The Library of Congress’ National Book Festival featured more than 100 authors, but Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilynne Robinson (and Nobel Literature Prize dark horse — but I have my fingers crossed) was my clear highlight. She spoke for an hour with The Washington Post’s Book World editor, Ron Charles, about her newest novel Lila, public discourse on religion, and why we’ll never get to read any of her sermons.
In one of his first questions to Robinson, Charles asked why she seems to be one of the few contemporary American novelists who depict religion in a positive light.
It’s true, she said. With the proliferation of the out-of-touch pastors and abusive priests in our national literature, an observer would think that Americans are an irreligious bunch. But many Americans have a deeply-treasured friendship with a minister.
“It is part of our national character to ridicule what we value,” she said.
“And this makes it difficult to articulate what we actually value.”
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.
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.
As you make your winter reading list or shop for gifts, consider these 2013 books from Sojourners magazine staff and contributors. Or, buy yourself a gift for 2014.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
How is it possible that the creative life can feel simultaneously self-giving and narcissistic? On the one hand, the artist, or musician, or writer has a gift that not everyone has. And because paintings and songs and books give other people great joy – and might even change their lives — those gifts must be shared. But that means the artist herself must be shared, and that’s the problem.
For the artist, self-expression is unavoidable – it is part of the job description. As a songwriter, my raw material is the world as I observe it. That’s all I’ve got. The most realistic painter or sculptor still has to rely on his own vision. Even as a journalist, I have to draw upon my five senses, my own mind and my own experiences. Even as I tell someone else’s story, it is in part my story. I can’t tell your story without filtering it through my story; it’s how we make sense of new information. I’m only human, after all.
"I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors," Ebert writes. "I think what happens in them is sociopolitical, not spiritual. I believe the prosperity gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I believe it is easier for a Republican to pass through the eye of a needle than for a camel to get into heaven. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively.
"I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me," he continued. "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve."
This creative writing club in Gugulethu, a township 10 miles outside Cape Town, South Africa, drew together nearly two dozen expressive girls, ages 13 through 20, each week for a year. With the help of a prompt -- a phrase or a short piece of writing to get started -- together the girls and I wrote. Like athletes in training, we built up from an initial three minutes of writing to, eventually, 20 minutes and sometimes longer when they asked for more time. Then we would go around the circle where we sat and read aloud what each of us wrote.
One week, the girls collectively wrote their manifesto (below), and staged a reading when the Flip camera came out. Then Sharon added her own contribution, "Proudly South African" (to hear her read, click here). She's now enrolled in her first year studying psychology at the University of Cape Town. I'm secretly hoping she switches to journalism.
I was not one of the 1,500 who attended the inaugural Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, North Carolina last month, but I did grow up going to Christian summer camp. What’s the connection, you ask, between a festival and summer camp? Summer camp -- like festivals and extended retreats -- is often deeply formative because it gives kids (and adult counselors, for that matter) a glimpse at a kingdom lifestyle.