Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Eagerness to Scorn Earns Firm Reproof

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Eagerness to Scorn Earns Firm Reproof

Article excerpt

THE DEATH OF ADAM: ESSAYS ON MODERN THOUGHT By Marilynne Robinson Houghton Mifflin 254 pp., $24 This splendidly provocative set of essays might, with equal justice, have been given the subtitle "Against Shallowness." What animates Marilynne Robinson's spirited campaign to enrich our current discourse on politics, religion, and society is her dismay at the glibness, vacuity, and cheap cynicism that have come to characterize too many of our discussions and debates. A major part of this problem, she feels, is our dismissive attitude toward history and the past. When it comes to our attitude toward national heroes such as Lincoln and Jefferson, she wittily remarks, "ill-informed condescension" has replaced "traditional ill- informed respect." Robinson's expressed goal is to discover other and better ways of thinking about the issues that most concern us as a society. The topics she discusses include everything from the legacy of the Puritans and the influence of social Darwinism to the worship of the marketplace and its harmful effects on the institution of the family. Crucial, perhaps even central, to her enterprise is her heroic effort to challenge the widespread prejudice against John Calvin and Calvinism. Our general attitude toward the Puritans, Robinson argues, "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. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry." Robinson castigates intellectual dishonesty and moral shoddiness across the full range of the political spectrum. This is one of the reasons her essays are so stimulating and her insights so refreshingly unexpected. Indeed, reading this book certainly changed - or, at very least, challenged - some of my own preconceptions. Although I've always had a sneaking fondness for the Puritans, I had never thought to question the assumption that their Calvinist theology inclined them to be somewhat rigid, intolerant, parsimonious, and uncharitable. Robinson traces the roots of these misconceptions to the influential works of the Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton and the German sociologist Max Weber. Boldly disputing them both, Robinson goes directly to the actual writings of John Calvin and other Calvinist divines, like New England preacher Jonathan Edwards. What she finds are repeated, insistent injunctions to practice charity, not only toward the "deserving" poor, but to all who are in need. …

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