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Marilynne Robinson interview: Everyday story of regular people

21 March 2024

A new book by the novelist Marilynne Robinson examines Genesis. She talks to Shoshana Boyd Gelfand about it

Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand: Reading Genesis is an absolute jewel of a book. Yet it’s quite difficult to categorise, as it doesn’t fit neatly into any literary genre. How would you describe it?

Marilynne Robinson: Quite frankly, I never give a thought to genre. Like most people who have an interest in these things, I had studied Genesis under various circumstances, but I never felt it was properly described. A lot of my discontent came from the fact that Genesis is actually a beautiful piece of literature, but one that isn’t often attended to as literature. It uses parallelism, characterisation, and other strategies of narrative very beautifully, but so many interpretations that I had seen underestimate the text. So, I wanted to simply revisit the text itself and draw out the qualities that seem so strong in it.

You certainly appreciate the literary beauty of the text, but your book doesn’t read at all like a classic literary analysis. It’s more like a retelling, or a commentary, or a theological exploration — or, perhaps, all of those mixed together

I’m not happy with most methods of literary criticism. I find that people fall into very cramped vocabulary, and forget that they are looking at something because it is beautiful. And, when something is beautiful, you are rewarded simply for inquiring into its meaning and its implications. That’s all I wanted to do. In writing this book, I’ve abandoned whole vocabularies of interpretation. That was intentional. I couldn’t invest in them. They wouldn’t have been fruitful.

Your interpretation captured the characters of Genesis and brought them to life in a way that I’ve only ever seen in classical Jewish midrash. (That’s a compliment!) It wasn’t until well into the book that you mentioned anything about Jesus, Paul, or the New Testament. It seemed that you were inhabiting these biblical characters without reading them through a Christian lens. Was that intentional, or was it just how the writing emerged?

I think it’s very inappropriate to interpret Hebrew scripture as if it only existed to await the next Testament. It makes people inattentive to the text itself. I wanted to imagine what an educated Jewish man like Paul, or a faithful Jewish man like Jesus, would have known as their central text. What that reading can tell us we should not refuse to see.

What was your writing process for this book? Did you do research, or was it just . . . inspired?

I wish I could use the word ‘inspired’ and really mean it. I’ve always been interested in what comes from the scriptural traditions. I’ve learned about various academic theories, like the documentary hypothesis, but I wasn’t interested in exploring that here. I didn’t want to be wrestling with those critical schools that I don’t attach value to. It distorts the argument.

You publish the book with the full text of Genesis included as an appendix. What was the thinking around that?

Binding the biblical book of Genesis with my book was the inspiration of Lennie Goodings, my English editor. Everyone thought ‘What a great idea!’ the moment she suggested it. When you’re making the kind of radical argument that I am, it felt like a courtesy to the reader to make it easy for them to refer to the original text to check and see if I’m going off the track.

What do you think is so radical about your interpretation?

The fact that there are no footnotes and no bibliography. I don’t think people have read this kind of approach to Genesis before.

Your focus was very much on character development throughout the book — both the human characters and God. It was done very reverently, but not portraying God as a perfect Aristotelian deity. You showed us a God who was in deep relationship with human beings. So, it read more as a family drama than a theological treatise.

Yes, that’s what makes the story so charming. People have babies. People marry. It’s not about kings and queens and demigods. It’s about regular people who desperately wish they could have a baby, but it’s just not happening for them.

Those are such normal human concerns and incredibly relatable. Maybe that’s why I experienced your tone as full of respect and reverence, yet not at all pious.

I’m so glad I’m not pious. Piety can so easily tip over into something that has very little to do with reverence. It can be self-regarding and ungenerous, and it can end up drawing a line between oneself and others — as if, in order to understand this, you have to be in that category of person called pious. That is an abuse of the text. All of those stories about Jacob suffering as a father are not there to be made into some sort of religious fetish. It’s a beautiful narrative that tells you something deeply human, and it is something that God values and God loves and God participates in.

I suppose that is the paradox of these narratives: it is by virtue of being deeply human that they are divine.

Yes, that’s the genius of the whole thing.

At the start of your book is the sentence: “The Bible is a work of theology.” Yet you don’t attempt to do any sort of systematic theology in this book. It is pure narrative.

I love certain schools of theology, but it’s not my point to impose any pre-existing thinking on this narrative. I wanted to see what was actually there, and then be persuaded in any direction that the text took me. When we come to Genesis, we are not bringing superior intelligence. We’re not bringing a wider usable area of knowledge than the people who created the text and preserved it and interpreted it. So, my main interest was to try and give the text its moment, its due, let it speak for itself.

What kind of truth does narrative offer us as opposed to a more rationalistic model of truth?

The centre of all interest to me is that people are made in the image of God. That means that a compassionate and deep understanding of another human being has a theological meaning in and of itself. There’s no need for any external theological concept. The reason we can feel heartbroken with Jacob is that he is sacred, he is complex, all of those things that make him in the image of God.

And yet we are an imperfect image of God. You don’t try and cover up the character’s human imperfection, nor does the text. Yet God nevertheless wants to be in relationship with us. Is that what you mean by grace?

I think that grace, as I understand it, aligns with love. It’s not that God forgives you for erring: it’s that God doesn’t see your errors as being the essential thing. The Bible allows for human imperfection, but never takes away the accessibility to God’s love that is a given. It’s so interesting to see these characters in Genesis who go horribly wrong, but they are undiminished in their relationship to God.

Everything you just said about God also resonates for me as a mother. My children have their faults, but the love I have for them encompasses their quirks. I love them not only despite their faults, but because of them.

Exactly. That’s why, repeatedly, God is identified as a father, and we are God’s children.

The father image can stir up the image of a stern God of judgement. One of the beauties of your book is that you ensure that we don’t fall into the trope of the Old Testament God of Judgement versus the New Testament God of Compassion. You demonstrate that both of these attributes of God are fully and equally present in the Genesis narratives.

Absolutely. Among the things that I hoped to accomplish was to get past what I consider to be an unbelievably stupid distinction that people make between God in the Old and New Testaments. If you are a monotheist, how can you disparage God like that? If you think that is an appropriate reaction, maybe you should read it again. While I think it’s ridiculous, that misperception is very entrenched. And it’s not a little thing: it’s a misinterpretation of Judaism and a terrible thing.

Can I ask whether we can expect a sequel? Reading Exodus?

Yes, I’m working on a sequel now.

In what way is reading Genesis different from reading Exodus?

I expect it to be very different. There are issues about the creation of society that come into play in Exodus. These are issues similar to those that Cicero and Plato grapple with.

So, in Exodus we’re no longer talking about a family drama; now, it’s about building a society?

Yes. My basic argument about Exodus is that law is a strategy of maintaining the freedom of human beings. We have the choice of not following the law. It might be a painful choice, or it might be very available choice, but it’s a choice. In Reading Genesis, I talk about how God may modify people’s circumstances, but he never tampers with the human being. In Exodus, the law is simply an extension of the same strategy of putting up boundaries but doing nothing that alters the intrinsic human person. It’s a great act of love.

Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago at £25 (Church Times Bookshop special price £20); 978-0-349-01874-4.

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College in Salisbury and Vice-Chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

Listen to the full interview on the Church Times Podcast

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