Q&A: Marilynne Robinson on guns, gay marriage and Calvinism

Pulitzer-prize winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke at Union Seminary in March 2014. Photo by Kristen Scharold
Pulitzer-prize winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke at Union Seminary in March, 2014. Photo by Kristen Scharold

Pulitzer-prize winning author Marilynne Robinson spoke at Union Seminary in March 2014. Photo by Kristen Scharold

NEW YORK (RNS) Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson draws a wide fan base that spans lovers of serious literature, including many conservative Christians. This fall, she will release “Lila,” a follow-up to her earlier novels “Gilead”  (2004) and “Home” (2008) about a 1950s-era Iowa town that won her many accolades.

Robinson’s diverse fan base was described in The American Conservative as “Christian, not Conservative.” As the author noted, Robinson is far from holding up ideals put forward by the religious right. But that doesn’t stop conservative Christians from engaging with her writing.

Before giving an address at Union Theological Seminary this spring, Robinson spoke to Religion News Service about a variety of social issues. In the interview, Robinson explained why she thinks Christians are fearful, why she loves theologian John Calvin and whether she’ll join Twitter. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: In your book “When I Was A Child I Read Books,” you refer to Christian fears. What kinds of fear do you see in Christians today?

A: There are so many kinds of fear Christians have now. There are some Christians who are anxious about identifying with tradition, because of any suggestion of exclusivism that brings with it; there are Christians so scared of the world that they want to carry a gun. Those are two very different kinds of anxiety, but I do think in both cases it’s a little bit unChristian to have thinking and behavior governed by fear.

Q: Are there issues that you are particularly concerned about right now?

A: Everything for me comes down to the idea that people are images of God. This makes me highly reluctant to see wars fought in any circumstances, and especially when no rationale can be offered for it. That’s just folly. I don’t understand the state of mind that makes people at ease with the idea that gun laws are being relaxed to the point that makes it overwhelmingly likely that homicidal people will have possession of these military weapons.

How did we get so scared of each other? I have never felt as if I was in a situation that could remotely suggest to me the appropriateness of lethal violence. And I’m not living in a gated community in Florida. I mean, who are these people? And what do they get out of all this fear?

Q: Gay marriage is one of the culture’s hot-button issues right now. Can people coexist in that controversy?

A: Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of the controversies themselves. My own denomination (the United Church of Christ), has blessed same-sex relationships and married them as quickly as it became legal in my state. It has been a process that’s gone on for a long time. Nobody gives it a thought, so when you read in the newspaper that there are people calling down brimstone, it’s startling. In time it will become an old issue for the culture that simply will not bring out this kind of thing anymore.

Q: For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

A: It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

Q: As you may know, there’s a big case in front of the Supreme Court right now with Hobby Lobby and another group fighting over the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. Do you see this as an issue for religious freedom?

A: That seems to me like an artificial problem. I wish I could go to the Supreme Court every time I saw somebody trying to cut food stamps, or pre-K, or any of these other things. These people that are so attentive to babies that don’t exist yet, and so negligent of babies that need help. It’s part of the narrowing of the culture, so that only certain things are considered to be religious controversies. It’s a religious controversy, to me, that we would think of cutting back on help for the poor. Especially after our financiers have crashed the economy.

Q: You have a pretty big fan base among Calvinists (those who follow the works of John Calvin), including ones who would call themselves conservative. These people would probably not share your point of view on most social issues, but they love your work. Do you see a disconnect?

A: If they read Calvin, I’m happier. Then they can love my Calvinism afterward. I’m always happy when people love my books. I hope that there’s a Christian resonance that they are truly responding to, that I’ve truly communicated.

Q: Why do you think people pick up on your Calvinism?

A: It’s very exotic to be a Calvinist and to say so outright! In a strange way, it was American literature that introduced me to Calvin. Because it’s incredibly important for Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman who lived in a period and a culture where his ideas were profoundly entrenched.

Calvin has a strange reputation that is based very solidly on the fact that nobody reads him. I found that he’s a beautiful theologian. I was, and continue to be, struck by the power of the metaphysics and the visionary quality of his theology, which no one seems to have any awareness of.

Q: Can you explain what in Calvinist theology was so profound to you?

A: One of them certainly was the importance of human consciousness. He’s also a humanist; he’s terrifically admiring of what the human mind does. He says we have completely fallen away from the glory of God, and look what we are, and then he describes this glorious creature. The implication is that if we were to be in our un-fallen condition we would be spectacular. He allows for the reality of great evil. He was living in the 16th century, which was a brutal period. He was ready to grant the dark side of reality, and completely lyrical about what is splendid about it, including the stars and including human consciousness, human presence, most profoundly.

Q: Since you are now part of a United Church of Christ church, does the decline of the mainline concern you?

A: There’s always the question: decline relative to what? For example, you have the situation of Roman Catholicism at the moment, which has been impacted by highly visible scandal. Is this permanent, or is it a protest on the part of people who are just too irritated to go to church every Sunday? You can’t really tell. The cure for the problems of the mainline would be to improve the meaningfulness of the theology.

People attempt to translate the language of the sermon into something relevant, like football, or economics, or something like that, and it drives people nuts. When you go to any church and somebody asks, “Was it a good sermon?” And if it was a sermon about how we almost got into the Rose Bowl, then no, it was not a good sermon.

Q: What about the growing number of Americans who don’t identify with religion — the “nones”? What implications does that have for culture and society?

A: There are lots of people who are very religious and haven’t settled on a tradition. To talk about affiliation, or the absence of it, is different from talking about whether or not the interiors of people have become empty of the idea of God. I don’t think that really happens with people very often.

I’ve been in mainline churches, where all they do is say, “We’re dying. Our stock has crashed. Nobody cares.” I think, “Well, thank you for that glimpse of the divine!” It’s very typical in this culture to say things like, “Education is collapsing.” I’ve taught in foreign universities. We don’t do badly, educationwise. Believe me.

Q: Final question: Are you going to get on Twitter anytime soon?

A: I don’t have anything to with any of that. I’ve never even seen Facebook. People ask me why I don’t write about contemporary culture. I’d have to educate myself about what contemporary culture is, because all of these words are essentially meaningless to me. Then if I used them they would be passe by the time I had learned everything about them. So I might as well just write about 1956.


About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.


Click here to post a comment

  • She has very little understanding of scripture. But then again she thrives in Fiction

  • I generally like the things Ms. Robinson says here, though I would prefer a bit more detail. One thing which I didn’t like was her failure to grasp the reasons some Christians oppose a health care system which mandates employers to provide birth control services, which actually amounts to abortion services, to employees against their moral principles. It’s hardly a manufactured concern for those who take life seriously, and make no mistake, it is about life and not reproductive services. I also object to the limited argument that those who are concerned for life at it’s very beginning must be unconcerned for life once it has exited the womb. That tree fails to bear fruit and I seriously doubt that anyone shows more concern for children brought to term than right to life organizations.

  • Probably because it is a silly partisan based issue having to do with employers who think they own their workers. Some Christians oppose the idea of others making personal decisions without their assent.Lets make this clear, if its not your womb, its not your business.

    Her point was some Christians are more concerned with a fetus than about children starving or lacking proper education.

  • She increasingly carries herself like a haughty diva. Even here, where she acts like she’s being broadminded, she dismisses what she doesn’t like or understand with a broad stroke, and, POOF!, it’s gone. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid here. This is one self-obsessed “thinker.”

  • Conservatives are clear in their opposition to abortion and gay marriage on the basis of their beliefs. And, understandably, they feel sideswiped by mainline Christians who don’t share that passion. However, those same beliefs encompass responsibility for the poor and homeless. There should be equal zeal among conservatives for the government to do more to address those issues. It seems hypocritical that conservative Christians urgently want the government to act on their principles regarding abortion and gay marriage. But you see nothing from them pushing the government to act on those Christian principles regarding poverty and homelessness. Conservatives often point to the local work they do in those regards–such as mission trips for the youth. But it makes no sense for them to expect the government to enforce their principles regarding abortion and gay marriage while they make no effort to enlist the government in addressing poverty and homelessness–and (not always) but often we see supposed Christian conservative officials leading the effort to reduce and eliminate government programs aimed at poverty and homelessness. Even if one argues that the government does a poor job of it and even argues that the government traps people in poverty–that’s still no excuse for not pushing our government to aggressively act to reduce poverty and homelessness. If they do it badly, make them do it better. They can call their critics ‘divas’ or ‘have little understanding of Scripture’ or ‘don’t recognize the post-birth efforts of Right to Life agencies’–the bottom line is they have failed to demonstrate genuine, broad-based, public efforts to diminish these human tragedies and I am convinced they will never achieve the support of most sincere Christians while they continue to turn a blind eye to everything except their own soapbox issues. Ask any secular person on the street if they personally know a conservative Christian. If they do, then ask them what issues that conservative Christian has expressed concern for. I guarantee it won’t be poverty or homelessness. The sad truth is, if conservative Christians would band together with mainline Christians (while not surrendering their conservative beliefs) to target these shared concerns regarding the public neglect of the poor and homeless–then something good that all Christians believe in could be achieved. As it is, all we do is throw stones back and forth at each other.

  • Noteworthy that the personal insults toward Marilynne Robinson all come from men.

  • “Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of the controversies themselves. My own denomination (the United Church of Christ), has blessed same-sex relationships … so when you read in the newspaper that there are people calling down brimstone, it’s startling.”

    Right. She is startled to hear that Christians have been calling down brimstone on gay rights for decades. Of course.

    She either lives in a state of extreme ignorance and denial or she is… Well, let’s be charitable and assume she’s merely ignorant of what her religion has been doing on the ground while her head has been in the clouds.

    As to the “authenticity” of the controversy… She could try talking to some gay people and finding out just how authentic the hatred from her Christian cohorts is and always has been.

    “Progressive” Christians. Who needs ’em? At least the right-wing fundamentalists are sentient beings. Robinson seems to have the awareness level of a tree.

  • At the start of the interview, she says:

    “I do think in both cases it’s a little bit unChristian to have thinking and behavior governed by fear.”

    Um, what? She’s read the New Testament and certainly Calvin’s Institutes – they both are repeatedly clear that the whole religion of Christianity is based on the manufactured fear of an imaginary Hell. How could she have missed that fear is the central point? If there was no fear of Hell, then Christ’s self-inflicted sacrifice of himself to himself was pointless.

  • Wow, Jon.Leaving aside the very real existence of Hell (unless you would have us believe Jesus was a liar), let me ask you a question:Why is the fear of death so universal? Who manufactored”said fear, Jon? Should this very real fear be considered imaginary? The depths of your ignorance of the true nature of The Saviour’s advent is beyond astonishing; If you’re not intractably closed-minded, perusal of a good systematic theology tome might actually foster a modicum of enlightenment on this issue, because as one who is intimately acquainted with the Christian faith, I can assure you, it was NOT fear of Hell that brought me to Christ.It was His.LOVE. God so loved the world, Jon-Peace & Love in Him!!

  • Like her interviewer I have been fascinated with MR’s enthusiasm for calvinism, and I was sorry her response to the question about this was so brief. Would Calvin have recognized her calivinism, which seems to limit human sinfulness to societal issues such as poverty and homelessness? Her seeming dismissal of concerns about abortion and sexuality suggest she does not see sin as a relevant concept in these internsely hunan areas. This seems out of synch with the New Testament, let alone calvinism.

    Having ssid all this, I must add I find Gilead and her other novels simply inspiring. Can’t wait for Lela.

  • I agree with you up to a point. But the hypocrisy cuts both ways, of course. If conservative Christians “urgently” want government to act on their principles regarding abortion and gay marriage then progressives do not hesitate to respond that religion has no place in this debate. Funnily, however, they NEVER make this objection to faith-based efforts to increase government spending on poverty–and will themselves trot out the relevant scriptures if necessary. It seems that religion is acceptable in the public sphere only where it might open someone’s wallet for the funding of programs that keep Democratic votes coming in; otherwise, out with it entirely.

  • MR’s comments are generally quite gracious toward others and respectful of scripture. The dismissive tone throughout the interview and the platitude about eating oysters almost don’t sound like her. I guess I find her limiting of morality to the care for the poor (an essential Christian obligation) to be a narrowing of religious possibility, something I would imagine she might lament. It seems that truth should be generally accepted on its own terms. I love MR and her writing. I love her defense of the vulnerable. I love her insistence on honoring each person. I feel like here she was speaking to the questions offered, which were not entirely thoughtful, and her impatience seems to reflect that. Still, a pretty disappointing offering from one of the great religious minds of our time.

  • Nothing noteworthy about that at all. Foolishness being called out has nothing to do with gender.

  • Amen to that, Diane. I suspect those who call her a “big windbag” and a “haughty diva” feel personally threatened for reasons they can’t or don’t care to articulate. No one spouts puerile insults unless he feels cornered.

  • I have recently just picked up one of her non fiction books, a collection of essays called The Death of Adam. I find her writing exquisite and thought-provoking. As a Biblical Christian, I have for years learned to put all things through the Biblical prism and arrive at my conclusion based on whether the material/piece is Biblical, that is, true or not. However, I find her Calvinism to be a tad too philosophical and not as Biblically deep as really is. I don’t think that Calvin would be so welcoming to the ideal of same-sex marriage being the theologian he was. The Bible is not ambivalent about the issue. It is a sin.

    MR seems to have a lot more concern about the plight of the poor, and that is certainly a valid concern, but the unborn are also of concern. Their “unborn” status does not mean they have not yet been created by God. The birth process is not what determines (in Biblical terms) whether an individual is one or not. I am surprised by her naive understanding about this given the fact that she appears to be a sound and deep thinker.

    I am a bit disappointed about her liberalism on the issues discussed in the interview, and though I don’t seek to malign her, I find her views lacking. But in my faith walk with Jesus Christ, I have learned not to make people more than what the are; not to make them infallible. People are not God and we all have limited understanding.

  • just goes to show most people can’t understand the artists’ sensibility. Imagination, folks: it’s as essential a limb as arms and legs.

    What Is The Purpose Of Life?
    That Answer? The only purpose befitting this lofty position is: Dedication to the goal of becoming a species of Self Determining Individuals, thereby fulfilling the mission too which we were created.

    Isn’t it amazing that it was not necessary to climb mountains, swim oceans, or seek out the remote cave, of the wisest of ancient sages, in order to solve mans most perplexing mystery.

    Revealed in the first few words of the worlds most published and widely distributed book, the answer, awaiting acknowledgement, has resided from day one within the heart of every person who has ever pondered the question.

    In keeping with this philosophy, it is my conviction that

    The moment a dominant portion of mankind finally shakes the dependence upon religious interpretations of God, thereby acknowledging our parentage;

    Accepts our good fortune, thereby recognizing the fact that far more is expected, with far greater rewards, of sons and daughters than is expected of servants;

    Assumes the attendant responsibilities,

    The Human Race Will Have Stepped Into An Unobstructed Universe!

    This I Have Done; in addition to the rejection of the Christian contention, that I was conceived in sin, and born of iniquity!
    Sex Necessarily Perpetuates The Creation, Thus Fulfilling Our Creators Plan!

    Indebted to neither alter nor throne for my existence, I, a unique Son, individually created in the image and after the likeness of my Creator, am dependant upon neither clergy nor governor, for either salvation or justification!

    Therefore, I am not required to fall on my face, get on my knees, contact a priest, nor either join or be added too any religious body, for the purpose of either establishing communication, or enjoying the endowments, inherent of family.

    Wherever I find myself, regardless of circumstances, through special entitlement, one of the endowments of my unique status, requires only that I, through thought, open a direct line!

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.