The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015, 304 pages)
Not only is Marilynne Robinson one of the most important contemporary American novelists, she’s probably one of our most important political and theological thinkers. It’s good to know that she has the ear of people like President Obama, who cites her novel Gilead as a favorite and has also quoted her essay “Fear” (included in this collection) at public events. Robinson has a real love for America – a love for the theology that shaped it and the democratic ideals that it so often betrays.
These essays see Robinson covering much of the ground that she has covered in other essays. First, there is John Calvin and North America’s Calvinistic heritage. The chapter “Proofs” is a particularly good reflection on the nature of the mystery and sacredness of creation in Calvin’s thought. Next there are the failures of American democracy. “Fear” is a provocative reflection on an American approach to gun control laws, which Robinson characterizes as “cowardice.” Also, there is the phenomenon of human consciousness and the poverty of so much reductionistic science. “Givenness” looks to the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards to critique certain attitudes in neuroscience. As usual, Robinson’s deep reserve of historical knowledge is brought to bear with eloquence and wit to address very pressing contemporary problems.
One of the features of this collection that I was excited to see was Robinson’s extended treatments of Shakespeare. As far as I can remember none of her other published essays have done so, except perhaps in passing. Shakespeare was the subject of her doctoral research, and yet it is only now that she has begun to explore his plays. Not surprisingly, her take is theological. She sees the plays, especially the later plays, as serious and brilliant engagements with the theological controversies of the Reformation.
There is no contemporary writer that I enjoy reading more than Robinson. True, her lengthy sentences and implied connections between topics can make for difficult reading. These essays require attention and reflection. However, the work pays off when you stumble across beautiful statements like these:
“Touch a limit of your understanding and it falls away, to reveal mystery upon mystery.”
“Grace is the great variable that puts any reckoning of fault or merit very far beyond human competence.”
“I have lived long enough to chalk up to age inadequacies that have been with me the whole of my conscious life.”