Marilynne Robinson has long been my literary hero; she is a thoughtful Christian with beautiful command of language and deep insight into the human condition. Although her fiction output is relatively small—currently three novels with a fourth due out this fall—it is remarkable. Each of her novels has won a major literary award—from the Pulitzer to the Orange Prize, and last year, President Obama presented her with the National Humanities Medal for her “grace and intelligence in writing.”
“When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests.” – Marilynne RobinsonAlthough Robinson is unabashed in her embrace of Christianity, her admirers span the ideological spectrum. Writing in The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell—a self-identified atheist—identifies in Robinson’s work “an elemental sense of wonder” about the most prosaic experiences. O’Connell, among many others, recognizes grace as the animating force behind her writerly attentiveness that manifests in literary eloquence.
For Robinson, reading and writing is a deeply spiritual exercise. “Imagination and Community,” an essay from her nonfiction collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, provides Robinson’s poetic, her theory of literature. She explains here how, at its best, literary study and practice inculcate reverence for others, a fundamental feature of community. In the very fabric of language, she explains, we find ourselves nested in community: “Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.”
Yet, she continues, we so often think of ourselves in autonomous terms; we succumb to the temptation to insulate ourselves, to self-protect, believing that “difference undermines stability and strength.” But community—and human identity, which is contingent on community—demands identification with others, an identification that has spiritual implications. Segmenting the people around us into groups of “us” versus “them,” she explains, narrows our self-understanding, making us more inhumane: “When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests.” She thus aligns “the broadest possible exercise of imagination” with sympathy for and identification with others.
In contemporary society, where public discourse is increasingly acrimonious, Robinson’s writing has been for me a refuge from and a corrective to political and social hostility fueled by myopic thinking and overconfidence in conclusions drawn from subjective experience. Take Robinson’s novel Gilead, for example; her protagonist, John Ames, has a reverence for and attentiveness to this world and others that go hand in hand. As Ames’s attempts to articulate his experience reveal, a gracious response to others gives their very presence unmerited favor. It takes the existence of others seriously. Robinson crafts for her protagonist language that allows space for this growth, language that insists on openness and tentatively offers descriptions of experiential and human particularity rather than limiting his understandings of others through rigidity and overgeneralization. Ames practices what many of Robinson’s nonfiction essays preach.
All of the considerable affection and admiration I feel for Robinson provides the backdrop for my dismay over her recent interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey for Religion News Service. The thoughtfulness for which Robinson is known is largely absent as she couples promotion of politically liberal values with disdainful dismissal of conservative ones. She engages here in the very mean-spirited partisanship she critiques elsewhere. While acknowledging her difficulty in understanding the mentality of 2nd Amendment defenders, her characterization of their position is reductionist, evidencing little charity by the presumption to know the motivations of her political “others.” And even worse is what appears to be gloating over her superior insight about the issues she discusses.
Regarding gay marriage, for example, she foists an intended pejorative of biblical “literalist” on those who retain a traditional view of marriage, equating through juxtaposition that stance with the stoning of witches. The generous engagement with others that she champions in earlier essays and that reverberates throughout her fiction is scarce in her dismissal of pro-lifers as “attentive to babies that don’t exist yet” and “negligent of babies that need help” through social programs. In short, she does in this interview exactly what she warns against elsewhere: she obscures the individual conservative behind general political ideology. Doing so thwarts imaginative engagement. It also, ironically enough, sets her—and perhaps her readers—on the path to the divisiveness the bulk of her work has heretofore resisted. Even worse, as she explains in “Imagination and Community,” such divisiveness breeds hostility: “When definitions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.” I couldn’t agree more.
It’s tempting for me to let the tone of this RNS interview diminish my appreciation for Robinson’s work, but that work is, in fact, what highlights to me where she falls short in this discussion. Robinson is better than this interview. She has forgotten her argument for humility and attentiveness put forth in an earlier interview published in Christianity and Literature in 2012: “Our understanding of the world is fragmentary, and we are extremely prone to overstate and over-interpret it. The sense of mystery may itself be the great missing value. By that I don’t mean a conjured mystery but an intrinsic one, the kind that comes with a good long look at things, and people, as they are.”
All told, this unfortunate interview reminds me that the cultivation of grace for others that her novels encourage is a daily demand requiring unceasing vigilance, a spiritual discipline that must be attended to moment-by-moment. Without that discipline, we can easily do injustice to people we are called to honor and to live with in community.