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Standing up for a better US

18 March 2016

Richard Harries commends a critical but optimistic view of the US

The Givenness of Things: Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Virago £18.98
(978-0-349-00731-1)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

 

MARILYNNE ROBINSON is the hugely acclaimed author of Gilead, Home, and Lila, novels in which there is more profound theology than in a hundred theological textbooks. She is also a distinguished scholar of English Literature, and essayist, of which The Givenness of Things is her fifth collection. I found it an enriching and salutary read — not least in the way it corrected a number of superficial stereotypes.

Robinson is a self-identified contrarian, and it is clear from this collection that she feels seriously out of sympathy with a great deal both of United States culture in general, and religion as it is now practised there.

A number of themes emerge. First, a sharp criticism of all forms of reductionism, especially that put forward by some neuroscientists. For her, the starting point is the unique worth and dignity of the human self, or soul — a word that she is not afraid to use — and what we have achieved in human history. It is this that we both directly experience and know through the humanities. She refuses to allow this to be subsumed into any other category.

Second, a huge admiration for Calvin. She shows that his judgements were much more generous and widely embracing than those usually attributed to him, as was his sense of the majesty of God, and his wisdom in the whole of creation. She also much admires John Wycliffe and William Tyndale; and, as she points out, they, as well as Calvin, were deeply learned men, superb translators, and stylists who have helped to shape our culture in decisive ways.

She traces some of their influence in the literature of the period: in Shakespeare’s themes of grace and reconciliation, for example, and Langland’s emphasis on poor faithful servants who epitomise the God who became a servant for us. As Langland put it in Piers Plowman: “Our joy and our healing, Christ Jesus of heaven, always pursues us in a poor man’s apparel, and looks upon us in a poor man’s likeness, searching us as we pass with looks of love.”

From the standpoint of this learned, cultured, deeply serious Reformation culture, she is highly critical of US Evangelicalism, which she regards as a trivial and superficial narrowing of what the great Reformation divines stood for. She is no less critical of the mainstream denominations, which she regards as offering a very dilute form of Christianity, unwilling to stand up either for the great Christian orthodoxies or to offer a serious critique of the prevailing secular culture in US intellectual circles. Finally, market-driven, competitive culture exasperates her because of the way it writes religion off and out of serious consideration.

Yet Robinson remains optimistic. She draws on the best of the US and its history, commending her immigrant students to describe what it can be when it is less strident. Away from the cynicism and vulgarity that are such obvious features of its life, there is a better US.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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