When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pp., $24.00
T o those who fear that Christian cultural engagement is in a state of intellectual poverty, I suggest looking to the work of Marilynne Robinson for reason to hope. Robinson's nonfiction guides readers through fields as disparate as cosmology, evolutionary psychology, economics and modern biblical criticism--all the while identifying the theological thread that holds them together. Reading Robinson feels like sitting down for a conversation with one's most widely read and psychologically insightful friend, a person whose wit is surpassed only by the lucidity of her language.
It is that same range and eloquence that makes When I Was a Child I Read Books move sporadically between being deeply insightful and irrefutably maddening, sometimes on the very same page. Much of what makes Robinson's nonfiction a challenge to digest can be understood in terms of its profound stylistic difference from her fiction. In her Pulitzer-winning 2005 novel Gilead, her character Reverend John Ames works out a limited number of themes--grace, forgiveness, fatherhood--with a slowness that reflects the 1950s small-town Iowa that surrounds him. Conversely, Robinson's pace is rapid in her topically broad nonfiction. As a result, the text can feel disjointed in its movements between stories and theories, and sometimes it seems as though the thesis has been left behind.
Nevertheless, When I Was a Child does have a set of uniting concerns. One of these is Robinson's distaste for our tendency to interpret the past in the shadow of our deepest prejudices. In the essay "Who Was Oberlin?" Robinson turns to the history of fundamentalism offered by Jeff Sharlet in his book The Family. By drawing from primary sources as though they are old friends, Robinson exposes Sharlet's misreading of the reformers Charles Finney and Jonathan Edwards, demonstrating how such mistakes guide his misdiagnosis of the conservative Christian political landscape. It is a masterful essay, and one that displays Robinson's ability to reveal the hidden and destructive logic of the stories we tell ourselves.
When I Was a Child also expands the thesis of Robinson's 2010 book Absence of Mind by continuing to differentiate scientism as a godless ideology from science as a tool to understand God's world in a way that healthily circumvents the typical science-religion babble. In the most recent book, she devotes a good deal of space to diagnosing the ills of the social sciences, from behaviorism (the reigning ideology of her youth), to evolutionary psychology (with its simplistic and overly confident statements about humans), to economics (in her view, an imaginatively impoverished and pragmatically destructive dismal science). Throughout the book Robinson pushes hard against the academy's tendency to prize parsimony over mystery and notes rightly that our theories are often limited in their inability to see humans as motivated by anything deeper than calculated self-interest or the invisible hand of the "selfish gene."
As a social scientist, I agree with Robinson that my field is limited, and I hope those who share my vocation read her work carefully. Nonetheless, I cannot help thinking that her critique is built upon a false assumption that the role of the scientist is the same as that of the novelist. …