Marilynne Robinson, ‘The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible’

Marilynne Robinson nails it yet again in this recent piece – ‘The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible’ – published in the online version of the New York Times (The print version will appear on page BR1 in tomorrow’s Sunday Book Review). Here’s a snippet:

Literatures are self-referential by nature, and even when references to Scripture in contemporary fiction and poetry are no more than ornamental or rhetorical — indeed, even when they are unintentional — they are still a natural consequence of the persistence of a powerful literary tradition. Biblical allusions can suggest a degree of seriousness or significance their context in a modern fiction does not always support. This is no cause for alarm. Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction …

A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty …

In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected. The failure of the notionally Christian worlds of Russia and Mississippi to be in any way sufficient to the occasion of Christ among them would be a true report always and everywhere. But theology is only in part social commentary. Crucially it has to do with the authority of a vision, of a world that is only like this world in essence …

Read the rest here.


  1. A nice essay from a great writer.
    Yes most literatures are self-referential. This is especially so of Western and Christian literature, especially in the post Renaissance modern era (ERROR).
    But why, in this now instantaneously inter-connected quantum globalized world does everything have to turn out to be Christian?
    Especially as over 4 billion living-breathing-feeling human beings, are not Christians.
    And non of the non-humans too.
    I much prefer the work of William Irwin Thompson, especially via his extraordinary book: Coming Into Being – Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness.
    A book which weaves together all sorts of sources and connections from all times and places.
    It also contains a unique interpretation of the cultural significance of Judges 13-16.
    For better or worse Christianity is now (and always was) just a tower of babble/babel.
    Which is to say that we now “live” in a humanly constructed “world” of brain created language games.

    Notice too that in this essay she never uses the word Consciousness with a capital C.
    Which is to say that there are a few truly great traditional texts that criticize and transcend the self-referring provincialism of the time and place in which they appeared.Texts which in one way or another communicate that Consciousness IS the only Reality

    None of which are Christian. Indeed it has always been impossible for such a text to appear within the hide-bound tradition of Christianity – especially since the Renaissance.
    Self-righteous Christians, including of course Calvin, have always been “heresy” hunters. And we all know what always happened to “heretics”, “blasphemers”, and “apostates”.


  2. Thanks, Jason. Really looking forward to her essays coming out this fall. Also, still working on the Dancer Stringfellow book. Helping me make some significant connections, I think. Pretty sure I first saw it from your posting. Your drawing attention to things like Dancer’s book and Robinson’s article are much appreciated. Cheers and merry christmas!


  3. Jason, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on Marilynne Robinson’s theology in her fiction and essays — if you ever had the time and interest to write about them, of course. I’m a huge fan of hers, but recently a conversation with a professor has had a sobering effect on the way I read her. Hope you’re well.


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