When I Was a Child I Read Books

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Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as a writer of sharp, subtly moving prose, not only as a major American novelist, but also as a rigorous thinker and incisive essayist. In When I Was a Child I Read Books she returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In "Austerity as Ideology," she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution ...

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Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as a writer of sharp, subtly moving prose, not only as a major American novelist, but also as a rigorous thinker and incisive essayist. In When I Was a Child I Read Books she returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In "Austerity as Ideology," she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challenging. In "Open Thy Hand Wide" she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in "When I Was a Child," one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, Robinson weighs in with a series of tightly developed essays, some personal but mostly more general, on the Big Themes: social fragmentation in modern America, human frailty, faith. Her project is a hard-edged liberalism, sustained by a Calvinist ethic of generosity. Among her contemporary intellectual models are theologians such as John Shelby Spong and Jack Miles. From earlier times, she invokes Moses, Jesus, Calvin, Emerson, Johann Friedrich Oberlin (who figures indirectly in Gilead), Poe, Whitman, and others. In these times of the ever-ascending religious right, in the aftermath of what she sees as the ideologically secularist-driven cold war, Robinson bravely explores the corrosive potion of “Christian anti-Judaism” and what it really ought to mean to be “a Christian nation.” The closing essay is about the twin establishmentarianism straitjackets of Freudianism and Darwinism in the collective presumptions regarding the supremacy of self-interest—ill-informed fundamentalist nostalgias being one clear sign—which, she says ruefully, have supplanted true religious discourse. Agent: Ellen Levine, Trident Media Group. (Mar.)
The National Post Philip Marchand

In an age when such American politicians as Michele Bachman display an astounding ignorance of the history of her own country . . . Robinson's essay collection [is] a valuable contribution to public discourse in the United States.
The Houston Chronicle Maggie Galehouse

Robinson's penchant for complex sentences and lofty subjects mirrors the thoughtfulness of what she wants to say. And while she may be an old-fashioned stylist, she is also a progressive thinker who yokes rigorous scholarship with profound attention to her subjects . . . Her new essay collection, 'When I Was a Child I Read Books,' may best be served with a straight-back chair and a mug of piping-hot black coffee. But I say, strap yourself in. Robinson's words, girded by a scholar's seat and a stimulant, will sharpen you up . . . Having read these essays, I have a better understanding of the sort of mind that could create 'Gilead,' a novel of quiet grace, and 'Housekeeping,' a book so beautiful and other-worldy that at times it threatens to float away altogether.
The New York Observer Michael Robbins

It is difficult not to quote Ms. Robinson at length, so finely calibrated are her sentences. Here, it's a tonic to see a rhetoric of such righteous anger turned, for once, against those who believe it is virtuous to attempt to deprive their fellow citizens of aid and succor . . . these essays represent what Robinson calls 'an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins.' This is what education is for, and this book is a tool for those who would be archaeologists of their own thinking. Even when one disagrees with her, Ms. Robinson is always worth reading because she is as gifted a stylist as the English language has at present. Sentence after sentence demands to be reread for the pleasure the mind takes in well-made things . . . Anyone who has read Housekeeping (1980) or Gilead (2006) knows that she is a great novelist. It's time to recognize that Ms. Robinson is also a thinker of the first order, one of the finest we have ever had.
Boston Globe Michael Washburn

In a climate increasingly averse to compassion and unappreciative of curiosity, Robinson has published When I Was a Child I Read Books, a glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics . . . When I Was a Child is a brutally, beautifully intelligent jeremiad on the cynical state of American culture and politics, but Robinson is rare today in that she uses the language of faith to advance the most cultivated humanistic values all in an attempt to defend what she sees as an imperiled American greatness . . . When I Was a Child strives to burn off the blather and tame the wolfishness that currently bedevils our society.
The Los Angeles Review of Books Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu

For Robinson, human beings--and especially, readers--must collectively imagine humanity, because imagination creates moral communities. It is through language--silent, personal, and solitary experiences of language -- that we engage in an 'amazing human conversation,' one that delivers us to 'place[s] across millennia, through weal and woe.' . . . [An] illuminating collection . . . What . . . ring[s] true in When I Was a Child are the intimate notes . . . In the title essay, Robinson writes lovingly about her childhood encounter with solitude that attuned her to mystery. It is this repeated emphasis on mystery that most differentiates this set of essays. 'When I see a man or a woman alone,' writes Robinson, 'he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.' Robinson's religious faith is learned and self-reflective, rooted in a lonesomeness that 'allows one to experience . . . radical singularity, one's greatest dignity and privilege.' Robinson's form of religious faith requires relentless introspection and loneliness. It's a faith that rejects easy platitudes and easy answers.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Mike Fischer

It's never been easy to categorize Marilynne Robinson, whose new collection of essays . . . is no exception. Each of the pieces gathered here practices what Robinson preaches, combating the lazy habit of using 'a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe' . . . she works to free her readers from the 'tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind,' in which we 'try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell' . . . When we are alone, Robinson suggests, we're best positioned for a 'meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one's eye'--including other people, who we're otherwise apt to misread. As this collection makes clear, Robinson's own eyes read widely--and well.
Library Journal
For this collection, prize-winning novelist and essayist Robinson (Univ. of Iowa Writers' Workshop; Housekeeping) gathers ten of her thought-provoking, albeit dense essays. Along with politics and education, Robinson delves into religion, which she approaches via, e.g., a definition of the word liberal gleaned from biblical texts, the relationship between science and religion, and the Old Testament's role in the church. She also presents personal background and ideas about crafting fiction. Unafraid to probe scholarly sources, Robinson employs various quotations, including from David Hume, Thomas More, John Calvin, Adolf Harnack, and the biblical book of Deuteronomy. Her long sentences have a chatty tone, with frequent first-person references; in at least one case, this style derives from the essay's origin as a speech ("Open Thy Hand Wide" was an address at Princeton in April 2011). Four of the other pieces have been previously published (e.g., "Austerity as Ideology," from the November 2011 Nation). VERDICT Robinson's fans and advanced students will benefit from this collection of her thoughts gathered into a single volume. [See Prepub Alert, 9/25/11.]—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Library Journal
Few and far between, Pulitzer Prize winner Robinson's novels are immensely appreciated when they arrive, and so are her essay collections. Here she revisits favorite themes, from the role of faith to the complexities of human nature. For all your smart readers.
Kirkus Reviews
The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist returns with a collection of essays that are variously literary, political and religious. Robinson (Iowa Writers' Workshop; Home, 2008, etc.) begins with some quotations from Whitman about democracy, then blasts the contentious, mean-spirited political climate. Although she discusses writers, her reading and her life, one subject colors her pages with passion: religion. Although she establishes early (and often) her political liberalism, she is an unashamed Christian, an intellectual who proudly asserts her credentials of faith and defends her beliefs against both the crudities of contemporary culture and the assaults of the popular atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens et al.). Although she tries hard to keep a balanced view (she admits the cruelties of Christians over the centuries; she acknowledges the claims of other faiths and the truths of science), she returns again and again to her belief in the wisdom of the scriptures--and defends most thoroughly the Old Testament and its God. She argues that the Old Testament has had a bad rap lately, with critics of all sorts alluding to its vengeful, sanguinary deity. So Robinson offers a counterbalance, pointing to Mosaic laws that show compassion for the impoverished and the otherwise weak; she quotes chapter and verse to support her view--though she surely realizes (better than most writers) that one may also visit Leviticus and find verses that present a much harsher picture. Robinson is a splendid writer, no question--erudite, often wise and slyly humorous (there is a clever allusion to the birther nonsense in a passage about Noah Webster). Articulate and learned descriptions and defenses of the author's Christian faith.
Roxana Robinson
If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson's new book of elegant essays…Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson's language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher

“A glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics…beautifully intelligent.”---The Boston Globe

“Robinson is that rare essayist whose sentences make you sit up and pay attention....The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose....Her essays are psalms to an indivisible America.”---The Wall Street Journal

“Illuminating…The best companion of all to Robinson’s novels might be her own essays.”---The New York Times Book Review

“Elegant essays…Reading [them] is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential, and long-sought.”---Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post

“A broadside defense of literature and classic liberalism…Her defense of our national character and the systems it created can swell your heart.”---Los Angeles Times

“One of the most remarkable of modern writers…This is a rare writer about America and one it seems to me we need.”---The Buffalo News

“The indomitable Marilynne Robinson radiates genius in her collection of essays.”---Vanity Fair

The National Noori Passela

What this collection does contain in abundance, though, are intelligent discourses on contemporary intellectual culture . . . Robinson . . . illuminates the cobwebbed corners of her mind. The effort required to relish the collected works presented here will be worth it.
Vanity Fair

The indomitable Marilynne Robinson radiates genius in her collection of essays.
The Wall Street Journal Thomas Meaney

The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose. Ms. Robinson channels the cadences of Emerson and Whitman and says that she owes the stately shape of her sentences to her school-days reading of Cicero. 'I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for,' she writes, 'and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail to find these words.' On the evidence of language itself, she marvels at the capacity of human perception. She describes the wonder expressed by a group of French students about the number of English words that describe light--glimmer, glitter, glisten, glean, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine--which testify to a human need for distinctions beyond the bare essentials. Words like 'grace,' 'soul' and 'miracle,' she suggests, speak to registers of experience that even the most secular among us are reluctant to relinquish. When I Was a Child I Read Books may seem like a book addressed to Christians--some of the essays have the whiff of the pulpit--but Ms. Robinson's church is exceptionally broad. Her essays are psalms to an indivisible America.
Books & Culture Wesley Hill

Robinson offers her essays in the face of this confusion, as 'night thoughts of a baffled humanist' . . . She aims to defend both religion and humanism from their not-quite-so cultured despisers, many of whom may be found self-identifying as 'religious' or as 'humanists.' . . . Robinson takes aim . . . at those who would diminish the human person . . . Whatever else these new essays are--and they are many wonderful and interesting things--they are Robinson's determination not to diminish mystery, not to make foolishness of the world or the human person by forcing theories to limit our wonder at God, the human brain and mind, the cosmos. The essays are tonic for our adoration-starved religious and scientific cultures, bracing in their critique and hope-giving in the alternative way of seeing that they open up for us.
The Barnes and Noble Review Stefan Beck

Most striking of all is Robinson's mental work ethic. She seems to be incapable of a lazy conclusion . . . Robinson's great strengths [are] independence and eccentricity . . . Robinson, though some of her views are well known, is never predictable, for her discipline is to look at every question as though she were considering it for the first time. It is impossible not to be fortified and enlarged by a few hundred pages in her company.
The Washington Post Roxana Robinson

If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson's new book of elegant essays . . . Robinson's voice is thoughtful and intimate, but she does some thundering, too, on ancient, complex and important subjects . . . Her ideas are unconventional, and she sees the world in surprising ways . . . Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson's language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Whence came Marilynne Robinson? The author of Pulitzer-winning Gilead (2004), two other novels, and a remarkable body of nonfiction bears little resemblance to anyone else writing today. Critics reach for "biblical" to describe Cormac McCarthy's prose, but the word is more aptly applied to Robinson's, in which complexity and clarity walk hand in hand. (Robinson herself feels a larger debt to Cicero.) A Publishers Weekly review of this essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, remarks Robinson's interest in "the Big Themes," the winking capitals there to remind us that while deep curiosity about God, the soul, religion, and the significance of mankind may not be unique to Robinson, it isn't something we ought to expect from our literature as a matter of course. Most striking of all is Robinson's mental work ethic. She seems to be incapable of a lazy conclusion.

Because there are in any age so few minds of Robinson's caliber, the question of her origins becomes important. In "When I Was a Child," an essay of just nine pages, she gives a startling account. For starters, she is from Idaho. "I find," she writes, "that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling." The surprise here is nothing so banal as the fact that Robinson read constantly as a child, which she did. It is, rather, the way a certain idea or ideal of Westernness operated on her reading and thinking. Perhaps worked its magic on is a better way of putting it. "There was little" in her reading, she recalls, "that was relevant to my experience." Educators, take note. "But I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history."

Robinson's individualism, her experience of "deracination," and the fact that "in the West 'lonesome' is a word with strongly positive connotations," all underpin her ability to stand apart from human affairs and investigate them with clear eyes. She finds "no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society." She regards the West, the American frontier, not only as a place or historical phenomenon but also as suggestive of an animating optimism about people and their potential. It is a shame that this superb short essay comes fifth, not first. It awakens the spirit of generosity and curiosity some readers will need if they are to derive any benefit from Robinson's more contentious essays.

At least Robinson will not be accused of false advertising. In her introduction alone there is plenty to inflame readers of a host of political and religious persuasions. She believes that religion is central to the health of the nation but also that we must "reject participation in the bitter excitements that can surround religious difference." She disdains all tribalisms, not only religious but also (gasp!) ethnic ones. She has hard words for capitalism as currently understood. Her concern for the public weal, encompassing everything from public education to medical and financial provisions for the vulnerable, may carry a whiff of what some have taken to calling socialism.

It cannot be any kind of picnic, in today's America, to be profoundly religious — in fact, Calvinist — and profoundly unimpressed by the celebrity atheists while also being disgusted by the narrative of political and social decline favored by those most likely to value her religion. Of course, this is precisely where Robinson's "Westernness" becomes indispensable: She is indifferent to alleviating her intellectual isolation, her outsider status — and what a trick, by the way, retaining outsider status despite a Pulitzer and a teaching position at Iowa — by keeping her guns holstered. Her best essays are the intellectual or critical equivalent of cleaning up some mess of a town and then riding off into the sunset.

A few examples are certainly in order. "The Fate of Ideas: Moses" is about unsavory trends in "scholarly-looking books about the Bible." It is a skillful demolition of such books — books distinguished by their "tone of condescension toward biblical texts and narratives" — and as such can be enjoyed by those who prize demolition as well as by those who prize the Bible itself. Here is Robinson, gunslinger, projecting her air of quiet menace:

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.
This paragraph is, as they say, worth the price of admission. One can almost see the sweat beading on the brows of the authors Robinson has set out to corral — John Shelby Spong, Jack Miles, Jan Assmann, Regina Schwartz, and Gerd Lüdemann. To appreciate what follows, one need only value expertise in the service of truth. Robinson's desert-dry and frequently devastating wit doesn't hurt. She reacts to Bishop Spong's jaw-droppingly literal, utilitarian approach to Mosaic law this way: "Perhaps the sanctity of divine law does indeed rest on its aligning itself with Episcopalian practice. We will all find out when the trumpet sounds." By the end of the essay, Moses has been, if one accepts the premise that he needed to be, rescued and rehabilitated.

"Freedom of Thought" picks up a thread from Robinson's 2010 book, Absence of Mind, bemoaning several tendencies in modern thought about religion and consciousness. One is to separate the spiritual and the physical. Another is to see ancient religion as a faltering attempt to fulfill the function of science. "The notion," Robinson writes, "that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading at all.... In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that."

If one feels no challenge from Robinson's essays, one is not thinking hard enough. If one finds nothing in them to disagree violently with, he is perhaps overawed by her credentials. Some of what she writes about the Cold War in "Austerity as Ideology" seems willfully naive. ("Each side proposed a way of life that was claimed to maximize human happiness," she writes. One is tempted to say that, on the strength of the evidence, only one side had a right to believe it was correct.) The "imaginative love for people we do not know" which she touts, in "Imagination and Community," as a prerequisite of good fiction and good citizenship, can seem as reflexive as suspicion, albeit riskier. She writes that "our great public education system is being starved," which is, unless she is talking about something other than money, preposterous. Her desire to write for the ages can nudge her style toward affectation. Surely she is aware that "those tall highway signs that usually advertise hardware sales and dinner specials" are called, by the Americans for whom she feels such imaginative love, "billboards."

One could go on, but one's complaints would only underscore Robinson's great strengths: independence and eccentricity. She argues that the language of public life is impoverished, that it has lost its "character of generosity" and "largeness of spirit." She ought to add that, straitened by caution or fear, it has lost a certain quality of strangeness, too. Robinson, though some of her views are well known, is never predictable, for her discipline is to look at every question as though she were considering it for the first time. It is impossible not to be fortified and enlarged by a few hundred pages in her company.

A writer living in southern Connecticut, Stefan Beck has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Sun, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and other publications. He also writes a food blog, The Poor Mouth, which can be found at www.stefanbeckonline.com/tpm/.

Reviewer: Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374298784
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/13/2012
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 387,399
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Housekeeping (FSG, 1981), Gilead (FSG, 2004), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Home (FSG, 2008), and three books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989), The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010). She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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    1. Hometown:
      Iowa City, Iowa
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 26, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sandpoint, Idaho
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1966

Read an Excerpt

When I Was a Child I Read Books

By Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Marilynne Robinson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374298784

Wondrous Love

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious, since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them. The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who “walked in the garden alone,” imagines her “tarrying” there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of a dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, “Let there be light.” The song acknowledges this with fine understatement: “The joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.” Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’s as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’s passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world. And for a long time, until just a decade ago, at most, I disliked this hymn, in part because to this day I have never heard it sung well. Maybe it can’t be sung well. The lyrics are uneven, and the tune is bland and grossly sentimental. But I have come to a place in my life where the thought of people moved by the imagination of joyful companionship with Christ is so precious that every fault becomes a virtue. I wish I could hear again every faltering soprano who has ever raised this song to heaven. God bless them all.
     There is another song I think about—“I Love to Tell the Story.” The words that are striking to me are these: “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best / Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” This is true. Of course those who know it best would be those who, over time, put themselves in the way of hearing it. Nevertheless, if Western history has proved one thing, it is that the narratives of the Bible are essentially inexhaustible. The Bible is terse, the Gospels are brief, and the result is that every moment and detail merits pondering and can always appear in a richer light. The Bible is about human beings, human families—in comparison with other ancient literatures the realism of the Bible is utterly remarkable—so we can bring our own feelings to bear in the reading of it. In fact, we cannot do otherwise, if we know the old, old story well enough to give it a life in our thoughts.

     There is something about being human that makes us love and crave grand narratives. Greek and Roman boys memorized Homer. This was a large part of their education, just as memorizing the Koran is now for many boys in Islamic cultures. And this is one means by which important traditions are preserved and made in effect the major dialects of their civilizations. Narrative always implies cause and consequence. It creates paradigmatic structures around which experience can be ordered, and this certainly would account for the craving for it, which might as well be called a need. Homer was taken to have great moral significance, as the Koran surely does, so there is nothing random in the choices civilizations make when literatures are sacred to them. I have a theory that the churches fill on Christmas and Easter because it is on these days that the two most startling moments in the Christian narrative can be heard again. In these two moments, narrative fractures the continuities of history. It becomes so beautiful as to acquire a unique authority, a weight of meaning history cannot approach. The stories really will be told again on these days because a parsing of the text would diminish the richness that, to borrow a phrase from the old Puritan John Robinson, shines forth from the holy Word. And everyone knows the songs, especially at Christmas, and becomes in that hour another teller of the story embedded in them. What child is this? A very profound question. Christmas and Easter are so full of church pageant and family custom that it is entirely possible to forget how the stories told on these two days did indeed rupture history and leave the world changed, implausible as that may seem. At the same time, they have created a profound continuity. If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents’ lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children’s. What gives them their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold—by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren’t any songs about him.

     We here, we Christians, have accepted the stewardship of this remarkable narrative, though it must be said that our very earnest approach to this work has not always served it well. There is a great old American hymn that sounds like astonishment itself, and I mention it here because even its title speaks more powerfully of the meaning of our narrative than whole shelves of books. It is called “Wondrous Love.” “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss / to bear the dreadful cross for my soul?” If we have entertained the questions we moderns must pose to ourselves about the plausibility of incarnation, if we have sometimes paused to consider the other ancient stories of miraculous birth, this is no great matter. But if we let these things distract us, we have lost the main point of the narrative, which is that God is of a kind to love the world extravagantly, wondrously, and the world is of a kind to be worth, which is not to say worthy of, this pained and rapturous love. This is the essence of the story that forever eludes telling. It lives in the world not as myth or history but as a saturating light, a light so brilliant that it hides its source, to borrow an image from another good old hymn.

     If we understand this to be true, what response do we make? How do we act? How do we live? We respond by loving the world God loves, presumably. But there is something about human beings that too often makes our love for the world look very much like hatred for it. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). He said a number of things: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), for example, and “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). But for whatever reason—as a Calvinist I propose the reason might be our fallen state—human beings and Christians have found obedience to the commandment to love one another modified by the statement I quoted first, which does not have the form of a commandment, though it has been taken to have the force of one, and it has inspired the response “Send me, Lord,” with far more passion and consistency than the commandment tradition says is the last Jesus gave us, that we love one another (John 15:17). As a consequence, Christians have too often loved their enemies to death. Those enemies being, in the majority of cases, other Christians. The Inquisition is the most notorious case in point, but it is by no means isolated. Then as always the rationale was that those people with a different heritage or a different conception of the faith are not real Christians. They should be denounced, converted, or eliminated—for the sake of Christianity. And, fortunately, Jesus has provided us with that sword. This is a narrative that has been a major force in Christian history—God gives us the means and the obligation to smite his enemies. And we know who they are, so the story goes.

     Jesus spoke as a man, in a human voice. And a human voice has a music that gives words their meaning. In that old hymn I mentioned, as in the Gospel, Mary is awakened out of her loneliness by the sound of her own name spoken in a voice “so sweet the birds hush their singing.” It is beautiful to think what the sound of one’s own name would be, when the inflection of it would carry the meaning Mary heard in the unmistakable, familiar, and utterly unexpected voice of her friend and teacher. To propose analogies for the sound of it, a human name spoken in the world’s new morning, would seem to trivialize it. I admire the tact of the lyric in making no attempt to evoke it, except obliquely, in the hush that falls over the birds. But it is nevertheless at the center of the meaning of this story that we can know something of the inflection of that voice. Christ’s humanity is meant to speak to our humanity. We can in fact imagine that if someone we loved very deeply was restored to us, the joy in his or her voice would anticipate and share our joy. We can imagine how someone bringing us wonderful news might say our name tenderly to soften the shock of our delight. The mystery of Christ’s humanity must make us wonder what of mortal memory he carried beyond the grave, and whether his pleasure at this encounter with Mary would have been shadowed and enriched by the fact that, not so long before, he had had no friend to watch with him even one hour. Scholars use the word “pericope”—where does a story begin and end? How much we would know about this dawn, this meeting of friends in a garden, if only we could hear his voice.

     I tell my students, language is music. Written words are musical notation. The music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means. It is essential to remember that characters have a music as well, a pitch and tempo, just as real people do. To make them believable, you must always be aware of what they would or would not say, where stresses would or would not fall. Those of us who claim to be Christian, Christ-like, generally assume we know what this word means, more or less—that we know the character of Christ. For Protestants, this understanding of him is mediated through the Bible. Our saints and doctors, however brilliant and heroic, are rarely looked to for wisdom or example. The figure of Christ is our authority. No distinction can be made between his character and his meaning. No distinction can be made between his character and the great narrative of his life and death. But the fact is that we differ on this crucial point, on how we are to see the figure of Christ.

     This scene, the account of the first hours of the Resurrection, written two thousand years ago in a dialect of an ancient language, by whom and in what circumstances no one can really know, inevitably raises questions. How faithfully did the writer’s Greek approach the Aramaic of the original story—assuming that Mary would have told the story in Aramaic, and that Jesus would have spoken to her in that language? And how faithful have all the generations of translation been since then to the writer’s Greek? It must be said of the origins of this powerful text that the Lord made thick darkness its swaddling band.

     We understand even the narrative of the origins of the narrative very differently. There are interpreters who insist on finding simplicity in just those matters where complexity is both great and salient. It is my feeling that reverence for the text obliges a respectful interest in its origins, and respect too for all its origins seem to imply about the kind of interpretation the text permits, as well as the kind it seems to preclude. I would say, for example, that the work of the group called the Jesus Seminar proceeded on assumptions that grossly simplify these questions and, in effect, impugn the authenticity of the text, as many writers have done over the last few centuries. Some humility would be appropriate—there are those who earnestly believe that To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Truman Capote. The limits to what can be certainly known about such things are narrow at best. I suppose most Christians assume that the creation over time of the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole was an event of at least as great moment as the giving of the Law to Moses, or the moving of the Prophets to voice their oracles. The literal “how” of these events we cannot know, but we have the Law, and we have the poetry. If some intervening rabbinical hand strengthened or polished either of them, this may only have brought it closer to its true and original meaning. I am assuming here that Providence might be active in such matters.

     To return again to what has been called “the sword of the Lord”: that phrase is itself an interpretation, since nothing in Jesus’s words suggests that the sword should properly be called his. The note in the always useful 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible says of the divisions among families and households that are the effect of this sword, “Which thing cometh not of the propertie of Christ, but proceedeth of the malice of men, who loveth not the light, but darkness, and are offended with the word of salvation.” This same phrase does appear in Judges, where the sword is wielded by Gideon. The book of Judges is a somber and impressively clear-eyed account of the crimes and catastrophes that beset primitive Israel. If Gideon avenges his brothers in his rout of the Midianites, in doing this he also acquires power so coveted by his son Abimelech that he kills his seventy brothers in order to make himself Gideon’s successor. And the phrase appears in fierce old Jeremiah, where it occurs as a lament: “Ah, sword of the Lord! How long till you are quiet? Put yourself into your scabbard, rest and be still!” (Jeremiah 47:6). The sword seems to have been wielded in this case by Nebuchadnezzar, who was attacking the Philistines. So this context does not support the idea that here violence is undertaken in the cause of righteousness by persons with any positive interest in the God of Israel. The prophet sees this disaster, like any other, as a judgment of the Lord, not as an endorsement of those who are his instruments in exacting it.

     When he spoke these words, Jesus might well have foreseen that in bringing a new understanding of a traditional faith he would divide families—the “sword” he speaks of is the setting of fathers against sons and mothers against daughters. This is both inevitable and regrettable. In the narrative as I understand it, his words would be heavy with sorrow.

     I have spent time over this phrase because it has been important in the history of Christendom and because I think it is important yet, an opinion I had arrived at before I looked it up on the Internet. Even among those Christians who are not so wedded to what some call literalism that they refuse to consider context, there is still an old habit of conflict within the house hold of Christ, the family of Christ, that flies in the face of that last commandment. To reach this conclusion I must assume that those who disagree with my understanding of Christianity are Christians all the same, that we are members of one household. I confess that from time to time I find this difficult. This difficulty may be owed in part to the fact that I have reason to believe they would not extend this courtesy to me. So it is with these conflicts in which we are so tediously entrapped, these frictions and disputes that have brought discredit to the faith we claim, and that resemble much too closely our approach to other faiths, to our further discredit.

     Christian piety seems often to take the form of a rigorous narrowing of definitions, with the filioque, or the disputed nature of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or the disputed character of the experience of a second birth, shaping the history of the church, and also of the world—and rarely for the better, as people are very ready to agree, except in those cases where the controversy is one that enlists their own particular passions. Paul deals with contentions of this kind in the letter to the Romans. He says, “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions . . . Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” And he says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God; happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves . . .  But he who has doubts is condemned . . . because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14 passim). Paul is addressing differences about what can be eaten, not surprisingly, considering the importance of dietary laws to Jews and the presence in the Roman church of Gentiles who did not observe them. This is not a minor issue, anymore than it would be now in a situation where these two groups were attempting to achieve one religious identity. So we can apply Paul’s counsel to our case, if we want to, since the differences among us are less extreme.

     But this may not help. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud observed that the groups most prone to sparring were those most similar to each other, the Spanish and the Portuguese, the English and the Scots. He says, “I gave this phenomenon the name of ‘the narcissism of minor differences,’ a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression; by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.” This may be all it amounts to. Faith properly so called may not be the issue after all. The diversity of our country permits every religious group to think of itself as a minority, and as crucially dependent on group loyalty, so this “narcissism” might be a particular temptation in our case.

     Freud also said, “When once the Apostle Paul had posited universal love between men as the foundation of his Christian community, extreme intolerance on the part of Christendom towards those who remained outside it became the inevitable consequence.” This is not the contradiction it appears to be, really, since he assumed the impulse toward aggression to be a powerful and universal human trait under all circumstances. Still, we have seen too much intolerance and too little love to satisfy even Freud’s morose expectations. And things are getting worse.

     A narrative has emerged lately, a narrative of decline. It is about the loss of our religious and cultural essence, and it is stimulating in its way, like a horror movie or a panic attack. There is nothing especially American about this story. Indeed, Oswald Spengler and many others have made extravagant use of it. For our purposes it begins with the assertion by certain excitable people that this is a Christian country. So it is, demographically. And since this is true both historically and at present, attitudes and institutions that are Christian in their origins are profoundly influential in our culture. But this is not good enough. This influence is both unconscious and unforced, and it is therefore invisible to those who think that the majority religious tradition in the country, by virtue of its being the majority tradition, ought to be asserted very forcefully as an intrinsic part of our national identity. These people see an onrush of secularism intent on driving religion to the margins, maybe over the edge, and for the sake of Christianity they want to enlist society itself in its defense. They want politicians to make statements of faith, and when merchants hang out their seasonal signs and banners they want them to say something much more specific than “Happy Holidays.” They say that the Founders meant to establish freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Well, in fact, the Founders meant to give us freedom from established religion, from state-sponsored religion. Whether they themselves were religious or not is a separate question. I assume they were. But the country in its early period was largely populated by religious people escaping religious oppression at the hands of state churches, whether French Huguenots, Scots Presbyterians, English Congregationalists, or English Catholics. Freedom of was freedom from—the coercions that did and do arise when there is no wall of separation between church and state. Historically the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly were deeply implicated in religious freedom, all of them being violently curtailed on religious grounds through most of Western history. Since my own religious heroes tended to die gruesomely under these regimes, I have no nostalgia for the world before secularism, nor would many of these “Christian nation” exponents, if they looked a little way into the history of their own traditions. I suppose these old stories are seldom told because there is a reluctance to stir the embers of past conflict. Fair enough, though by telling them we might remind ourselves to be grateful for the religious peace we have achieved and to be wary of these instigators of new conflict.

     Relevant here is the fact that Christianity does seem to have receded, and dramatically, in just those countries where there are established churches. I say “does seem” because in my conversations with Europeans I have heard a wistfulness and regret for the loss of Christianity. The established churches have defaulted, and to the extent that they are monopolies, their failures have closed off access to Christian life and culture. This is a broad generalization, I know, but it is meant to counter a broader generalization, that Europe is no longer Christian.

     There is another narrative at work here, which feeds into the narrative of decline. Americans, for no reason I know of, take Europe to be the wave of the future and dismiss the fact of our vigorous religious culture in light of the supposed fact of the collapse of religious belief in Europe. It would seem that Americans have internalized a great prejudice against Christianity, assuming that it could not withstand the scrutiny of what they take to be a more intellectually sophisticated culture. How much anti-intellectualism, how much resentment of Europe and its influence, can be traced back to this prejudice? And how is it consistent with the belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of the nation? As I have said, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to be drawn in light of the many examples of nationalized and officialized religion that persist in the modern world. In general, this posture, this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic. Neither of these are emotions becoming in Christians or in the least degree likely to inspire thinking or action of a kind that deserves to be called Christian.

     What it does certainly resemble is nationalism, territorialism. I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran. I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world. If belief in Christ is necessary to the attaining of everlasting life, then it behooves anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, any institution that calls itself a church, to bring credit to the faith, at very least not to embarrass or disgrace it. Making God a tribal deity, our local Baal, is embarrassing and disgraceful. John Winthrop said we would be a city on a hill—I believe it was Peggy Noonan who added the word “shining,” changing the meaning of Winthrop’s words. And if Calvin’s commentary is to be trusted—and by Winthrop it probably was—she changed the meaning of Christ’s words, too. A city on a hill cannot be hid. The world will see what we make of ourselves. These self-induced panics do nothing to enhance the respect the world has for us or for religion or Christianity. And to the extent that we are associated with Christianity we run the risk of defacing it in the world’s eyes. I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks. But just as discredited institutions close the path to Christian faith for many good people, undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many more. I have the impulse, though not quite the confidence, to say, Woe unto those by whom the offense comes. I personally would not be surprised to see the secular enter into heaven before them. I know I presume in speaking in such terms.

     I differ from these self-declared patriots not only in the assumption that God loves the nations equally and that his grace is meant for all of them but also in my belief that the United States of America has done many things right. It is not especially decadent, as modern societies go, and the notion that it is, is both tendentious and uninformed. I think our democracy has in most cases served us well—this again by the standards that obtain among human societies, which is the only reasonable standard to bring to bear on it. I am so unpatriotic as to believe that most Americans are good people, committed to living good lives, and that the expansions of freedom that have been achieved by us and for us in the last few decades have been a very great moment in our history and in human history. I suspect the edge of fear, or the passion of fear, that can be heard more and more in the national conversation may have behind it a sense that these great societal changes are not a new birth of freedom but a slippery slope to perdition. There is a disturbing lack of confidence in democracy in the frightened resistance to the workings of democracy and its continuous evolution beyond the old constraints of traditional society and authoritarian government. It resembles nothing so much as the disturbing lack of faith in Christianity that puts the darkest interpretation on social change, religious diversity, foreign influence, the implications of science, and so much else besides. If Christianity expresses the nature and will of God, and if Christ will be with us even to the end of the age, why all this fear? If the United States is the greatest country on earth, why so little respect for its culture and people?

     I was traveling from Iowa to New York with my son not long after September 11. We passed a great many of those tall highway signs that usually advertise hardware sales and dinner specials. Most of them then said, GOD BLESS AMERICA. Only one of them said GOD HAS BLESSED AMERICA. Yes, he has. He has blessed us with one another. We have had an extraordinary experience here together. I don’t think anything is more emotionally stabilizing, more clarifying in every way, than gratitude, especially in dark times. And we have more reasons for gratitude than we could ever count, or even be aware of. But respectful attention to those around us would help us to take account of the human wealth that contributes so much to our lives. Then why not trust? Why not enjoy the country God has blessed, in all its turbulence and variety, rather than judge and condemn, as if by a standard of righteousness God himself does not see fit to apply? Of course we have seen bad times, and we will see more of them. I am such an unregenerate liberal as to feel that much of what we suffer and will suffer we could also alleviate or prevent. In my Bible, Jesus does not say, “I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.” I am so unpatriotic as to attach great importance to the day-to-day practical well-being of my fellow citizens. Until there is evidence that ideology mattered to Jesus, it will be of no interest to me. And we know now, if we want to know, how free and how wise and how principled those markets were, to which—for the greater good, of course—we subordinated practical concerns apparently so close to the heart of Christ, the feeding and clothing, the tending to the sick and respecting the humanity of the imprisoned. These good works, if they were assisted by means of governments, would make us like the French, they say. Whatever that means. I doubt that this notion is based on any actual knowledge of the French, but if it is, it certainly encourages me in the opinion that the secular have an excellent hope of heaven.

     What can we know about the voice of the old America that sang those songs? There have been a great many voices. My own tradition traces its history to Plymouth Rock. I know nothing about my own origins, at least nothing earlier than migration to Idaho and settlement there. I adopted myself into Congregationalism on the basis of affinity, as most of its present members have done. I mention Plymouth Rock only to make the point that we Congregationalists need not defer to anyone in the matter of our tenure on these shores. That ought to make us American, by one definition, at least. Yet we are largely responsible for what the self-declared traditionalists call the empty public square. For a long time we considered the cross an icon, so it was not displayed even in our churches. So far from keeping the Christ in Christmas, we forbade the observance of Christmas, aware as we were of its pagan origins and associations. On our greens there was neither cross nor crèche, for reasons of faith and piety. This might give comfort, if it is comfort they desire, to people who take the measure of the presence of religion in a place from the public display of religious symbols. We also influenced the character of the American university. On the model of the Academy of Geneva and other European universities, our earliest colleges required an education in the sciences and humanities, a command of secular learning, before a student was permitted to study divinity. So perhaps the great American decline began with us, early in the seventeenth century. Or perhaps this is a narrative of origins that needs to be told again, to help us make a better interpretation of our own civilization, where it came from, and what in it is traditional, at least, if not essential. And that in turn could lead us to a new discussion of what is of value and what is under threat.

     But all this is very parochial in the grand scheme of things. The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish. This would seem a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness. But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine. There is the human intimacy of the story—the astonishing, profoundly ordinary birth, the weariness of itinerancy, the beloved friends who disappoint bitterly and are still beloved, the humiliations of death—Jesus could know as well as anyone who has passed through life on this earth what it means to yearn for balm and healing. He could know what it would mean to hear a tender voice speaking of an ultimate home where sorrow ends and error is forgotten. Most wonderfully, he could be the voice that says to the weary of the world, “I will give you rest,” and “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.


Excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson Copyright © 2012 by Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Freedom of Thought 3

Imagination and Community 19

Austerity as Ideology 55

Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism 59

When I Was a Child 85

The Fate of ideas: Moses 95

Wondrous Love 125

The Human Spirit and the Good Society 143

Who Was Oberlin? 165

Cosmology 183

Notes 203

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  • Posted November 22, 2014


    I never highlight anything in a book. I keep my books pristine. You would not believe all the highlights that are now in When I Was A Child I Read Books. I was compelled to mark many passages. Robinson writes exactly what I think; but I do not have the ability to write. Great praise for the essays.

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  • Posted September 16, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    i dunno==i ordered the wrong book

    but it arrived quickly:)

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