Writing

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.

Stopped Cold By A Pepsi Can

Costi Iosif / Shutterstock.com

Costi Iosif / Shutterstock.com

Let me tell you about the time I got re-directed by a Pepsi can.

It happened a few years ago. I’d started rethinking a lot of things about my life — what I wanted to accomplish with it, how God played into all of it — and decided to write my thoughts as I went along.

Eventually I got the idea that I could package my writing into a book that might help others who are going through the same things. Writers fantasize about some day having a best-seller; maybe this would be mine. I wrote and wrote and wrote and stepped back one day and read all of it and realized something.

It was awful.

I’m not so good at this type of writing. Expressing thoughts and feelings is a lot harder than reporting on events. Words are so inadequate. It’s so easy to cross the line between being helpful and being insufferable. At times, I sounded like a pompous ass.

So, what to do?

I went back and rewrote. And rewrote again. I decided to try to make it breezier and more conversational — that’ll do the trick. I read it again and realized that I now sounded like a breezy, pompous ass.

It’s called writer’s block, and it felt like a dead end. Maybe I should wait a few years and try again then. Hit define and delete, give up the struggle and move on. That seemed like the best thing to do. Stop trying to create for now.

I went jogging to mull it over.

It was a beautiful autumn evening with a wonderful, warm breeze out of the south. I’d just finished my jog and was walking around the block to cool down, enjoying the wind on my sweaty face, when a sound got my attention.

Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

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When A Viral Blog Post Doesn't Change Much Of Anything

And guess what? It didn’t really change anything. I still don’t have agents and publishers knocking down my doors. I still get fewer than five comments on most of my blog posts. “Why I am a Christian Democrat” still brings in a fair amount of traffic; it is almost always one of the most popular posts on my blog. But otherwise, my writing life today is very much the same as it was back in October 2012. I write here a few times a week. I guest post for friends’ and colleagues’ blogs. Without a solid idea for another book, I’m focusing on getting articles and blog posts published by print and online magazines, including the Christian Century and Sojourners.

The Mythical World of Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy novels, cdrummbks / Flickr.com

Tom Clancy novels, cdrummbks / Flickr.com

The books of Tom Clancy, who passed away this week, contain some of the most detailed description of military weaponry and procedures the public is likely to see. And people want to believe it: Clancy’s world is one in which technology can provide security and the so-called experts can be trusted to protect us. He takes a complex world and doesn’t merely simplify it, but rather creates super humans and super machines that can manage the world’s complexities.

Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

More on the Beautiful Stupidity of Writing (Part 2)

Photo: Man thinking at typewriter, Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Photo: Man thinking at typewriter, Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Yesterday I wrote the first article in this series of posts on why it is that I write. Today I’ll jump ahead to the so-called more “successful” period of my writing work.

I got my first book deal back in 2006, and it came, like everything else, by way of rejection.

I had this great idea to publish a collection of my spoken word poetry in book form in a way that helped worship leaders and preachers incorporate them liturgically into worship services. Little did I know at the time that the word “poetry” is pretty much a four-letter word in publishing, particularly when you narrow your market down to mainline worship leaders to begin with. Top it off with the fact that people kind of have to have a natural sense of how to read the pieces aloud to make them work and … well, it was a stupid idea.

Fortunately for me, the proposal ended up in the hands of an editor who liked my writing style, even if my proposal was crap.

The Beautiful Stupidity of Writing (Part 1)

Photo: Writer, © Sergey856 / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Writer, © Sergey856 / Shutterstock.com

I’ve been asked how I knew I was called to be a writer. For me, calling is fairly easy to recognize. If the thought of doing something fills you with equal parts joy and terror, it’s probably a calling. 

There’s more to it than that, I suppose, since the idea of buying a new Tesla sports car fills me with both feelings too, mostly because my wife, Amy, would kill me. There are other elements, like the conviction that our calling should feel something of an identifiable need in the world, and that it should call on gifts we have in a way that is life-giving not just to others, but joyful and life-affirming for us as well.

But the joy and terror thing is a pretty good sign you’re on the right track.

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