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Calvin, depravity, and small-town America

02 January 2015

Andrew Brown talks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson

nancy crampton

ONE of the most delightful and unexpected things about Marilynne Robinson is that she is an unapologetic - in fact, enthusiastic - Calvinist. I first met her five years ago in Geneva, as part of the celebrations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, where she made the rebarbative doctrine of total depravity seem nothing more than a sort of realism that any novelist must acquire.

"You know, the word 'depravé' means warped," she said. "The image that he associates with this, very often, is of a mirror. And you can imagine that mirrors probably were warped when he was writing.

"We use the word to mean utterly, shudderingly pathological or something. But the idea is of it being a sort of condition of false perception. I mean, our perceptions are the most brilliant things in the universe. And flawed. Who can dispute this? And it seems to me as if that's basically Calvin's model for the whole of human nature.

"And it makes this interesting sort of pleasantly adversarial relationship of one with one's self. . . The novel is a post-Reformation form, no doubt about that. . . There is always another self who knows that what we perceive is not perceived truly; teasingly neither utterly false nor reliably true. . . you turn the mirror and the error changes. I think this is a wonderful metaphor."

In a properly depraved spirit, then, I should say that what looks like one interview here is actually stitched together from the transcripts of two separate conversations, conducted five years apart, but both of them circling around the same questions.

The partial and shifting nature of enlightenment is central to her novel sequence about the small town of Gilead, in which the lives of the main characters are told, and retold, from each other's perspective. They are all, at least at moments, filled with delight in the world, and utterly mistaken about their own parts in it, and about the parts played by others, although they may seem themselves suspended over an abyss of self-knowledge, as sinners were held over their eternal and merited damnation in Jonathan Edwards's sermon.

THE Calvinism of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead books is more concerned with collective punishment than individual damnation. That may seem a deliberately provocative statement, since one of the motors of the plot is the suspicion of two of the main characters that they are, indeed, predestined to damnation.

Yet, in both cases, the most memorable moments are those in which the conviction lifts, and a streak of hope, like dawn, illuminates their lives. The darkness that cannot be lifted is that which comes from collective sin, and particularly from slavery.

"Before the Civil War, slavery being the issue that it was, an understanding that perhaps we should tremble when we consider that God is just was entirely appropriate," she told me.

"After that, of course, there were other issues that arose where that kind of thinking would have been useful, but it spent itself in some way. It was considered anti-progressive. It became theologically respectable to think that you actually didn't have to be guilty of the errors [she laughs] that humankind has historically been guilty of.

"Therefore, these prophetic rhythms of rebuke and redress that were seen to be so salient to the American experience before the Civil War were ridiculed after. People talk about fire and brimstone, but it was people talking about guilt with reference to themselves, not with reference to others."

I do not know a book that shows up the wickedness of racism more clearly than Gilead, and it does so almost entirely by indirection. As she says, the story of the world is the history of good people participating in profoundly wicked institutions.

The trilogy - Gilead, Home, and Lila - depicts the lives of a group of good white people who are profoundly racist, and alongside them a rather less good man, who loves a black woman, who loves him back. It is this love - the best thing about him - that cuts him off from his home and from the kinds of redemption that his birth family could offer him. That, in turn, condemns the woman and their child.

The pure injustice of this becomes apparent in a way that resonates for years. To Robinson, the message of the Bible, read by a Calvinist, is centrally concerned with justice.

"I AM a Congregationalist," she says. "An American Congregationalist. We ordained our first woman in 1853. We have had co-educational colleges virtually from the 1820s. The feminist question was much more alive in America, I think, than it was in Britain, earlier. In important institutional ways, it began to be reality before it was legally reality.

"Women have distinguished themselves very powerfully in these reformist movements, and they have been rewarded by the fact that their status always increases along with their involvement.

"The liberal side of religion in America does not get any attention. But it's there. It pushes things like, for example, marriage equality, which was practised in many churches before it was legal. They did everything but legally marry these couples. What happens, typically, is that social norms change, and then laws adjust to acknowledge the wisdom of the social change.

"I really don't know quite how things happen. But I do know that, if you watch the rate of social change of things like the attitudes towards homosexuality, which

seem never to change, and then they seem to change incrementally; then they have passed some crisis point where it's no longer an issue, and then people say: 'What was that about?'

"How that happens, I don't know. I don't think anybody knows. The mysteries of collective thought are profound."

ONE of the most characteristic features of her thought is that she continually moves between mystery and clarity. I don't mean this as one might mean it of most theologians, for whom obscurity is apparently an indicator of the presence of God. She finds him in clarity, but finds clarity itself mysterious, or possibly dazzling. This, she says, is Calvin's position, too.

"Calvin says, if you want to find God, simply descend into yourself. Realise what a miraculous creature you are. Calvinist anthropology places human beings, and God, at an enormous degree of proximity, actually, with no sense of angels or other orders of being intervening between living, present, mortal human beings, and God himself.

"The assumption of the cosmic order that you find in Thomas Aquinas is really swept away. Calvin also says, of course, that we're fallen creatures, and far below what we ought to be, and what God hopes of us. But, at the same time, the intrinsic human self, the self of perception and experience, is still the most divine of all [the things] outside of the character of God himself."

Andrew Brown writes on religion for The Guardian.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30 - Use code CT870 ).

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