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Marilynne Robinson: literature as evangelism

Marilynne Robinson: literature as evangelism

Mark O’Connell of The New Yorker appreciates Marilynne Robinson, as all right-thinking people should. Some particularly lovely passages:

…Robinson’s moral wisdom seems inseparable from her gifts as a prose writer. Near the end of “Gilead,” Ames contemplates Jack Boughton, the wayward son of his friend Reverend Robert Boughton. He finds himself unable to understand Jack’s motivations, the reasons for the miserable and self-destructive life he has lead. “In every important way,” he writes, “we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence.” Coming from a Calvinist minister, this sounds at first surprisingly like moral relativism, but what it is, really, is moral intelligence. He continues: “We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.”

This is not the kind of voice I normally associate with religious people, and it makes me wonder whether we might not be listening to the wrong voices.


She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace. Robinson is a Calvinist, but her spiritual sensibility is richly inclusive and non-dogmatic. There’s little talk about sin or damnation in her writing, but a lot about forgiveness and tolerance and kindness. Hers is the sort of Christianity, I suppose, that Christ could probably get behind. I’ll never share her way of seeing and thinking about the world and our place in it, but her writing has shown me the value and beauty of these perspectives.

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly broadcast a profile of Robinson in September, 2009.

Watch Marilynne Robinson on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Here’s more about Robinson, the author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and some excellent essays.


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I cherish both Gilead and Home as two of the finest works of fiction which I have read. Robinson writes beautifully with great understanding of the human lot.

…it makes me wonder whether we might not be listening to the wrong voices.

Thank goodness at least one person outside Christianity wonders.

I fell in love with the character Jack Boughton. He is so very flawed, destructive, and self-destructive, and yet there is goodness in him and much to love.

I savor her words, which I have read more than once, and stop at times to read a passage over, because Robinson so wonderfully puts the words together.

Thanks for calling my attention to O’Connell’s piece.

June Butler

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