In praise of Marilynne Robinson’s “The Death of Adam”


I have just finished re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought and I put it down with that peculiar brand of sadness that comes when you wish there was more of a great book in which you have been engrossed.

This is a great book. Who writes like this, especially about serious subjects like theology? Nobody, that’s who!

I first read this sometime shortly after it was published in 1998, and I must have been too busy and distracted by my pastoral duties to have properly taken in its achievement. This time around I took my time, which is what Robinson does. Last summer I read her novel Home as part of an on-line discussion group and some complained that she took too long to get to the point, but that is the point. In her novels events unfold much like in ordinary life, which also can’t be rushed, and she knows just what she is doing at all times. There is no filler.

Robinson employs English words to reveal her thoughts with apparently seamless felicity. If you have read her novels you know this. But these are essays, ESSAYS, about weighty matters yet one never feels weighed down by them.

I am hard pressed to pick out a favorite chapter, although her several in defense of John Calvin are hard to beat. She roughs up noted historians for misreading and misrepresenting him, and portrays him more as a French humanist than the tyrant of Geneva he seems to have become in the popular imagination. On this, his 500th birthday, one could find no better gift to give a thoughtful religious friend than this book.

Her essays on “Darwinism” and “Family” are so full of wisdom and common sense that you wonder where your own mind has been. Her reflections on Scripture in the chapter “Psalm Eight” should be read by every first-year seminarian who is scuffling with the documentary hypothesis. The writers of scripture were not merely witnessing to truth, but were creating art. Who knew?

A couple of times while reading her ultimate chapter “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion” I wanted to stand up and cheer, which is no small feat when you are reading in bed.

Her defense of liberalism as an idea, and criticism of it as a movement clarified my own tortured thinking on this. She writes, “As a principle, liberalism is essential to the sanity and humanity of this civilization. As a movement, it is virtually defunct. Those who have espoused it have failed it, in a way and to a degree that has allowed the very word to become a term of opprobrium.”

A little later in the same essay she uses her own Christian identity to illustrate her point: “The banishment of the word “liberal” was simultaneous with the collapse of liberalism itself. And however these events were related, the patient smile that precludes conversation on the subject means the matter is closed. To be shamed out of the use of a word is to make a more profound concession to opinion than is consistent with personal integrity.” She writes so pretty you hardly feel the knife go in.  “What is at stake?” she asks:

“Our hope for a good community. Liberalism saw to the well-being of the vulnerable. Now that it has ebbed, the ranks of the vulnerable continuously swell. If this seems too great a claim to make for it, pick up a newspaper. Trivial failure of courage may seem minor enough in any particular instances, and yet they change history and society. They also change culture.”

To illustrate this point, I will make a shocking statement. I am a Christian. This should not startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of Euoropean ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed.

Over the years many a good soul has let me know by one means or another that this living out of the religious/ethical/aesthetic/intellectual tradition that is so essentially compelling to me is not, shall we say, cool.”

How many of us can hum that tune exactly? And, finally, although she wrote this more than a decade ago, the following observation about our common life has not become the least bit shopworn in these days of Glenn Beck and Fox News:

“The present dominance of aspersion and ridicule in American public life is a reflex of the fact that we are assumed to want, and in many cases perhaps do want, attitude much more than information. If an unhealthy percentage of the population gets its news from Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh, it is because they are arbiters of attitude. They instruct viewers as to what, within their affinity groups, it is safe to say and cool to think. That is they short-circuit the functions of individual judgment and obviate the exercise of individual conscience. . . . A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralize politics, debilitate candor, and disrupt thought.”

That is the final sentence of the book. I await the next one. In the meantime, if you haven’t read The Death of Adam,you must.

One thought on “In praise of Marilynne Robinson’s “The Death of Adam”

  1. Rick, thank you for this post. I’ve just finished reading Gilead, my first Marilynne Robinson book, and she has caught my attention (not easy since reading novels is my ‘genre weakness’). Half way through the book, I caught an interview she did on BBC Radio 4 ( regarding her book Lila. I hope you’re able to listen to it, very impressive lady.
    Thank you for your blog too. A great find for me, and also thanks for liking my repost of your post on the the envelopes of ministry. I loved it.
    And while I’m here this Christmas eve, I used your biography of the simply brilliant P. T. Forsyth on a Facebook page where I quote his sayings that I write as I come across them
    I shall now be ordering The Death of Adam.
    Have a great Christmas.
    Richard Matcham @ Gralefrit Theology

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