Notes on Religious Striving For Good and Ill: Revisiting Marilynne Robinson


To talk about Marilynne Robinson and her work is to talk about an institution, with all the attending pluses and minuses of that framework. Her work needs no more acclaim or renown, she will continue to receive awards, and each new work – an essay, a story – will be welcomed as an event, as something to carve out time for and savor. And why not? Robinson, like the venerable Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Mary Beard or Claudia Rankine, is a badass woman with a vision who will not back down. Robinson has almost singlehandedly rehabilitated, even saved, a dying style, the religious novel, through infusing it with an edge of darkness, and a focus on women, their consciousness, and their relationships to our world.

On a personal level, she served as a savior of sorts for me. I told myself after leaving religion that she would know what to do with these vestiges of my soul strewn across modernity. She could guide me through the morass of contemporary American living and for a while, on that pedestal I created, she did just that. I first devoured Housekeeping, then ate up all her essays, then found her esoterica through fan sites, and ultimately, I went through her whole catalogue, interviews and all. I listened to the sermons she gave in church and felt a sense of being saved through her wisdom. Robinson represented the type of writer I aspired to be: deeply poetic and rooted in religious sensibilities, but open to the messy sprawl of the world and humanity.

But something has changed and I feel the need to destroy my personal idol, the Robinson I created in my mind. In the span between her last novel Home and her new novel, Lila, I went from believing that Robinson is one of the greatest preachers and sermonizers of our time, to believing that her novels are preachy and moralistic, a thrilling lyrical version of Sunday School for adults, and her essays polemical, limited by their zeal to debunk straw men and propagate updated versions of reductive Christian ideals on the value of prayer, the goodness of Jesus and God, the divinity of the Bible, the purity of baptism, and the imperative of kindness. Nothing changed in Robinson. I just came to believe, fervently, that the world needs less sermons and more radical visions.

As a critic, this presents a challenge. How can I write objectively on such a charged topic and important author? I don’t know that I can or that I should, or that the words objective and empirical mean anything besides pretensions to certainty. I believe my experience, one of a profound disillusionment toward all religion, applies to many readers, and it is with this viewpoint that I try to situate myself in her world. I make no claims to decide whether Robinson is a good or important writer, as if such categories exist outside of what we choose to say and think. She is both, and needs no support from me to reinforce that point. Rather, I believe criticism does and ought to give voice to the experience of an individual reading charged and often controversial writing.

In other words, what does it mean to read a clearly brilliant book that you, with every part of your body and soul, disagree with?

Case in point, her new highly and roundly lauded National Book Award nominated new novel, Lila, which returns us to Robinson’s beloved town of Gilead. Like all of her stories, the details of the narrative seem sparse. Lila tells the almost Job-like story of Lila, a young infant taken from squalor by a mysterious woman, Doll. Together, living the nomadic life of survival, they grow aloof from the world as they come closer together, Lila then makes it to Gilead, catches the attention of the pastor, John Ames, marries him in his old age and gives him a child to whom he writes in Gilead.

Much of the book, the relationship between Lila and her savior, her stand-in mother, Doll, sound and develop exactly like Sylvia and Ruthie do in Housekeeping. In fact, this book feels a lot like a watered down version of Housekeeping, less searing, less lyrical. In hindsight, all of her novels, post-Housekeeping, now feel that way to me. Not only do most (if not all) of her central characters sound alike, they struggle alike, trying to reconcile the world on fire with the mundane beauty of God’s glimmering gifts, which gets tiring.

This new book yearns for an Edenic past, a sort of nostalgic, romanticized return to Nature, to wilderness, to the direct embrace of God and his glorious creation; a return to a purer time when people appreciated history and still read books, as Robinson would say. Robinson makes explicit the assumption of her need and desire to inhabit the past in a recent interview when she explains:

We’re living in a period where people have very little conscious historical memory. They’re not observing their circumstance from the point of view of its origins from preceding periods. There’s a thinness in what you would call “contemporary consciousness” that I’m not interested in.

Putting aside my instinctual skepticism towards anyone yelling at us youngsters that we don’t know enough about the important past that they remember, Robinson’s shunning of the present, the mess of contemporary history, and the horrific history of religion seems like willful ignorance. Robinson seems to be trying to depict what life should look like: rural, the paths of a small town paved with kindness and love and sympathy, an appreciated and desired intimacy with Nature, with flowers and berries and gardens and housework and Christianity, really all religion, as a sort of haven for wayward souls. This emerges throughout the book in the attempts to champion the Bible as essential.

Here’s a smattering of some of the characters’ “revelations” about the good book: “By the way, I don’t use that word in front of folks. I know it’s practically cussing. Worse, I tell you, I surely didn’t expect to find it in the Bible. That’s interesting. There’s a lot in there that I didn’t expect.” This is later told to us by the narrator, “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book.” And last, we are told about the preacher that, “when he was happy he was always saying something from the Bible.”

Robinson herself tells us that her books intend to show us the beauty of the religion, its scriptures, explaining in that same interview that “at this point, right across the traditions, there is nothing more valuable to be done than to make people understand that religion is beautiful and it is large.” I find myself perplexed that someone thinks so. We’ve been living in the shadows of this supposedly beautiful and large religion for centuries; maybe we just need a break from its beauty and ugliness both.

All of this despite the fact that Robinson, in her interviews, tries to claim her writing as doing the opposite task, one not offering refuge and comfort but challenging and demanding of others. Here in yet another one of her love letters to the very White Man that was John Calvin, after praising his system of religious thought, she explains:

This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.

Notice the subtle dismissal of Zen thought and practice, the simplistic us-versus-them reduction that results in Christianity winning. And yet her work is all a work of refuge – a refuge from today, from the messiness of right now. Past this repetition, this returning to the same images and relationships, so much of the new book sounds and feels as I read it like an argument for something–for the beauty of religion, the wisdom of the Bible, the importance of nature, the need for forgiveness and kindness, a sort of word emptied by its overuse–as to border on the polemical. The story, one shorn of humor and playfulness and sexuality and rebelliousness, feels pat and easy, relying on outdated theology and theodicy, trying to use old models to figure out how the paternalistic God allows bad things to happen to good people. The dialogue suffers as a result. Here’s one of the many similar examples, this one found at the end of the book in a sort of climax in the central relationship:

The old man sighed. “It’s all a prayer.”

“For you it is. I tried praying a couple times and nothing came of it.”

“You sure nothing came of it?”

…He said, “Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.”

“Baptism is a prayer?”

“No,” he said. “Baptism is what I’d call a fact.”

“Because you can’t just wash it off?”

He laughed. “Nope. Not with all the water in the West Nishnabotna.”

When I first read this I laughed, and wrote these sarcastic words in the margin: “Mind=blown”, because it sounded like a lot of the drivel zealous rabbis used to give me in my past. I remember once that a Rabbi, well-respected and lauded as visionary, came to speak to us my first year studying Talmud in the Yeshiva. All of our rabbis spoke about this man in hushed tones, inculcating the appropriate reverence for the revelations we were about to receive. After the lecture I looked down at my notes to find that all I had written, again and again was “God= Truth” and “there is God in everything.” In hindsight, these were two nonsensical ideas that mean too much to mean anything at all. Religious people are always doing this – telling you that they, finally, found the secret, the code to put everything back together. Robinson does this as well, dropping little sparks of hushed wisdom throughout her books.

So much of the dialogue here sounds stilted, in service to the larger religiosity of the text, and the religious thoughts sound puerile, like the conversations between my friends in the early years of high school wondering if God could make a rock so heavy even he couldn’t lift it. The plot of Lila also struggles from this religious framework. Robinson tells us that one of Lila’s central struggles entails trying to reconcile her appreciation and love for her new preacher husband, and his theology that sees many in her past as lost and damned to hell. Here, Lila wonders about the people from her previous life:

“Them women in St. Louis, I believe adultery is about the only thing they was ever up to. And there was no one to help them with any of it. Their sins. So I guess they’re all just lost? What happens to you if you’re lost?”

Reverend Ames responds to Lila’s question with an of old, nifty move of theological evasion of the question of theodicy and hell:

“Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyones else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way.”

It’s hard for me to accept that we, as a society, as a culture, still feel the need to ask these old questions, which depend on a paternalistic and patriarchal version of God, the petty and childish God of the Old and New Testament, wondering still how this White Man God kills children, or sends people to hell for struggling to survive. Why are we still discussing these unnecessary, overly-laden symbols of religion? At no point does anyone entertain the notion that perhaps much of religion is stupid and absurd and hell is both of those things. How are we as readers supposed to find ourselves in this struggle, when Lila herself seems to play by the inane rules of religion?

Of course this is unfair. Maybe Robinson doesn’t want to write a novel about a religious struggle with the foundations of belief and dogma. Maybe she wants to write a theological novel, one in which the characters already accept most of the basics of a doctrine; how can I begrudge her for that? Of course Robinson chooses to write in the past, not only because of the thin consciousness she perceives in our time, but because she likes to explore a more religiously-rooted world. All of which is fine as long as it doesn’t sound like an evasion of what Faith feels like today for so many of us.

I think this is where criticism ends and personal opinion begins, if you like to think in those terms. I choose, as a historical person with religious trauma, to see this as an evasion, a purposeful choice not to deal with the mess of religion today, with the plethora of religious and secular voices that do not simply create some utopian society of different spiritual traditions, but ones that clash, ones with fundamentally different views of the world. I then tried to imagine the same characters under the subtle pen of Flannery O’Connor, to me a more interesting and compelling religious writer. O’Connor at least makes room for, and even centralizes, doubt, violence, and an abiding absurdity–i.e. the idea that all of this might mean nothing. O’Connor’s writing possesses a sort of humble willingness to explore the underside of religion, the danger at its core, the riskiness, the potential for revolution, both for good and for bad. Robinson, in contrast, seems like catechism. Maybe that’s why Robinson shies away from messiness, from sexuality, from masturbation, from meaningless play, ultimately from anything surprising, because dogma doesn’t know how to handle something unmanageable. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, as some Christian writers do tackle the explicit mess of sexuality. But it is true that Robinson’s books feel wholly full of goodness and kindness; even when they contain violence, they do so in a way that feels aloof. In other words, nothing ever feels at risk in this book, like anything else besides what will happen could happen.

By the end of Lila, there’s just so much goodness that it makes me want to be bad, makes me want to run to read Nietzsche, watch South Park, anything to cleanse myself of this sanitized version of religion, this safety, this myopic vision of what a better world can look like. The limited nature of these explorations into a certain and unchallenged Christian world left me feeling a little creeped out, wondering why Robinson made little room for secularity, for the danger and horrors of religion, for the way the religious symbolism she cherishes can sound downright mean and evil to many people, as if she can’t even make room for that kind of dissent in the experience of her world. Robinson herself anticipates this criticism and responds to it, explaining in response to a question wondering about the dearth of religious writers (note that most of the time when this question is asked it is asked concerning writers of the person’s own faith, wondering about the dearth of Christian writers):

Religion has been associated with narrow denominationalism, where people think if you explore religion in the language that your own tradition makes available to you, that you are making some assertion about the superiority of your tradition over the one next door. But there’s no reason to think that. We simply have different vocabularies that come out of different traditions. Anyone can explore the brilliance of their received vocabulary.

It’s hard for me to accept a linear and well kept notion of tradition, one that wholly knows where one tradition ends and the other begins. Moreover, to reply that these are just symbols, just one way to ask the same abiding human questions in different clothing, belittles the experience of others and fails to take into account the power of our symbols, our metaphors. If grace and shame are the centers of these discussions as they are in Robinson, what of the people who don’t feel shame like that, don’t see shame as something inherent, as something built in by the sins of our ancestors, or don’t believe, don’t want to believe in grace, then what? What of the Jewish person, myself, who feels unsettled by Christian imagery because of the “complex” history between our religions, to put it mildly. In a sense, this personal tension speaks to a prominent tension in the literary world today – the tension between our ideal of a singular personal voice and our inchoate sense that literature must make room for the others, the unprivileged, the left out, the classical fringes of society. Robinson’s book, according to that old saw, comforts the already comforted and further estranges the already estranged from Christianity with a singular religious and spiritual voice all her own. Problem is, I can’t, and I believe many others cannot as well, find myself and my struggles, at all, in her most recent book.

Not that Robinson shouldn’t write parochial books, we should just stop treating that as obviously sacred, venerating works for their recycled Christianity. In that vein, this book, our awed reception of Robinson’s religious style and utterances reinforce this outdated notion that to ask serious questions requires a somber and church-like tone. Why do we preserve this wholly religious notion that to think through existence, as Robinson would say, requires some sort of hushed pensiveness? There seems to be this traditional, very Christian, perspective that believes if you look into the depths of suffering and question how God could let this happen you’ve fought some admirable battle, some feat of righteousness and moral rectitude. The Book of Job fits into this category, though it is always considerably funnier than we like to give it credit for. Robinson takes religious striving so seriously as to make it humorless, which to me seems limited.

In talking about Robinson, we usually ground the conversation, first and foremost, in her religious writing, but I think her treatment of women, their lives, their voices, their relationships, deserve much more praise and veneration than her religious wisdom and insight. Robinson’s ability to get inside the heads of her female characters is one of a kind and revolutionary, powerful and compelling and deserves every accolade she gets. In a similar sense, we need to stop thinking of religion as “universal,” a name which allows us to praise Robinson without confronting her vivid, important characters, what we would consider “particular”. I think we need to ask ourselves why, even with our most cherished and lauded female writers, we tend to praise certain parts and simply overlook the others, using Robinson as an apt example.

And yet, after all of this personally necessary criticism of Robinson, I don’t know that you can ever truly just shirk off the glow of an idol. I ran to the store to get a copy of her new book on the day it came out; a week or two later, I attended a reading of hers in Brooklyn. I don’t know why I did, given my reaction to the book. Maybe I thought I could say goodbye, or get a sense of resolution, but I knew that this would be it, I would stop caring. But then she walked into the front doors, elegantly, modestly, with a humble step but a smiling face, and I regressed to the childish ogling of awe. I knew immediately I would never let go of my relationship with Robinson, my hopes for her and us, the whole of those interesting in religious striving and I felt settled, calm, divested of my need to kill my idols, fully aware of her flawed humanity, another person, like myself, with limited vision and biased opinions, and it felt glorious to see her anew. And then I left, not staying for the reading because I knew I couldn’t ask her for anything more.


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