On the Responsibility of Churches to Safeguard and Promote the Spirit of Democracy, the Potential of the Humanities, and Other Thoughts-An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

By Painter, Rebecca M. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

On the Responsibility of Churches to Safeguard and Promote the Spirit of Democracy, the Potential of the Humanities, and Other Thoughts-An Interview with Marilynne Robinson


Painter, Rebecca M., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


On behalf of the staff, contributors and readers of Renascence, we are honored to have Dr. Marilynne Robinson participate in this special issue on her work. We invited Dr. Rebecca M. Painter--who interviewed her for the journal Christianity and Literature in 2009 and wrote the concluding essay of its 2010 special issue on Robinson's work--to follow up with questions focused mainly on her nonfiction works. Dr. Robinson responded to the questions by e-mail on December 15, 2013. --The Editors of Renascence

RMP: In the introduction to your latest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books (hereafter Child), you state your greatest fear: "losing our loyalty to democracy as the liberation of the individual as a social value" (xvi). Other than your own works and classics like Uncle Tom 's Cabin and The Scarlet Letter, what works of literature could you recommend that promote the liberation of the individual as a social value?

MR: Moby-Dick, Walden, Leaves of Grass, Emerson's Essays, the essays of William James--more generally the work of any of these writers and many of their less famous contemporaries. It is the great subject of classic American literature, though by no means exclusive to that period.

RMP: Your belief that the soul is "the masterpiece of creation" (Child 8) is irrefutable to people of faith, while your observation that "we do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone" (5) is challenging to say the least. What are some ways today's churches might begin to deal with each other and with their constituents on a more soul-to-soul level?

MR: In a variety of ways the churches in general have not been sufficiently respectful of their congregants. They have assumed that they would not be interested in the serious and the beautiful side of their religion, the part of the tradition that would equip them to think deeply in their own right. They have been exploitive in many cases, financially, emotionally and even sexually. And, within the Christian community as a whole, there have been far too few voices raised against all this. If the people who lead the churches really believed that the people who are led by them in the worship of God are in fact images of God and precious to Him, none of this could happen. If they do not believe it, they should be in another line of work.

RMP: Given the influence of neo-atheist writers in contemporary culture, are you concerned that writers of faith (yourself a remarkable exception) underplay their spiritual experiences and insights? Have you encountered this in your work with aspiring writers?

MR: "Neo-atheism" was a fad and is already fairly well spent. Substantive atheism is with us always, one response to the intrinsic mystery of being. The fact that atheism is possible makes faith meaningful. It is always part of the life of religion. It has been true for a long time that religion is only obliquely a subject of literature, perhaps because during the formative period of Western literature religious establishments made the subject suspect or dangerous. Many modern writers do not wish to be seen as sectarian, in their writing any more than in their lives. This has nothing to do with their personal beliefs, but is only a consequence of the fact that their sympathies are not narrowed by their denominational loyalties. Among my own students, who seem often to have some faith and background, their reticence seems to come from the influence of literature in which religion is not explicitly a subject, an inadequate instruction in religion that makes them unable to understand it as a coherent world view, and embarrassment at the crude uses to which the language of religion has been put in the last few decades, causing it to be associated with ignorance and resentment. Young people particularly hate to be or to seem ungenerous.

RMP: In the chapter "Austerity as Ideology" in Child, you identify a current climate of generalized fear that seems to fuel the drive for fiscal austerities that would starve programs essential to a thriving democracy: education, national health care, Social Security, support for the arts and humanities, environmental protections, and so on. …

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