Marilynne Robinson on the Great Problem of Christianity and the Failure of Russia and Mississippi

If in good conscience I could reproduce the entirety of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful recent piece […]

David Zahl / 1.3.12

If in good conscience I could reproduce the entirety of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful recent piece on the Bible for the NY Times Book Review, “The Book of Books,” I would. Instead, a few paragraphs will have to suffice. If you happened to read it when it appeared a few days before Christmas, you’ll know what I’m talking about (am I the only one who prefers her essays to her longer form stuff?!). Miss Gilead brings her incredible gift for language to bear on the literary significance of Scripture, treading gracefully but assuredly into divisive ground, acknowledging cultural sensitivities without muting the specifically Christian insights that are vital to the whole enterprise. That is, this isn’t a sales pitch or some kind of misguided territorialism. Instead of making a big show of Christ being the focal point of both the text and its import, Robinson lets the Western canon itself do the work. In this sense, she goes beyond run-of-the-mill English 101 assessments of the Bible, engaging with the actual content – both the questions it raises and the claims it makes – rather than the form or style or historical context alone. It’s refreshing. Faulkner-ites will be especially delighted with the way she unpacks the heart of The Sound and the Fury. We could not ask for a more articulate, thoughtful and non-defensive advocate than Robinson:

There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful [in the Bible]. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes. This assumption is by no means inevitable. Most cultures have written about demigods and kings and heroes. Whatever the deeper reasons for the realist fascination with the ordinary, it is generous even when it is cruel, simply in the fact of looking as directly as it can at people as they are and insisting that insensitivity or banality matters. The Old Testament prophets did this, too.

A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty.

In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected. The failure of the notionally Christian worlds of Russia and Mississippi to be in any way sufficient to the occasion of Christ among them would be a true report always and everywhere.

In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life, the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our ­civilization.

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