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Interview: Marilynne Robinson on the Language of Faith in Writing

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

What are you afraid of? That’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson asks writers who shy away from writing about faith.

The beloved author has won accolades after writing so openly about belief, but it remains a subject few other writers take on.

“It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent,” Diane Johnson wrote in her New York Times review of Robinson’s latest book, Lila, which was released Oct. 7.

Like its predecessors Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), the new novel takes place in a 1950s Iowa town and focuses on minister John Ames and his family. The story is told from the perspective of his wife — and later, widow — Lila.

Robinson has been able reach varied audiences. A member of the liberal United Church of Christ, she is far from holding up ideals put forward by the religious right, but that hasn’t stopped conservative Christians from engaging with her writing. Earlier, she spoke with Religion News Service about guns, gay marriage, and Calvinism.

Before giving an address at Union Theological Seminary last spring, Robinson also spoke about the tensions between faith and writing. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

A Tempest in Arizona

Banned book, "Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years"

TECHNICALLY, the Tucson Unified School District did not ban any books after the Dec. 27, 2011, state court ruling that upheld the Arizona Education Department’s order finding the Mexican American Studies program illegal. But in January, the school district removed from classrooms seven books it said were referenced in the ruling and put them into remote storage. The district, according to Roque Planas of Fox News Latino, also “implemented a series of restrictions ranging from outright prohibition of some books from classrooms, to new approval requirements for supplemental texts, and vague instructions regarding how texts may be taught.”

Former Mexican American Studies teachers have been instructed to not use their former curricula or instruct students to apply perspectives dealing with race, ethnicity, or Mexican American history. So, for example, Shakespeare’s The Tempest can still be taught—but former Mexican American Studies instructors have been advised to avoid discussion of oppression or race (which have long been taught as themes of the play, even in predominantly white classrooms many miles removed from Tucson).

The following seven titles were cited by the Tucson school board as part of a curriculum “in violation of state law”:

1. Critical Race Theory, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
2. 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, edited by Elizabeth Martínez
3. Message to Aztlán, by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles
4. Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement, by F. Arturo Rosales
5. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña
6. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
7. Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, edited by Bill Bigelow

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SOJOURNERS EXCLUSIVE: Salman Rushdie at #OccupyWallStreet

Sunday afternoon in Lower Manhattan, I ran into Salman Rushdie, who was walking nonchalantly through Zuccotti Park with his son. The renowned author's presence went largely unnoticed by the thousands of protesters, media and tourists crowding the park observing the Occupation demonstration.

On his way out of the park, Rushdie graciously took a few moments to talk with me about what he'd just witnessed. It was his first visit to the demonstrations and he was clearly moved by what he saw.

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