Why Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist, Doesn't Fear Fox News
"Bill Moyers would have loved your talk and Fox News would have debunked it. How do you expect to have credibility among conservative evangelicals?"
The question was pitched contentiously from the front of the auditorium at Calvin College, while I sat further back, waving my arms, Hermione Granger-style, hoping to have the chance to ask Marilynne Robinson a teensy question about a character from her acclaimed novel Housekeeping. As is usual for me when I hear what might be taken for fighting words, I became chilled, and trembled a little. In short, I felt afraid.
Robinson wasn't. Without a hint of the fear that I felt simply as one who admires her greatly, even too well, Robinson said:
"The only obligation I recognize is to say what I believe to be true [ … ] and to say it with kindness. I believe that is how a Christian conversation should proceed."
The audience broke into applause. Later, by chance, I passed the questioner outside, where he was still fuming into his cell phone about Bill Moyers and Fox News.
In the preface to her newest book, a collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and essayist, suggests that Americans have "ceased to aspire to Democracy," the kind of spirit that gave rise to laws like the ones in seventeenth-century Maryland forbidding the use of the words "papist" (Catholic) or "round-head" (Puritan), "fighting words in the Old World." Today, Robinson argues, "it is seen as un-American [ … ] to reject participation in the bitter excitements that can surround religious difference." The subject of her talk at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing was the fear that accompanies these discussions and the "increasing normalization" of fear more generally.
Fear is unChristian, says Robinson. Calvinists—Robinson identifies herself as such—have been said to "fear God and nothing else." Yet Americans—and perhaps especially, religious Americans—can't seem to get over the idea that we are under attack. "We're stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters," says Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. "Why not enjoy it?" said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle. More soberly, she argued that fear—and people feeling "justified in fear"—leads to violence in the form of "preemptive self-defense." Perhaps this kind of statement is what leads some people—not least, her most recent New York Timesreviewer—to label her a "liberal Christian." But Robinson's argument is at least as theological as it is political: