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Introducing Marilynne Robinson

On the First Sunday in Lent (5th of March) Philip Harvey led a Lenten study group at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, on the essay ‘Grace’ in her book ‘The Givenness of Things’ [1], opening with these words of introduction about the author.

Marilynne Robinson has existed as a name at the periphery of my vision for years. She has written some acclaimed novels, none of which I have read. The most famous is ‘Gilead’, a story about the memories of a Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa. This tells me she is preoccupied with American Protestant religion and also that she is a creative thinker about the world as she finds it. I also know that the name of this town is biblical, a reminder of the saying initiated in the Book of Jeremiah, “There is a balm in Gilead.” That is, healing is possible for those who are afflicted, broken, alienated. Even in time of exile, desolation or despair, hope is opened up. I expect that hope is a main subject of her work. In Christian tradition, but especially in some American spirituality, the balm in Gilead is read for the healing work of Jesus Christ.

When we open the latest ‘Melbourne Anglican’ we find the Sydney Uniting Church theologian Ben Myers writing about three books that he says show that the Christian life is not just lived forward in time but is “also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted … the future exists only for those who have a past.” One of those chosen books is ‘Gilead’ and I now quote Ben’s words verbatim.

“Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ [is] another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. ‘Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time … I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.’ God dwells in memory. This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself. I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, ‘the fields and vast mansions of memory’ ([St. Augustine], ‘Confessions’ 10.8.12)” [2]

So Marilynne Robinson, now in her seventies, writes fiction. She also writes essays and the first book of hers I read, last year, was one of those. A friend on Facebook was reading it and I thought the title quite odd, ‘The Absence of Mind’. How can we have an absence of mind? Her arguments take on the unquestioning assumptions about religion of many scientists, including many atheists, today. She can be even more sarcastic and droll about the unthinking arguments of such people than they themselves are about religion. We live in a world where many theorists in different fields have dissolved the self and ignored so many things going on actively in the human mind. Rowan Williams, in his review of this book in ‘The Telegraph’, writes: “Pushing religion out of the public sphere in the name of rationality, she insists, has had the effect of giving more room to world views that trivialise or demean the “felt life” of the human consciousness – the complexity, the liberty, the innovative capacity (and the self-delusional temptations) of mind as we experience it. She is not alone in implying that without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.” [3]

Another thing I learned about her in this book is that she is Calvinist, or rather someone who thinks of John Calvin as a saint and someone whose achievement needs to be protected from his followers. On this score I confess to connecting with her very directly, but as an Anglican. She makes Calvin real as talking directly out of the Gospel experience, which is why it was useful, indeed affirming, to read a recent interview with the film director Martin Scorsese:

“There’s something that Marilynne Robinson wrote in her book Absence of Mind that gets right to the heart of this question for me: ‘The givens of our nature—that we are brilliantly creative and as brilliantly destructive, for example—persist as facts to be dealt with even if the word ‘primate’ were taken to describe us exhaustively.’ Of course she’s right. The idea that everything can be scientifically explained doesn’t seem ridiculous to me, but actually quite naïve. When you settle your mind to consider the great, overwhelming mystery of just being here, of living and dying, the very idea of getting to the bottom of it all by means of science just seems beside the point. This is what Robinson writes about in her essays and in her novels. And what she calls ‘mind and soul’ is, for me, true Catholicism. Mind and soul is really everything that you do — the good that you do and the damage that you do. It’s the trying, with others in general and with loved ones in particular. And my own particular struggle has been trying to get through my absorption in my work, my self-absorption, in order to be present for the people I love. Because I express all of this — everything we’re discussing — in cinema. Living in the world of notoriety and fame and ambition and competition is another struggle for me. But, of course, even when you’re part of that world — I have to admit that I am, to a certain extent, and I’ve even made a few films about it — the spiritual dimension of life, as you call it, is always right there. Carl Jung had a Latin inscription carved over the doorway to his house in Switzerland: ‘Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.’ Called or not called, God will come. That says it all.” [4]

Marilynne Robinson has a writing style that is closely argued, shifts attention from page to page with disarming authority, and is deeply read. While she makes assertions and turns over ideas in the manner of reasoned argument, her real meaning is often in the subtle placement of her evidence, even in things left unsaid by implication. One gets the sense she has heard a lot of very good sermons in her time. But she is herself not simply preaching to an attentive readership: she is fearlessly taking her views into the public space. Sometimes we pick up more concise expressions of her thought in interviews. The year before last, for example, she had a celebrated conversation with President Barack Obama, which can be found online. One amusing feature of that conversation is how it starts with Marilynne interviewing Barack, but half way through Barack starts interviewing Marilynne. That Obama would prefer to interview than be interviewed tells us a lot about Obama: he’s always asking questions. Now I wish to quote some of that interview [5]:    

The President: Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes.

Robinson: Yes.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know. But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

Marilynne Robinson is also on the cover of a February 2017 issue of ‘The Tablet’. We should remember that this is after the inauguration of a very different kind of American President, one whose election and its causes are explained with prophetic insight and knowing analysis in many of the pages of the book under study today. In ‘The Tablet’ interview she is asked “In the light of recent events in the US, where a large majority of self-described Christians have elected a president who advocates positions that unambiguously contradict the teachings of the Gospel, have you found yourself contemplating the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, which provoked Karl Barth and others to write the Barmen Declaration, and led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to insist that Christians rediscover the ‘true church’?” Her answer wisely skirts around analogies with thirties Germany, being real to the present moment:

“I think the Churches have disgraced themselves, more or less, the best by silence that approaches capitulation, the worst by corruption of various kinds, weaponising piety, among other things. Of course, it has always been put to bad uses, and the emergence of a ‘true church’ is always to be hoped for. But the flagrant use of religion to inflame fear and hostility and resentment that we have seen, has set back American society 150 years.” [6]

Marilynne Robinson has collected together more of her essays into ‘The Givenness of Things”. Although the essays treat of different subjects, to read them together is to find all sorts of interactions and connections going on between the essays. They move from essays primarily concerned with literary ways of talking about humanity and the world to, through the second half, essays concerned primarily with theological ways of talking about humanity and the world. The essay we look at today, ‘Grace’, seeks to find a way of witnessing to grace through the eyes of someone Marilynne Robinson calls “my theologian”, William Shakespeare. Yet in these eighteen pages she offers no working definition of grace, as though she expects that we will see grace at work in Shakespeare’s plays purely through her own exposition and our own observation. Meanwhile, in ‘Realism’, her last essay in the book, Marilynne opens with a most amazingly beautiful definition of the very word under discussion here. This surprise cross-referencing is typical of her procedures. It is at page 273 that she offers a definition of Grace that works around the word ‘alleviation’, so it is perhaps with ‘alleviation’ in mind that we turn to our essay for today.


[1] Marilynne Robinson, ‘Grace’ in ‘The givenness of things : essays’ (Virago, 2015), p. 31-49

[2] Ben Myers, ‘Living backwards : the conversion of memory’, in ‘The Melbourne Anglican’, February 2017, p. 24

[3] Rowan Williams, review in ‘The Telegraph’, 28 May 2010:

[4] Martin Scorsese, interview in ‘Civiltà Cattolica’, 3 March 2016:

[5] Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, ‘President Obama & Marilynne Robinson : a conversation in Iowa’, in ‘The New York Review of Books’, 5 November 2015:

[6] Marilynne Robinson. ‘The churches have disgraced themselves’, interview with Jon M. Sweeney in ‘The Tablet’, 4 February 2017, p.4-5


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