Hymns of Gratitude
An Essay on the Work of Marilynne Robinson
on the Occasion of her newest novel, Lila
By Rachel Marie Stone
(This essay originally appeared in our print magazine, Advent 2014 issue. Are you a subscriber? Get more info and signup now!)
“I don’t know how to say this,” I said to Marilynne Robinson, as she signed her name to my copy of her fourth and most recent novel, Lila, “but I feel that your writing has changed my life for the better, and I want to thank you for that.”
“Thank you for telling me,” she said, looking right into my eyes, utterly in earnest—none of the “yes, yes, thank you for reading” dismissal one might expect from a writer who has received as much attention and acclaim as she has. “That is good to know,” she said. I gathered up my signed copy and ducked away, blushing. I felt like I was leaving the communion rail.
Roger Kimball, writing in the New York Times Book Review about Robinson’s third book, a collection of nonfiction essays titled The Death of Adam, captured one of the life-altering qualities of Robinson’s writing, praising her for “her refusal to take her opinions secondhand,” calling her writing “a goad to renewed curiosity.”
Indeed. I came to Robinson just after my formal education—graduate studies in English—had drawn to a close. As is the case for too many of us, my own education, even at its best, largely consisted of instructions about what was and was not permissible to think, to believe and to pay attention to.
I’m not speaking here only of my experience as an undergraduate at a small, narrowly and reflexively conservative Christian college, though that was predictably limiting, intellectually speaking: one of the better-educated professors assured us that while we might attempt to disagree with his doctrinal positions in our papers, we would not receive a good grade unless we persuaded him of our correctness–he whose continued employment depended upon his continued fidelity to those same doctrinal positions.
Yet even in graduate school, in a university altogether different, I found that though the outlines of orthodoxy had changed considerably, certain border-patrolling commitments had changed very little.
Aesthetic and humanist considerations of the text were not to be countenanced, for it was imperative that we learn, above all, that we could trust few to none of our own perceptions. We—or at least, people less enlightened than we were on our way to becoming— believed themselves to be, well, a self, but we had to learn better. We were all of us enmeshed in complex identities involving our race, our class, our gender, our nationality, and to posit something universal and shared across those boundaries was almost an academic crime.
And so my education had been largely a process of socialization. As an undergraduate, I wrote a doctrinal statement to be approved by the faculty in Bible and theology before I graduated. As a graduate student, I learned what texts—and what aspects of those texts—are and are not acceptable in today’s academic climate. It’s academic finishing school, learning to stay current with intellectual fashion trends so as to be able to accessorize your thinking, writing, and speaking accordingly.
I need hardly say that in both institutions of higher learning, certain figures were revered or reviled even when they were not fully understood. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were scary liberals—scarcely Christians at all—in one place. In the other, they were either ignored completely or else regarded as dealing in metaphysics, mystical nonsense interesting only for its sociological implications, but not because it might actually say something about lived human experience, which, we were solemnly warned, was not a thing to be attended to, much less credited.
In that context, I developed an acute anxiety not unlike the kind that plagues adolescents: am I reading things that I will not be mocked for reading? Am I formulating opinions on these things that will be acceptable in the circles into which I aspire to gain admittance?
Surely, the friend who introduced me to Marilynne Robinson—as brilliant and kind and well-read as anyone I have ever known—also knew of and herself struggled to negotiate these strange tensions. Perhaps that is why she knew I needed to read Robinson, so that I might free myself from intellectual shackles wherever they presented themselves, whether on the left or on the right, to use a crude and wholly inadequate generalization.