Marilynne Robinson should know better

Like most seminary graduates and all theologians, I have long loved Marilynne Robinson. I read Gilead in the summer of 2005 and The Death of Adam shortly thereafter, and the deep affection created in those encounters has never left me. I have heard her speak on more than one occasion—at a church of Christ university and at Yale Divinity School, my two worlds colliding—and she was nothing but gracious, eloquent, and compelling in her anointed role as liberal Christian public intellectual. God give us more Marilynne Robinsons.

The beauty of her writing, her thought, and her public presence makes all the more painful the increasingly evident internal contradiction at the heart of her work. Others, with greater depth and insight than I am capable of offering here, have drawn attention to a related set of issues; see especially the reviews of her most recent volume of essays by Micah Meadowcroft, James K. A. Smith, B. D. McClay, Doug Sikkema, and Wesley Hill (alongside the earlier critique of Alan Jacobs, and the brief reflection yesterday by Bryan McGraw). The specific issue I am thinking of is not her inattention to original sin or total depravity, or the way in which such a lacuna is a serious misrepresentation of the Reformed tradition; or the way in which her politics is more or less a down-the-line box-checking of the Democratic National Committee, plus God and minus chronological snobbery; or how her public friendship with Barack Obama veers weirdly toward the obeisant—as if the former President did not order hundreds of drone strikes or deport millions of illegal immigrants or grant legal immunity to members of the CIA who engaged in torture under the previous administration or...

These and other matters are all worthy of interrogation and critique. What I'm interested in is her fundamental lack of charity or empathy toward people with whom she disagrees, namely red-state Christians, particularly those who voted for or continue to support Donald Trump.

Robinson is a novelist. The novelist's modus operandi is to create and embody the lives of human beings from the inside, human beings who are by definition not the author, whose beliefs and deeds are neither necessarily good nor necessarily defensible nor even necessarily consistent with one another. Moreover, Robinson has taken this deep attention to difference in the irreducible diversity of human affairs and applied it to history, recommending to others that they resist the thought-terminating prejudices of common cliche and instead offer to historically disreputable groups and personages the same benefit of doubt they would hope to be given themselves. Moses and Paul, Calvin and Cromwell, the Lollards and the Puritans: all are set within their original social and cultural context, judged by standards available at the time, compared to peers rather than progeny, permitted above all to be complex, conscientious, fallible, fallen, gloriously human members of one and the same species as the rest of us.

Comes the question: Why not use this same hermeneutic on the Repugnant Cultural Other that is the Trump-voting red-state would-be evangelical Christian? For, to use Alan Jacobs's term, that is what such a person is for Robinson. Doubtless such a person, and such a group, deserve robust criticism. They need not be treated with either paternalism or condescension. Say what you think, and give reasons why those with whom you disagree are wrong.

But Robinson does not take even one proverbial second to imagine the motivations or emotions or experiences of such people, or to consider how they might have been formed, or to what extent, if at all, they might be legitimate, whatever they popular expression in national politics or cable news. She does not step into their shoes. She does not even appear to imagine that they have shoes to step in. They are shoeless ciphers, a caricature without flesh and blood. And so she can, without irony, slander them in an essay on slander and Fox News; or question their Christian identity while challenging their recourse to drawing lines around orthodoxy; or treat them as a monolithic bloc in paeans to individualism; or castigate them as a group without showing knowledge of literate representation of their views, while wringing her hands about reading primary texts and avoiding capitulation to popular prejudice. Is there any popular prejudice more culturally acceptable in 2018 than dismissing all Republicans south of the Mason-Dixon line as bigoted dummies feigning faith as cover for benighted tribalism?

I am neither an evangelical nor a Republican nor a Trump voter. But I've lived in Texas, Georgia, and Connecticut, in major urban areas as well as "Trump country," with extended family spread out across the South and friends distributed along the Acela corridor. Robinson embodies the smug disdain common to all right-thinking people for folks I've counted and continue to count as neighbors, elders, family members, and fellow believers. More than anyone, Robinson should know that disagreement and critique, however fierce, are not obstacles to love—to the considerate love that generates attention, subtlety, and fellow feeling, without thereby obviating difference or conflict.

She should know better. She owes us more.


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