At a White House ceremony in July, President Obama told this year's recipients of the National Humanities Medal, "Your writings have changed me--I think for the better." He then turned directly to novelist Marilynne Robinson and said, "Marilynne, I believe that."
It was a spontaneous acknowledgement of Robinson's prominence in American life and letters, another honor atop the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and host of other prizes her work has collected. For a writer whose novels barely have plots and whose essays plumb the thought of John Calvin, Robinson is astonishingly popular--and not just among readers who share the president's politics.
Her conservative admirers include Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth and a contributor for over 50 years to National Review, in whose pages he hailed Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead as a "masterpiece." In Gilead, Hart found a rare spiritual gravity: "Despite the unaccommodating phase of ordinary culture through which we live," he writes, Robinson's "subject is holiness."
As he explains further in his critical work The Living Moment, Robinson's novel "consists entirely of a long letter written by the Reverend John Ames; it does have a plot, but it does not drive the reader urgently ahead. Rather, the letter, while recounting incidents, establishes a meditative pace, inviting you to read patiently, and soon with wonder. Precisely that is the philosophical point of the book: the experience of wonder, of Being."
Gilead not only won the Pulitzer but sold enough copies to become "one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times"--as James Wood put it in the New Yorker--thanks to passages like this one, near the end of the book (and of Ames's life):
Wherever you turn your eyes the world can
shine like transfiguration. You don't have to
bring a thing to it except a little willingness to
see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?
... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace
that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept
it. I think there must also be a prevenient
courage that allows us to be brave--that is, to
acknowledge that there is more beauty than our
eyes can bear, that precious things have been
put into our hands and to do nothing to honor
them is to do great harm.
Chief among the "precious things" Robinson honors is America's religious heritage. She is in a sense a culture warrior, striving against what her essays call our "impulse ... to disparage, to cheapen and to deface, and to falsify, which has made a valuable inheritance worthless."
For this reason her nonfiction, like her novels, attracts the attention of thoughtful conservatives. In a Weekly Standard review of last year's essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Houston Baptist University professor Micah Mattix praises Robinson's contrarian projects: defending America's Puritans (and their forefather, John Calvin) from their caricature as dour fundamentalists, championing the Old Testament as wise and humane, and critiquing the reductionist materialism of the New Atheists. To all this, Robinson brings a "penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument."
The thread that unites these concerns is a tradition neglected today by left and right: liberal Christianity. Though the themes of Robinson's work resonate with "crunchy conservatives" and others who emphasize virtues like duty, rootedness, and tradition, the author herself is a member of what she calls "that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism."
The decline of the Protestant mainline churches has transformed American religion since the protagonist of Gilead wrote his letter in 1956, as has the political polarization of Christianity. While there are exceptions--a small "secular right," a more substantial religious let--in general the more often an American goes to church, the more likely he or she is to vote Republican. …