but is a soul—then every single man or woman we meet stands as a profound mystery, a source of wonder deserving our respect, compassion and love. She isn’t replaying the tired “science vs. religion” game; she argues for both. The strict, scientific worldview and its dismissal of religion as a “desire to explain what prescientific humankind could not account for,” is lopsided because religion and science represent different kinds of knowing. “There is much that is miraculous in a human being, whether that word ‘miraculous’ is used strictly or loosely,” she writes. Outside the language of religion, she sees no way to provide proper awe.
Religion allows for mystery, and offers powerful, grounding narratives for where we humans have come from, what exactly we are and where we are going. Science offers impressive answers to our biological origins and the structure of the genetic code, and it can explicate the biochemical process of dying and decay, but science leaves the most pressing questions unanswered. “To describe the process of ontogeny or mortality does not explain why we are born or why we die,” Robinson writes. Up against genuine mystery, science is mum, even when it pretends otherwise. “Science can give us knowledge,” she writes, “but it cannot give us wisdom.”
Robinson slices limbs off both the ideological right and left, but most of that happens on her way to one of her main targets throughout this book, mammon and the collusion of public and private, corporate and individual, forces that bend the knee in servitude. “The economics of the moment, and of the last several decades, is a corrosive force, undermining everything it touches, from our industrial strength to our research capacity to the well being of our children,” she says in her preface. Later, in a chapter called “Austerity as Ideology,” she writes, “I know Americans are supposed to believe in competition. I think it is wasteful and undignified in most cases.”
The best critic is, firstly, a lover, and the strongest foundation for an argument is not ideological commitment or passion or perfect intellectual defensibility … but love. What does Robinson love? The human soul, a holy and unique mystery. She’s angry with the unacknowledged means by which the soul is debased and degraded.
Most of us have learned to either blush or roll our eyes at religious talk in public policy, pointing at the embarrassing religious caricatures to affirm our conviction that religious belief has no place in politics. We have entrusted our care to the marketplace and to science, preferring to shape our policies by statistics and the fiscal bottom line rather than wisdom.
Robinson wants to show how we base our response on uncritical prejudice. In the chapters “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” Robinson debunks the religious debunkers, drawing from her vast scholarly reading to show how religion’s noisiest critics often haven’t done their homework. She has no use for the “razzle dazzle” condescension of contemporary religious iconoclasts like Jack Miles, John Shelby Spong, Regina Schwartz, who affirm the “hostile characterization” of the primitive, Old Testament God as the root of greed, exploitation, imperialism, patriarchy and violence. She offers a brief but precise reading of Moses, which outlines an ethic of profound care and love of others. Scripture, she says, recounts “an endless reconciliation achieved at great cost by a people whose relation to God is astonishingly brave and generous. To misappropriate it as a damning witness against the Jews and ‘the Jewish God’ is vulgar beyond belief.”
It’s clear from the tone of her book that Robinson strives to revive our personal and cultural spiritual sensibilities, something she does in her fiction as well.
“Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word ‘soul’,” she says, “and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit.”
With fierce intelligence and pitch-perfect prose, Robinson reminds us of the richness of the Christian world view and the Christian myths of origins and apocalypse, revealing how impoverished our view of humanity has become without them. She gives no earnest argument about prayer in schools or “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas,” the sort of partisan pettiness that decades of the so-called culture wars have conditioned us to expect. She wants to dig deeply into our minds, examine the history and biases that underlie our assumptions, and re-animate our consciousness with overtly religious metaphors. Every measured sentence in this book serves as a bracing antidote to the thoughtless bobble-headed chorus of consumerism, the bellicosity of atheistic scientism, and the monotonous, disorienting mantras of the economists.
Robinson uses her extraordinary gifts as a thinker and writer to offer a close-up look at what our world is and how we got here, and she very deliberately complicates our assumptions. It is not like the malicious confusion of the Lady of the Green Kirtle in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, obfuscating reality with her words. Robinson seeks to waken rather than enchant, and her deliberate complications shatter the simplistic, polarizing rhetoric that plays fast and loose with truth as it fumbles for sound-bite clarity.
It’s obvious that Marilynne Robinson is seriously pissed off with the state of public discourse in her country, and not just because she teaches about nouns and verbs and the meaningfulness of language. She’s angry because, first and foremost, she is compassionate, because she believes in a human soul that is sacred and ought to be cherished. She’s angry, but not once does she indulge in cynicism. Is it possible to be loving and cynical at the same time? I believe Robinson writes from far too deep a love to have room for a sneer.
When I Was A Child doesn’t offer much for the earnest optimist, eager to change the world. But it thunders with love, compassion, difficult hope and extraordinary wisdom. In contrast to the tennis wunderkind who catches the eye of the scouts at 14, peaks at 22 and retires by 30, Marilynne Robinson, in her late sixties, now writes at the top of her game. If you find her defense of Christianity misguided, that’s fine … but you’re going to have to do some serious homework to bolster your own case. So strong is her intellect and understanding that you’ll need to get way past the bland stereotypes of the thoughtless, religious conformist if you expect her to take you seriously.
And if you’re open to the consideration that Christianity just might be defensible, intellectually coherent, and culturally relevant, you’ll find that this book is a magnificently rich banquet.
Kurt Armstrong is the Reviews Editor for Geez magazine, and the author of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock.)