Michelle C. Sanchez
April 27, 2017
Thank you, first to Dean Hempton for the introduction, and also to my colleagues for allowing me the great honor and delight of introducing tonight’s Ingersoll lecturer. Marilynne Robinson’s accomplishments, awards, and accolades are too many to name. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Brown University and her PhD at the University of Washington, where she wrote a dissertation on William Shakespeare. She has spent many years as a beloved teacher at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she is now professor emeritus; and she has also held a range of positions at many colleges and universities, including several here in Massachusetts.
For those of us not lucky enough to sit in her classrooms, Marilynne Robinson teaches through her published writing. She has given the world five collections of essays, with the most recent being The Givenness of Things in 2015.
And, of course, there’s her four stunning works of fiction. First, in 1980, there was Housekeeping. At the time, the reviewer for The New York Times wrote that the novel seemed to “break through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieve a kind of transfiguration . . . a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.” These words of praise are just as true of her more recent novels: three books that trace the lives of three very different human beings whose souls are nevertheless intertwined in and through the small town of Gilead, Iowa.
Gilead, Home, and Lila have each earned a number of important prizes, including a Pulitzer, an Orange Award, and a National Book Critics Award. But more importantly, they are now intertwined more broadly in the souls of readers who love and are challenged by them—including our former president, Barack Obama. In 2015, he awarded Robinson the National Humanities Medal for her “grace and intelligence in writing.” He also conducted a remarkable interview with her for The New York Review of Books. (You should check it out if you haven’t read it.)
As the current scholar of John Calvin at Harvard Divinity School, I cross paths with a lot of people who care about religion, as well as with a truly shocking number of Presbyterian pastors: male and female, older and younger, gay and straight. So before I’d even read Marilynne Robinson’s work, it came to me as big news that there was a novelist out there who talks about Calvin—and actually seems to like the guy. I’ve had several young ministers ask me, in a kind of cautious whisper, whether I think Calvin is all that Robinson says he is. Could it be so?
Michelle C. Sanchez.
Still, in preparation for this event, I wanted to get a better sense for how Marilynne Robinson’s work is viewed by the wider public. So I pored over a slightly embarrassing number of media pieces. And I was struck that the points of interest were in fact much the same: people are downright fascinated by a novelist, with widespread influence, who also deeply cares about religious thought and life.
One of my favorite lines, in fact, came from none other than Vogue magazine’s coverage of the Robinson-Obama conversation. The author expressed astonishment at how the president of the United States engaged in “an uncontrived, non-primetime, philosophical, even theological meeting of the minds with a public figure he reveres.”
Yes, even theological. And from Vogue to the London Telegraph to Wikipedia, it remains particularly Robinson’s outspoken affection for one John Calvin that always seems to rise to the byline.
Perhaps this is because, like any good story, it establishes a puzzle: What could this liberal-minded author—such a purveyor of beauty, of humanism, of the divine image in every human life—see in a five-hundred-year-old figure often depicted, in her words, as an “apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city”?
Well, first, I have no doubt that she would quickly assert that the glories of human life on the stage of a dazzling creation were themes very much on Calvin’s mind. (I’d gladly back her up.)
But there is another dimension to this puzzling relationship that I take to be crucial, and that is the sense in which Calvin and Robinson share a deep love and respect for the act of writing itself.
Careful readers of Calvin will know that he signs his last edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion not with his own name but with a citation of Augustine that reads as follows: “I count myself among those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”
Calvin displays deep affection for the power of narrative—not only to exercise the imagination but also to trigger our memory and clarify our perception of the things around us. For Calvin, words and things don’t exist in two separate domains; things give, carry, and share narratives like a fine web. They are there to persuade us, not only of the limits of what we think or see, but also of the mysterious depths that we have yet to think or see.
There are many such moments in Marilynne Robinson’s narratives: the ashy biscuit that John Ames receives from his father in the rain that recasts his entire sense of what his life has meant; those sweaters and coats of Ames’s that signify more to Lila than she can claim. This is all very much in keeping with how Calvin frames the significance not only of the bread and wine shared in church, but fingernails, clouds, even the fleshy humanity of Christ himself. What is key, for the searchers of writing and learning, is that strings of words don’t mean without the weightiness and details of those bodies that give, resist, and transform them.
At one point, Lila’s inner reflection offers what might be the best working definition of theology that I’ve ever read: she recalls that “when the Reverend talked about angels . . . the notion helped her to think about certain things.” The notion helped her to think about certain things: to begin to perceive the fine webs of relationships that surround the things that happen; to remember the force of things overlooked; and even to gently veil those things too sacred to be uttered without care.
To boldly reclaim the inheritance of someone like Calvin as a writer strikes me as being different from merely reclaiming him as a kind of figurehead. Nostalgia wants to reassert some lost identity between words and bodies. The memory of the writer wants something different: it wants to remember the metaphors—the distances and collisions between things present and things lost.
This is what I’ve learned from the puzzle of Marilynne Robinson’s fandom: she is such an insightful reader of Calvin precisely because she reads Calvin as a writer for whom writing never stops being learning. In so doing, she helps many of us to think about certain things . . . things uncontrived, non-primetime, philosophical, and, yes, even theological.
Please join me in welcoming Marilynne Robinson.