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.

Marilynne Robinson writes: “I miss civilization and I want it back.”

Marilynne Robinson may be as close as we get these days to an old fashion person of letters. She has produced three astonishingly good novels, Housekeeping, Gilead (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize), and Home.

I have been re-reading, with great pleasure, her book of essays entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. This is one of the most insightful examinations of the intellectual underpinnings of American life one can find. For people who read, and especially for people who read theology, like many who come to this blog, Robinson is a gift: a public intellectual who thinks theology is important. At the same time her amateur status frees her from the binding templates of the theological guild, and she views theology as an art.
Here is a sample from Death of Adam. Note how prophetic she was in naming the monism of free market economics as the reigning model for “how things are.” In the last year many have lost confidence in that false god:
“It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of the ruling elite, or something of the kind. I suspect this is a way of granting these things significance, since we are still in the habit of attending them, though they are no longer to be conceded meaning in their own terms. If they have, by their nature, other motives than the ones they claim, if their impulse is not to explore or confide or question but only to manipulate, they cannot speak to us about meaning, or expand or refine our sense of human experience. Economics, the great model among us now, indulges and deprives, builds and abandons, threatens and promises. Its imperium is manifest, irrefragable—as in fact it has been since antiquity. Yet suddenly we act as if the reality of economics was reality itself, the one Truth to which everything must refer. I can only suggest that terror at complexity has driven us back on this very crude monism. We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic ontogeny by hiding our head in the ledger.
I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe that there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization and I want it back.”
(The Death of Adam: Essays of Modern Thought, Picador, 1998, p. 3, 4)



“What is on your bookshelf?”

Here’s a fun blog ( Faith and Theology: On Richard Bauckham’s books) with lots of pithy comments on two of my favorites:

Richard Bauckham, who was my sabbatical advisor at St Andrews in 1995 when I wrote When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflection on the Atonement, and

Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead and Home I hungrily devoured, and whose Death of Adam is one of the best things ever written on Calvin.

Pastors take note: on the Great Day you will be judged by the novels on your bookshelf, or lack thereof.  Go to the blog:  Faith and Theology: On Richard Bauckham’s books.