Book Review - The Givenness of Things

Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson is perhaps best known for her novels. Her latest collection of essays about how the Christian faith can improve our wellbeing, enhance mutual understanding and our sense of community will no doubt be welcomed in some circles and shunned in others. “I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity.” She claims. “I have devoted my life to the study of both of them.” For those, like me, who knew little about Robinson’s personal life, we learn through the course of seventeen essays that she enjoys going to church, listening to sermons (for a “sense of the sacred”), is widely read, loves Shakespeare, has studied Scripture and theology and is a self-proclaimed Calvinist.

Robinson is at her best when exploring the various tensions between religion and politics in America today. Mentioning no names, she believes that the American right-wing have laid claim to the word “Christianity”. In her essay, ‘Memory’, she bemoans the fact that adherence to her faith “can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath…” This angers her and in revisiting the basic tenets of Christianity, she observes “Does the word “stranger”, does the word “alien” ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object anything less than God’s loving solicitude? No.” Robinson admits Christianity is difficult. Not just because it is based on ancient texts and divergent interpretations stretching over centuries, but “because it is contrary to our crudest instincts. Love your enemies.”

The shadow of French theologian and reformer, John Calvin, inhabits a number of Robinson’s essays. She celebrates the European Reformation’s “cultural and spiritual wealth” and “the emergence of the great modern languages out of the shadow of Latin.” A professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, Robinson is similarly passionate in her defense of the study of humanities. In ‘Reformation’, she argues “Now we are more inclined to speak of information than of learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how learning might transform, and be transformed by, the atmospheres of a given mind.” In “Givenness” she bemoans the current “alienation from religion, even, among the religious, that is a consequence of this privileging of information…over experience, or of logic over history.”

Some of her close readings of the Bible are less accessible and on occasion Robinson meanders to such an extent that we’ve forgotten the beginning of her sentence by the time we get to its end. This is in stark contrast to some of her enlightened, beautifully expressed pleas such as: “To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.” And the sentiment she ends on: “We know how profoundly we can impoverish ourselves by failing to find value in one another.”

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday