Marilynne Robinson, The New Yorker and oblique evangelism

I, like many, love Marilynne Robinson. I love her prose, her perspective, the way that I can pick up Gilead and find lines like this: “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.”

In Robinson’s writing, the worlds she discovers are worlds that are deeply ordinary: an Iowa farm, a country house, a lakeside, a porch. They are instantly accessible, and yet, they seem to be infused with a grace and a wonder that is both surprising and exactly right. The prose itself seems to carry both a beauty and a pull towards something deeper, without being scripted, dogmatic or flat-out kitschy.

It’s as if Robinson’s work, on its own, is an apologetic. A proof for a world that is rich, transcendent, mysterious, welcoming and healing. A world that feels like the Kingdom.

I am not the only one to notice this. Mark O’Connell, writing in The New Yorker, praised Robinson’s work as something he loved completely, every book, every sentence. In his essay “Why I Love Marilynne Robinson,” O’Connell writes about the effortlessness of Robinson’s words, and how they seem to embody a spiritual aesthetic that is both beautiful and true:

"The simple, unself-conscious beauty of these sentences are inseparable from, and equal to, the beauty they describe. The passage feels like an instinctual insight into a way of experiencing the world that is otherwise alien to me. I have read and loved a lot of literature about religion and religious experience - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, the Bible - but it’s only with Robinson that I have actually felt what it must be like to live with a sense of the divine."

I spent a lot of time as a young convert struggling with my love for writing and my anxiety about sharing the Gospel. I didn’t think the two were compatible unless I was rewriting Bible stories and passing them out on the street. Now, I stand with O’Connell, who, despite his public unbelief, is completely enamored with Robinson’s religious sensibilities, with the grace and forgiveness that comes through on the page.

And I wonder, as a teacher and a writer, how to do what Robinson does: how do we seek a wise understanding of the subtleties of our faith, both as readers and as writers? And how do we communicate the world we long for, the here and now of the Kingdom, in such a way as to help other readers, and other writers, see that they long for it, too?

In other words, how can art be both evangelistic and true?

My students and I struggle with this deeply when it comes to writing creative pieces together. They want to create a poem that carries a Gospel message, or use characters that prop up the morals of the faith. And I, cantankerous as I can be, simply repeat myself to them: pay attention to details! Let the characters, and the images, come to you! This is not a Sunday School lesson!

But what works in Robinson’s prose, I think, is that she herself is deeply enamored with the truth and beauty of Christianity. That she loves our creeds, our confessions, that she studies and prays and looks at the world in the exact same way that her characters do. It is a matter of vision, and I wonder what it would do for Christian art, and Christian responses to art, for us to daily relearn our love for God.

I believe that Robinson’s work is not a platform for the Gospel - art, and literature, is never a platform for a message. Words and images embody the truths that we believe, and truth often comes to us in image, line and story. But I do believe that Robinson’s work is worth loving because it brings its readers to see what, and Whom, she loves. That it, to paraphrase Greg Wolfe, evokes meaning rather than prescribing it.

And, in reading her work, may we see how O’Connell sees. May our own sight for what is good, true and beautiful be deepened, both for ourselves and for others.

What Do You Think?

  • Are you familiar with Robinson's work? What does it mean to you?
  • How can art be both evangelistic and true?
  • Do you agree that art is never a platform for a message?


Comments (1)

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two things: thanks for bringing up this author . . have never read her and now i’m 1/3 way through *Gilead* and it’s just beautiful . . reminds me of O’Connor or Anne Lamott . . very subdued, but just so knowing . . of course, i suppose that was the goal . .

i do have to take issue, however, with something that’s been *constant* in writing pedagogy and discussion for as long as i’ve been involved: this belief that somehow writing for theme or message is bad . . as you put it: “art, and literature, is never a platform for a message” . . i don’t fault you for thinking this in whatever sense you do—i’ve heard versions of this from nearly every writing person i can think of, all of whom, also, invariably think that good writing is *always* mainly about character—but i do think it’s this take that leads to the whole “how can art be both evangelistic and true” question . .as if the two don’t naturally fit together to begin with . .

with you, i’d agree that being too obvious with theme/message tends to preempt art . . just as losing some truth might be an effect of being to overtly evangelistic . . but aren’t the gospels themselves, for example, artistic and literature and truthful and evangelistic? . . particularly John and Luke are very overt about having a stated message/theme—about being evangelistic—yet they’re clearly still truthful, artistic . .

i’m sure i’m not saying anything you’d disagree with . . and i do think i know what you mean . . i’ve just always disliked making theme the sort of “red-headed stepchild” when it comes to valuing things in writing . . for the record, i don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer sitting down, first thing, and having a message or theme in mind *first* and then having everything else—including good, truthful, artistic characters, etc.—flow organically from there . .

thanks for your post and for Robinson!

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