Magazine article The Christian Century

What Are We Doing Here? Essays

Magazine article The Christian Century

What Are We Doing Here? Essays

Article excerpt

What Are We Doing Here? Essays

By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pp., $27.00

I am too old to mince words," Marilynne Robinson warns us in the preface to her fifth collection of essays. She wrote them between the spring of 2015 and the spring of 2017, mostly in response to lecture invitations from American universities, and they speak frankly, at times polemically, to Robinson's sense of the current American historical and political moment.

The "we" in her title is primarily her fellow citizens, beneficiaries of American democratic traditions and their embodiment in religious, political, and educational institutions. "Democracy," she acknowledges, "is my aesthetics and more or less my religion." What gives these essays an often wistful and sometimes combative tone is Robinson's sense that this democratic heritage is under threat.

The essays were written during a sea change in American politics--the end of Barack Obama's presidency and the beginning of Donald Trump's--and they leave no doubt about Robinson's political leanings. "A Proof, a Test, an Instruction" is a lyrical ode to Obama written a month after Trump's election, while "Slander" is a mournful and enraged homily about her mother's end-of-life addiction to Fox News.

Obama read Robinson's novel Gilead while on the campaign trail in Iowa, and during his years in the White House they struck up a friendship. He embodies what she sees as quintessential American virtues: a dignified civility, a drive to democratize privilege, an embrace of our nation's heterogeneous union. "We see ourselves in him," she writes, "and in him we embrace or reject what we are." By contrast, Fox News embodies for Robinson the betrayal of that proud heritage, with its scorn for the vulnerable, its fiction of a threatened and embattled Christianity, and its nostalgia for an American past that never was.

Robinson is best known for her prize-winning novels, starting with Housekeeping in 1980, and then, after a decades-long gap, her trilogy Gilead, Home, and Lila. Her finely etched characters draw us into ordinary human struggles with family and friendship, love and death. In the essay "Grace and Beauty," Robinson muses on what she has learned from years of writing fiction and teaching others how to write it. To have their own integrity, fictional characters must exhibit both consistency and freedom. Credible characters take on a life of their own. An author should not use them "to represent a type or to make a point."

Alas, in her essays Robinson often uses characters from history or caricatures of behavioral science to do exactly that. The didacticism and moralizing she eschews in her novels frequently take center stage. She ranges confidently across theology, economics, physics, history, and anthropology. …

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