When I Was a Child I Read Books, By Marilynne Robinson

Education, education, education

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The Independent Culture

We live today in a political environment "characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather", Marilynne Robinson states at the beginning of this collection of essays about faith, fiction and what it means to be a human being – themes also present in her novels Gilead and Home. Few would disagree about the wolfishness or the blather, but what do we do about it?

The "march of Austerity" sweeping away all that "may be called humane"; the misrepresentation of religion as a "crude explanatory strategy"; the urge to pathologise loneliness or sorrow; Christian practitioners' denunciation of the Old Testament ("how it has come about that we consider ourselves victimized for having made inappropriate use of someone else's scriptures"); the power and necessity of grand narratives; the "narrative of decline" in which her country is indulging: at first glance, these concerns suggest a conservative who is nervous of "progress" and anti-Enlightenment at heart. Even more so when she reminds us of the American constitution's "freedom from established religion, from state-sponsored religion ..." This is the cry of the gun-toting US conservative wanting the state to keep its nose out of her affairs. But then Robinson reminds us of her so-called capitalist nation's state-run postal system, public education system, social security and the Homestead Act: all redistributions of wealth "meant to benefit the population at large".

Robinson's country is at a political and moral crossroads, so she wants to remind her readers of its history, what it stood for and how far away it has moved from its founding principles. And if one is going to save anything, what better means than to employ the language and the theme of saving that the Christian religion offers?

Atheism and agnosticism can't offer that prospect; they they lack the adequate grandeur to describe the miraculousness of what it means to be a human being. Robinson refuses to rate the "drama" in Freud and Darwin; their violence, the "primordial patricide and cannibalism" are not adequate enough to explain the mystery of human nature, its tractability, and how we can be persuaded "of absolutely anything, at whatever cost". The flipside of such tractability is our openness to education, and in the final reckoning it's education that Robinson advocates on every page. More education, more reading, more knowledgeable debate. For thinking Christians such as her, recent years have been depressing indeed, in which she has witnessed the hijacking of religious debate by right-wing simplicities as well as serious atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

Her rhetoric is of the gentle, thoughtful kind that nevertheless hides a rapier, which she unleashes just when she needs it. Mary Wollstonecraft was once insultingly called a "hyena in petticoats" by a man who felt threatened by her intellect. Like Wollstonecraft, Robinson's intellect, too, is threatening. And if it can threaten us into action, is all the greater for that.

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