Author sees world as sacred, mysterious

Reviewed By Jenny Martin
Sunday, May 1, 2016

If Flannery O’Connor’s “South” was “Christ-haunted,” then acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things,” might be said to be similarly haunted.

But Christ isn’t the only spirit in that house. The pages are visited by a host of others, including William James, Jonathan Edwards, John Locke, William Shakespeare and, perhaps most predominantly, John Calvin, which makes sense, because she is a Protestant. She describes herself as having an “arch-Protestant” mind. “No other tradition interests or attracts me,” she writes.

Yet Robinson is no dogmatist. Her religious and intellectual heritage determine the content of this collection, but in a way that tends to widen, rather than narrow, the conversation. Her lack of dogmatism seems to spring from a view of Providence that is connected closely with the arbitrariness of the given — that is, what we creatures of free will find ourselves unable to choose.

Indeed, her embrace of this limitation undergirds her belief that our proper posture toward God and the complexities of the world is one of reverence and awe. “Touch a limit of your understanding,” she writes in the essay “Decline,” “and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery.”

Robinson’s essays laudably exhibit a high degree of biblical literacy. She inhabits the language of the Scriptures as her own home. Her Protestant background does, however, color her reading of the Bible and the history of its interpretation, which might belie a slight anti-Catholic bias.

The essay “Reformation,” for instance, connects the history of the Protestant Reformation to the rise of the vernacular and the broad dissemination of culture. She praises translators such as William Tyndale for making the Bible accessible to the average person — surely a good thing. But Robinson suggests that making the Scriptures plainer necessarily entails sloughing off intellectually elitist “interpretive strategies … that were traditionally applied to the reading of it.”

For her, that’s a good thing. To this Catholic reader, not so much. It’s a big church, and there is plenty of room for both simpler and more complex ways of interpreting Scripture.

Robinson at her best draws back the veil on the world and its people. Through her eyes, the world is sacred and wondrous, deeply mysterious and full of grace, simultaneously hidden and revealed. One of the strongest essays is “Grace,” a subtle reading of the theme of mercy in Shakespearean drama, particularly apt, perhaps, during this Jubilee of Mercy.

She elaborates on the striking juxtaposition of Prospero’s response to his brother’s malicious betrayal in “The Tempest.” In just a few lines, Prospero acknowledges the depths of treachery against him (“For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth”), before showing the depth of his own mercy (“I do forgive / Thy rankest fault — all of them”).

She reads Shakespeare not first as a playwright, but rather as a theologian. For Robinson, Shakespeare beautifully articulates the delicate balance between giving guilt its due and allowing reconciliation to transform us.

A less courageous religious writer might be content to trade in airy abstractions. Robinson, however, turns her penetrating — at times withering — gaze on American political theater. In “Awakening” and “Fear,” for example, Robinson makes a distinction between Christianity as an ethic and as an identity.

On Robinson’s account, “Chris tian identity” has become cannibalized in America such that it operates independently of, or even in contradiction to, the content of the faith. Reduced to a kind of tribalism and impoverished by a separation from its cultural and intellectual heritage, this diluted version of Christianity has been hijacked by “partisans who use it to put a lacquer of righteousness over fearfulness and resentment.” This leads to a host of dangerous habits of mind, including the tendency to vilify those who aren’t like us; associating Christianity with “belligerent nationalism”; blatantly disregarding the most vulnerable among us, that is, the poor and the alien. But “fear,” she writes, “is not a Christian habit of mind.”

Readers who have come to Robinson through her best-selling fiction (“Housekeeping,” “Gilead,” “Home,” “Lila”) will certainly recognize the elegance of her prose and perhaps be surprised by the argumentative rigor of these sometimes challenging essays. She neither hedges bets nor minces words.

Not every reader will agree with all her conclusions, but none can deny that her critical, intelligent voice deserves the wide audience it receives.

Part of the appeal of these essays, originally delivered as occasional lectures, is that the topics of Robinson’s keen analyses are so wide-ranging. She opines on the state of the humanities in higher education, philosophy, neuroscience, biblical interpretation, Christology, gun laws, literary criticism and the economy, just to name a few. Throughout this book Robinson maintains an unapologetic air of religiosity that is unwavering without being sanctimonious and beautiful without being precious — no small feat indeed.