Fiction

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 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. 

The Bible, Costco, and Fiction: On Foolish Christians and Multiplying Hot Dogs

Nicholas Eckhart/flickr
Costco recently apologized for placing "fiction" stickers on Bibles. Nicholas Eckhart/flickr

The religion section of The Huffington Post published an article on Tuesday about how some Christians are responding to Costco. Unfortunately, it wasn’t about how Christians are celebrating the fact that this big-box store not only makes a profit and actually pays its employees a living wage.

That, after all, would be Good News.

No. These Christians have their panties in a bunch because Costco had Bibles labeled as fiction.

*Gasp*

Works of Economic Fiction

JAMES DOBSON and Kurt Bruner get three things right in their recent novels Fatherless and Childless: Euthanasia is wrong, married couples should make time to have hot sex, and stay-at-home moms should get some respect.

Pretty much everything else in the novels, the first two-thirds of a trilogy (book three, Godless, is due out in May 2014), is way off and internally incoherent. The plot starts in 2042, when an aging population and economic malaise have motivated the government to legalize euthanasia. Businessman Kevin Tolbert, recently elected to Congress, lectures his peers about the need to stop euthanasia and encourage parenthood in order to revive the economy. His wife Angie’s high school friend Julia Davidson, an allegedly progressive and feminist reporter, is assigned to write a story about him (lecture alert). Meanwhile Kevin and Angie struggle (with mercifully few lectures) with their third child’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. Subplots deal with a disabled teen and an elderly dementia victim who turn (or are pushed) to euthanasia.

Actual euthanasia, as disability-rights groups such as Not Dead Yet have documented, often turns on society defining “dignity” according to physical ability and health instead of the innate value of a human being. These novels, however, ask us to believe the main impetus for euthanasia would come from the drive to reduce the federal deficit, to deal with “swelling entitlement spending.”

What spending? The novels’ elderly and disabled characters are drawn or pushed toward euthanasia because of family financial troubles: There is no mention of any Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid help going to any of them.

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Children of the Street

INTRIGUING AND believable characters are part of what makes Janna McMahan’s new novel Anonymitya memorable read. Through the story, which is set in Austin, Texas, the author provides a well-constructed and evenly paced plot that brings to light critical themes around home and homelessness.

Early in the story we discover classic contrasts between the two protagonists. Lorelei is a young, homeless runaway whose daily grind revolves around finding food and a warm, safe place to sleep, while Emily’s major mission centers on branching out from her bartending job to take up a more artistic endeavor as a photographer. One buys organic greens from the high-end Whole Foods Market, while the other seeks sustenance in restaurant dumpsters.

This interesting juxtaposition of characters reels us in. But as we swim through the thickening plot, we discover the startling similarities between the two: Lorelei’s rebelliousness and grit compared to Emily’s disdain for the superficial lifestyle of big-box shopping and Corpus Christi vacations; Lorelei’s refusal to seek help and get off the streets weighed against Emily’s desire to break from the overindulgence she grew up around. As Emily’s mother, Barbara, observes, “Emily liked the frayed edges of life, a little dirt in the cracks.” It should come as no surprise that Emily takes an interest in Lorelei’s hardscrabble existence.

So much about Lorelei remains a mystery, which serves to add tension and compel the reader forward. We sense she is searching for something, and there’s no way to prepare for the powerful punch McMahan delivers when we discover what Lorelei’s quest is about.

At the same time, we follow Emily on a kind of hunt of her own—a hunt for freedom from the status quo as she attempts to separate herself from materialistic parents and a society that insists happiness requires a college degree, a high-paying job, marriage, and children.

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Our Dolls, Our Selves

WHEN MY DAUGHTER, Jessica, was 7 years old, some of her best friends had American Girl dolls, so of course she desperately needed one as well. We asked three or four family members to chip in—these were expensive dolls—and got her one for Christmas.

Her doll, “Addy,” came with a story, as did each in the American Girl line. Addy and her mother had escaped from slavery in the American South, and they “followed the drinking gourd” north to Philadelphia, where they were eventually reunited with the rest of Addy’s family. It was a gripping story, especially for a 7-year-old. And the fact that Addy was about my daughter’s age made it all the easier for her to connect.

“It wasn’t so much that I learned ‘facts’” about slavery and race from the Addy stories, Jessica, now 27, told me recently, “but they made it all more personal. Addy was young, like me—I could relate to it.”

Other women who grew up with the dolls echoed that sense of connection with the various American Girl stories. Janelle Tupper, campaigns assistant at Sojourners, was around 7 when she received the “Kirsten” doll, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S. “My most distinct memory from the stories was that, on the boat, her best friend dies of cholera,” Tupper said. “Reading that passage was pretty devastating to me as a kid.” Other books in the American Girl series addressed issues of the day, from child labor to women’s suffrage. And while Tupper said she wasn’t aware as a child of the social justice themes in the stories—“I was just imagining life in the different time periods through the eyes of a character I identified with”—she now sees the series as addressing “societal change in terms that an 8- year-old can understand, often told through the characters’ friendships and family stories.”

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Feeding our Imagination

CRITICS HAVE BEMOANED the lack of fiction centered on climate change, which seems to mirror our public sluggishness about this scientific reality. But two recent novels, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior (Harper) and Lauren Groff's Arcadia (Voice), artfully integrate climate change into their plotlines, weaving scientific truth about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. Just as compelling, both works of fiction feature spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.

Flight Behavior is a lyrical story set in rural Tennessee with the fiercely intelligent Dellarobia Turnbow as the main character. She encounters a vast sea of monarch butterflies that seem to have taken a wrong turn on their migratory path, a result of a miracle—or a warming planet. Journalists, ecologists, and locals speculate about the misplaced monarchs. In an impassioned but measured plea for the land, the local pastor invokes a biblical mandate for creation care.

In Arcadia, climate change doesn't enter the narrative until the conclusion of the story, which is the tale of an intentional community started in the 1960s. The central character, Bit Stone, returns to a failed commune in upstate New York, where he grew up, to care for his ailing mother. Set in 2018, the dystopian conclusion is marked by climate change and global pandemics, but the values of the original spiritual community set up a struggle between the desire for freedom and the creation of shared life.

Reading both books, I could imagine myself inhabiting these worlds, in ways more personal than when I read a news report about global warming. Fiction allows us to live into a reality relevant to our time and to visualize our own reactions to the events on the page.

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Blessed Fiction

Glorybound, by Jessie van Eerden. WordFarm.
A luminous debut novel that features two sisters shaped by family estrangement and holiness faith in a hard-scrabble West Virginia mining town.

Hold It 'Til It Hurts, by T. Geronimo Johnson. Coffee House Press.
This debut novel and 2013 PEN/Faulkner-award nominee follows an African-American combat vet in his search for his missing sibling, a journey tangled with the fallout of war and race.

The Mirrored World, by Debra Dean. Harper.
A reimagining of the life of an 18th century Russian saint, Xenia of St. Petersburg, set against the excesses of the royal court.

Benediction, by Kent Haruf. Knopf.
An elderly man in a small Colorado town receives a terminal diagnosis, and the intricacies of human community are revealed in the stories of the people who gather around him.

Pastors' Wives, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. Plume/Penguin.
Inspired by reporting the author did as a former Time writer, this debut novel explores the stories of three women whose lives converge at a Southern megachurch.

Good Kings Bad Kings, by Susan Nussbaum. Algonquin.
This winner of the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a look at life in a Chicago institution for adolescents with disabilities.

—Compiled by Julie Polter

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And Now for Something Different

WHEN A COLLEAGUE told me Sojourners had received a review copy of the latest Thursday Next novel by Jasper Fforde, I was delighted—and confused. My delight came because I’m a huge fan of the series, whose protagonist Thursday lives in an alternate-reality U.K. and, in previous novels, has worked for Jurisfiction, the policing agency within fiction. My favorite scene was when, several novels back, she helped Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham moderate an anger management group in Wuthering Heights, set up to keep it from going the way of “that once gentle comedy of manners, ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

However, it was unclear why anyone would send a book from this series to a Christian social justice-oriented magazine. My best guess, as I gleefully devoured The Woman Who Died A Lot, was that some hilariously over-optimistic publicist thought we’d be interested in the novel’s subplot in which God reveals Godself by smiting various cities with columns of fire—sometimes in response to sin, sometimes to “unimaginative architecture, poor restaurants, or even an overly aggressive parking fine regime.” Thursday’s hometown of Swindon is next on the smite list, possibly to increase God’s bargaining position against the locally based Global Standard Deity church. The GSD, having unified the world’s religions, plans to use its “collective bargaining powers” to open formal negotiations with God, starting with the question, “What, precisely, is the point of all this?”

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A Little Climate Change Pleasure Reading

Man reading in the park, dragon_fang / Shutterstock.com
Man reading in the park, dragon_fang / Shutterstock.com

This winter, fiction revealed truth about climate change.  

As a teacher, I relish the escape provided by pleasure reading before I return to the classroom for the next semester at Warren Wilson College, where I teach environmental education. 

In December, without reading reviews or making a list, I visited my independent bookstore, Malaprop’s and purchased two books: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012) and Lauren Groff’s Arcadia (2012). I’m a long-time Kingsolver fan and bought her book as a gift, with the goal of reading it before wrapping it. And the cover of Arcadia, with its teal VW bus and field of sunflowers, drew me into purchasing what I thought was my second random choice for recreational reading. 

Both books, it turns out, integrated climate change into the plotline, weaving scientific truths about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. And just as compelling, both works of fiction featured spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants. 

Of note, critics have bemoaned the lack of fiction centered on climate change, a paucity that seemed to mirror our public denial of this scientific reality. In a 2010 blog on openDemocracy, professor and author Andrew Dobson even outlined the components of a  “climate-change novel” that include a grim future, characters who explore ethical choices around global warming, and (no surprise here) extreme weather events. He ended his piece with this challenge: “So there’s the recipe. Who’s going to write the book?” 

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