Though I have loved Marilynne Robinson’s award-winning fiction over the years, I hope she is remembered for her theological and philosophical writings. I binge-read all her books several years ago, so I was excited to try her latest collection of essays. The Givenness of Things is billed as a collection of essays, but there is a lot of overlapping material (mainly on the Reformation) which keeps it from feeling topical. The only aspect which doesn’t quite fit is the reprinting of her conversation with President Barack Obama originally published in the New York Review of Books September 2015. Mainly The Givenness of Things is a second look at the Reformation and many of the assumption we have about our Protestant forefathers when it comes to their investment in culture and literature, as well as the ripple effects that Protestantism and Puritanism have had on America. In other words, Robinson is questioning historians’ tendency to separate church and state, religion and culture, renaissance and reformation. Other topics include the loss of interest in humanities in the 21st century, the gun control debate, her stance on Calvinism, religious persecution, and the societal consequences of putting all our faith in neuroscience and metaphysics.
To appreciate Robinson’s essays here, or at least to have any interest in them, it would help to have basic knowledge of the late Middle Ages to the Reformation – the key players and the literature. I read Piers the Ploughman in high school, along with Pericles, Prince of Tyre and some of the obscurer Shakespeare mentioned, the KJV Bible, and, as a protestant, I know the basics of Calvin, Luther, Wycliffe, etc. Robinson does a good job of explaining her topics in detail, but without some basic knowledge her essays might be hard to follow. Still, her writings are more based in historical fact than theology, so I think anyone can enjoy The Givenness of Things, no matter their religious beliefs. She starts the book off with an essay titled “Humanism”, where she defends the humanities in an age of multiverses and the internet. Technological advancements have changed the way we learn, changed our concept of learning. In this opening essay, Robinson is defending the value of “thought” as opposed to “fact” as something uniquely human.
From here she moves into the Lollards, Shakespeare, and the continental Puritans, where she camps out for several essays discussing the literary and cultural significance of the spread of accessible information which was the heart of the reform. In “Reformation” through “Decline” (six essays) she questions history’s narrow view of the cultural upheaval of the fight for religious freedom throughout Europe and into America. She looks at Shakespeare in a refreshing light, as a single man with ideals and beliefs. She examines the divide between the lower and upper social classes as portrayed in Piers Ploughman, and the birth of modern language as we know it through translations of not just the Bible, but poetry, literature, and theological essays, into vernacular German, French, and English. Robinson’s topics are questions that she is asking, parts of history that she is investigating. So instead of feeling “educated” by her while reading the essays, you rather feel like you are discovering the questions and answers alongside of her.
The theme of “reform” continues through the next few essay, but she moves from continental Europe to the US. Covering everything from the danger of fads and trends to economic theories, she continues to look at modern American society through the lens of the Reformation. In “Fear,” originally published in New York Review of Books, and the only reprinted essay in the collection, she tackles a rather controversial issue – gun control. She postulates that the fearful, reactionary American contradicts the Christian theology Americans claims to have. “..first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved…” As the essays go on, Robinson moves from history and theology towards Biblical texts and the modern American mind, returning to some topics from her previous book, The Absence of Mind. The collection of essays culminates in the reprinting of her conversation with President Obama. It seems a bit out of place, in that its conversation format does not jive with the depth of her essays, but thematically it works. Robinson is one of Obama’s favorite authors, a fact which, after having read The Givenness of Things, does not really surprise me. The conversation published here only begins to hit on the potential of a conversation between these two, leaving me wanting more. It wasn’t much as a conclusion – I almost wish the collection of essays had opened with the interview and told the story backwards.
While reading The Givenness of Things, there were questions that I had, brought up by her writings, that she did not get into. She wrote around a lot of America’s current challenges and arguments, focusing on how the past has affected the now without a lot of insight into what that will mean for our future. But that isn’t really a criticism of her essays – they are commentary, history. She never set out to solve America’s problems or put forth solutions. The collection is slow, thoughtful, and very self-contained. Robinson is writing about what she wants to write about and collecting those thoughts. The Givenness of Things does not have any sort of conclusion, which fits with the title. She writes with her worldview and vocabulary as a given. She does not justify her Calvinism – it a given. This might put off some readers who do not share her fundamental views, but it is refreshing to see an author write theology/philosophy without justifying, defending, or apologizing for their standard.
I don’t think it is too soon to say that Robinson’s name can be mentioned in the same sentence as CS Lewis and GK Chesterton. She can handle fiction, theology, history, memoir, and philosophy with equal elegance. The Givenness of Things is not a light read. It’s somewhere between philosophy and social commentary, leaving the reader with more questions than answers. But Robinson is a voice of reason for many confused and unhappy Christians, as she lets her religious beliefs show in her works without compromising her ideas or artistic ideals. Robinson is the sort of Christian writer we need, especially as we move into the impending Trump years. If you’re not religious, the collection of essays is an interesting take on the history of the Reformation and its oft overlooked cultural value, as well as its impact on modern America. If you are a Christian who is unsure of what our next move should be, as a collective, The Givenness of Things is a nice reminder of where religion has been and where it has gotten stuck.
Sarah V Diehl