Many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with Alan Jacobs‘s recent Harper’s essay on Christian public intellectuals. Jacobs is critical of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson.
In light of the history I have been narrating here, the career of Marilynne Robinson looks like a case of opportunities taken, but also opportunities missed. It is true that, especially in her fiction, she offers to a (largely secular) audience a picture of what the world looks like when it is irradiated by faith or the possibility of faith; but it is never a faith that calls upon her readers to act differently, socially or politically or morally, than they would normally be inclined to act. In her essays, she often speaks explicitly as a Christian, but there tends to be a strange mismatch between her subject and her audience. Take “Fear,” an essay from 2015 in which she writes that “contemporary America is full of fear” — a fear manifested largely through a kind of cult of firearm ownership — and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” If Robinson wants to persuade her fellow American Christians to reject the culture of guns and overcome their fear, The New York Review of Books is an odd place to do it. My point is not that Robinson’s argument is wrong but that it offers a highly critical interpretation of people who are not reading it, and leaves the core assumptions of its audience unchallenged…
In another recent essay, “Memory,” she writes,
I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it 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, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels.
There is, it seems to me, a good deal to find fault with here: the apparent implication that, since Robinson says she holds the views she does simply by virtue of having read the Gospels, those Christians who see things differently than she does have not read the Gospels; or the notion that such reading could settle practical questions of social policy; or the notion that she “has to” distance herself from other Christians who do not share her political and social views.
That last point above all. For when we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging; Robinson, by contrast, seems to take pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them. (From the same essay: “I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example.”)
Something similar might be said of Robinson’s recent conversation, also published in The New York Review of Books, with Obama, to whom she returns the name of friend. It may be poor form to use a conversation with a friend in order to speak truth to power, but I for one would have appreciated a dose of Cornel West–like poor form. After all, the claim that “contemporary America is full of fear” might also be applied to the person who promised but failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. I think Robinson may well be the finest living American novelist, and at her best a brilliant essayist, but whatever her religious beliefs, her culture seems to be fully that of the liberal secular world — and it may matter, in this regard, that her professional career has been at a public university. While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.
I fear that this sounds like a reproach, though I mean for it to be a lament. Blame is hard to assign here. If we cannot imagine Robinson being invited to preach at a big-box Bible church somewhere in suburbia, that may say less about her than about the anti-intellectual and artistically indifferent culture of much of today’s evangelicalism; but then, those developments may have been exacerbated by Christian intellectuals’ neglect of their responsibilities to the life of their churches. At some point in the past sixty years or so a perverse and destructive feedback loop engaged, and I cannot see how to disengage it.
Still, it is noteworthy how consistently inward and solitary the faith of the characters in Robinson’s novels is, including that of her most compelling creation, the elderly pastor John Ames in Gilead. The community of church is not a strong element in these people’s lives; they tend not to speak for anyone or anything more than themselves, and the conversations that they have about faith are mostly internal. I can’t help wishing that someone, someone of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts, would tell readers of The New York Review of Books that such church communities need not be scorned or feared, and then tell those church communities the same about the readers of The New York Review of Books. That would require a patience, a kindness, a courage that it seems scarcely possible to ask for in our current climate.
Marilynne Robinson has responded to Jacobs in a letter to the editor of Harper’s. Here it is:
There are a great many things those of us who call ourselves Christian need to talk over. One very important one is secularism. Interpreting my career in light of this phenomenon as he understands it, Alan Jacobs notes that I have taught for many years at a big public university, where, he assumes, one must encounter penalties for being identified with Christian faith, and that I must have made concessions to these pressures [“The Watchmen,” Criticism, September]. I can only assure him that the hostility he imagines has had no part in my experience. I have taught Old and New Testament fairly frequently, answering to the job description for my position when I was hired. At my university and, I assume, others like it, many people are variously religious, members of communities of faith, and many are in some state of questioning and transition that is by no means dismissive of religion. We meet on other terms and usually talk about other things, which does not signify indifference or hostility on any side. These great public environments where everyone feels equally welcome are an invaluable achievement of our society, a culture of mutual courtesy and service that is no less compatible with Christianity because it accommodates the same values in other faiths and ethical systems. The essay on fear that he imagines I wrote for The New York Review of Books and its secular readership was actually a speech written for and read to a conservative church in Michigan. I have no idea how many secularists read my books, but then I think the word “secularist” itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul. Judge not, said Jesus, and I think the commandment particularly warns us away from the kinds of harsh, categorical judgments that make too many Christians feel and act as though they live in a hostile and oppressive world. This kind of thinking, this habit of antagonism, has done incalculable harm. It has contributed in a way unbecoming in Christians to the bitter divisions that afflict this country.
Iowa City, Iowa