A Gathering Voices Post by Greg Garrett
“The way we speak and think of the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism. Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”
Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam
Last week, we talked about the novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s luminous work about an elderly minister facing the end of his life. This week, I want to draw your attention to Robinson as theologian and cultural critic. There are few enough people who both write novels and do theology, as I should know better than most, but Robinson is at the top of her game in both fields. A few years back she was the recipient of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a $100,000 prize (no, I didn’t mistype) previously given to theologians Miroslav Volf and Jürgen Moltmann.
While she was honored for the theological and spiritual content in Gilead, she might also have been recognized for the quality of her nonfiction. Her book The Death of Adam tackles big and not particularly popular topics (Puritans, John Calvin, Darwin) precisely because she believes we have lost the knack of reading and having discourse about Big Ideas and Great Works:
I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. . . . I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization and I want it back. (4)
Her method in these essays is simple—read people like Calvin about whom everyone has an opinion—and who, as she notes, almost nobody has actually read. What you discover when you read these essays is wonder. Take Calvin, for example: in his writing, as she notes and I can testify, there is beauty and reason and much more theological good sense than his detractors suspect.
This spring, I read sections of Calvin’s Institutes along with a Baylor student working on an honors thesis on Robinson’s use of theology in her fiction, and I was stunned. While we still had areas of disagreement and I doubt we would have enjoyed each other’s company, Calvin was just as Robinson described him. Here was a first-class intellect, a person very much worth reading whom I had assumed I would never want to read.
The Death of Adam is about the importance of engaging those voices from our past who have shaped our civilization so that we may have informed opinions. Too many of us, including me, get our opinions from the opinions of others. Robinson’s voice is not crotchety, like William Bennett, say, appalled at the decline of our civilization, but she does take us to task for our willingness to abandon serious thought and actual discourse.
And well she might. Take a look, and let me know what you see.
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