Marilynne Robinson's novels expose the religious wiring behind American cultureby Thomas Meaney / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
There is something puzzling about Marilynne Robinson’s place in American culture. It has to do with the way her admirers praise her bravery for writing Christian novels. At a time when American liberal Protestantism is thought to have irrecoverably surrendered its mid-century high ground, Robinson is taken to be one of those soldiers who loses radio contact with headquarters and continues to hold the territory. Her essays have squared up against neo-Darwinism, nuclear reprocessing, fiscal austerity and psychotherapy, while her novels are temporally sealed in small midwestern and western towns in the 1950s, when liberal Protestantism was still thick in the land.
But in a country that still self-identifies as 75 per cent Christian, does it really require the full measure of courage to write novels from a religious perspective? The protectiveness one senses among Robinson’s Christian readers seems misplaced. Robinson found an early admirer in Doris Lessing; President Barack Obama declares her books “changed” him; she has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize; she teaches at the most prestigious writing workshop in America, and contributes the occasional Sunday sermon to the New York Times. The beauty of her prose is often cited as the reason for her worldly success, but it cannot be the only one.
One of the sources of Robinson’s appeal for American readers may be that she has dedicated herself to exposing the religious wiring she sees behind the secular circuitry of American culture. It is not simply that the country’s major writers—from Abraham Lincoln and Herman Melville to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor—saturated their writing in biblical themes and imagery. It is also that Robinson still hears ordinary Americans, consciously or not, speaking scriptural language—words and phrases such as “soul,” “grace,” “awesome,” “broken heart,” “bearing witness” still circulate in American speech, though their religious overtones have faded. For Robinson, these words are evidence of an inheritance that her fiction seeks to recover. I suspect some of Robinson’s secular readers get a certain satisfaction from being invited to re-inhabit an enchanted…