Everything that matters: Marilynne Robinson’s book on Genesis teaches us how to talk about God

Marilyn RobinsonAustralians love a long weekend, and our longest long weekend is this week’s. I don’t hear anybody complaining about having Friday and Monday off, but Easter itself — apart from a few chocolate egg hunts — goes little marked now in Australia. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday: these are like way markers on what used to be a main road but has been much quieter since they built that bypass.


by Natasha Moore

Australians love a long weekend, and our longest long weekend is this week’s. I don’t hear anybody complaining about having Friday and Monday off, but Easter itself — apart from a few chocolate egg hunts — goes little marked now in Australia. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday: these are like way markers on what used to be a main road but has been much quieter since they built that bypass.

Actually, there are a lot of us who still use this road, who still find the way markers useful in describing the landscape we all travel through. About 17 per cent of Australians attend a church service on Good Friday and/or Easter Sunday, and the story of Jesus the God-Man who was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead continues to mark our culture in more and less obtrusive ways.

How to talk about the old stories, then, in a context where they both are and are not current, where they both are and are not known? And why talk about them?

It’s the question that underpins the work my colleagues and I do at the Centre for Public Christianity — in short, talking about Christianity in public — and we’re constantly returning to it. We think that the conversations we have as a secular culture are worse off if Christians absent themselves and the insights of this ancient faith from them. We also think that the onus is generally on Christians (and those of other faiths, perhaps) to find ways to bridge the gap between secular and religious language and thought. To go out of our way to explain what we’re talking about, to acknowledge that you may well find our beliefs alien or silly, to make a case for why you ought to care anyway.

“Sermonizing about an actual God”

The American writer Marilynne Robinson cheerfully disregards any such convention. Widely referred to as one of the great living novelists, her body of work, from the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead to her various collections of essays, seems simply oblivious to the fact that not everyone would consider Puritan theology, or the nature of heaven, say, pertinent to topics such as gun culture in America or the purpose of tertiary education. She describes reality as she sees it — earnestly, beautifully, without prevarication or justification — and expects the reader to accompany her. And, by and large, they do.

At 80, Robinson has just published her latest book, which is called Reading Genesis and does exactly what it says on the tin. When was the last time a commentary on the first (or any) book of the Bible received, upon release, reviews — let alone glowing ones — in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and so on? The volume, which isn’t terribly long but contains no chapter breaks and launches straight in with the line, “The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil”, makes few if any concessions to the reader. It assumes that the book of Genesis, and the God whom Robinson finds revealed in it, is a perfectly reasonable, even inevitable topic for a public commentator to take up at length amid the polycrisis of 2024. And for the most part, the reading world has simply fallen into line behind this pied piper of prose.

Not exclusively, of course. Ezra Klein, on his New York Times podcast, spends an hour speaking with Robinson very much on her terms. So far as I know, Klein is Jewish by culture but not belief; so while the book of Genesis is significant to him, it is a testament to the almost hypnotic powers of Robinson’s writing that his questions seem to concede the premise of a God who creates, who is working out his plans for humankind, who underpins a violence-soaked, grief-laden world with mercy and grace rather than judgement.

By contrast, the literary scholar and book critic James Wood, over at The New Yorker, is plainly disconcerted by Robinson’s unabashed belief in the text she is explicating. “At some point”, he writes, “you realize that Robinson is not merely paraphrasing the text’s sacred premises” — suspending belief in order to enter into the literary and cultural significance of the text of Genesis — “she is sermonizing about an actual God and his actual Providence”. There is an emperor’s-new-clothes note to Wood’s review; he seems perplexed that others have so willingly fallen under the book’s spell, asserting the need to “[pinch] ourselves from time to time with good, strong secular fingers” and “rid ourselves of the illusion that we are witnessing God himself in action”. How many books published this year will require of the sceptical reader such vigilance to keep from slipping into the heresy of theism?

In fact, Wood is “guilty” of the same rhetorical begging-of-the-question that he finds objectionable in Reading Genesis. For those who grew up in a religious tradition, he writes, it is “in truth, very hard to remember … that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not God himself but a collection of human approximations and reckonings and inspired fictions”. In truth. He assumes the non-existence (or at least inaccessibility) of this God in just the same way as Robinson assumes his existence. As a rule, as a courtesy, we should probably only talk like this when preaching to the choir (so to speak); writing in a public space, you cannot assume that the reader shares your metaphysical commitments, and if you do, you’ll likely alienate the ones who don’t.

Robinson’s assumption is more noticeable, more startling, than Wood’s because less common — not necessarily less common in reality (rates of belief in a God or higher power generally, and in the God of the Bible specifically, remain relatively high in many “secular” Western countries), but certainly less common in practice. What is gained by sidestepping the contested ground of, say, God’s existence? What happens if you, the reader, go with Robinson — either sharing her belief, or suspending your disbelief — on this tour through arguably the key foundational text of our civilisation?

“Difficulty, grace, kindness”

What we find in Robinson’s reading of Genesis is almost the opposite of what we may expect to find there, because what she finds in Genesis is more or less the opposite of what most people expect to find in Genesis. On some level, both believer and sceptic anticipate that Genesis will be primitive — and the reverence of the sophisticated contemporary novelist for every line and cadence of these terribly ancient words instead sets the profound sophistication of the text, if anything, somewhere beyond our grasp.

If in the popular mind the commonalities between the early stories of Genesis and certain Babylonian myths (of creation, of an apocalyptic flood) counts as a mark against the biblical text, Robinson marvels at how elegantly, how effectively, it uses those pre-existing tales to measure out the yawning chasm between two conceptions of reality. It insists that the created order is intentional, not incidental; it is an order, not a chaos; and that humans are central to it — designed, desired, dignified — not a means to an end, not a plaything of indifferent or malevolent forces.

If in the popular mind the God of Genesis is an abstraction, or a frighteningly arbitrary meter-out of judgement, Robinson uses words like tact and restraint, grief and tenderness, to characterise this God. In her conversation with Ezra Klein, she noted that “people read the Old Testament and they want to see revenge. And that’s what they see, even though very characteristically, this is not what is there to be seen.” The text takes with extreme seriousness the taking of human life, establishing that the shedding of human blood will be punished by the shedding of human blood: “homicide is self-destruction”, Robinson notes. The destruction of an image of God by an image of God, a terrible thing. “Yet in every situation in Genesis where revenge seems just and inevitable”, she observes, “no revenge is taken.” God spares Cain’s life, though he murdered his brother; Esau does not take vengeance on Jacob for cheating him; Judah accepts his own guilt instead of insisting his daughter-in-law Tamar be condemned; Joseph forgives his brothers for their long and deep betrayal.

Robinson makes a compelling case that we — you and I — may tend more to retaliation, to bloodthirstiness, than this “primitive” book. When we bring our vaunted humanism to what we expect to be an alien text, we discover that the measure we want to judge it by is in fact the very measure it birthed into the world. As T.S. Eliot wrote in another context, “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did’. Precisely, and they are that which we know.” Robinson sums up the moral thrust of Genesis and of Reading Genesis thus: “If one wishes to align oneself with the will of God, granting every difficulty, grace, kindness is clearly the safer choice.”

The double realism of Genesis

If we are willing to look as Robinson looks, then, our tour guide shows us that Genesis consistently confounds our expectations — disappoints them, wondrously transcends them. For Robinson the novelist draws out for us the astonishing realism of the text.

There is no other term for what she describes, really, than domestic realism — a term usually reserved for a kind of attention to domestic life and individual interiority that does not emerge until the nineteenth-century novel. The narrative of Scripture, Robinson points out, moves “with astonishing speed” from “Let there be light” to incredibly intimate scenes of hapless, fearful, misguided, intermittently noble humans muddling their way through birth and death, marriage and infertility, jealousy and suspicion. Infinite shades of love and of suffering. The majority of the text narrates the small but, somehow, hugely consequential lives of a handful of pastoralists, a narrow and precarious family line, who have been singled out by the God of the universe to carry forward his plans for the entirety of the world and the human race he has brought into arduous being. Robinson is at pains to show how unexpected all of this is:

What is theological about watching domestic malaise and turmoil work its way through these lives? Let us say that God lets human beings be human beings, and that His will is accomplished through or despite them but is never dependent on them. The remarkable realism of the Bible, the voices it captures, the characterization it achieves, are products of an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature.

Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Lot, Laban, Judah, Simeon, Tamar: these humans, recognisable from a distance of millennia, are not the heroes of a mythical past — in the sense that their lives are so utterly ordinary, but also in the sense that they are often morally unimpressive, petty and self-interested and sometimes monstrously violent. Robinson notes how easy it would be for the preservers and redactors of these tales to spruce them up a bit, to smooth over the rough edges of their forebears:

History is so much a matter of distortion and omission that dealing in truth feels like a breach of etiquette. However, if a people truly believed that it interacted with God the Creator, it might find every aspect of its history too significant to conceal.

This double realism — domestic and moral — is itself, she writes, “a sort of miracle”. The text itself is “a gracious and divine act”, holding in trust for all generations since and to come the frailties and shames of these particular men and women, which are also our own, and which in no way compromise God’s commitment to them or us.

“How history happens”

A further, related, consistency that Robinson finds threaded through the collection of stories that is Genesis is a sustained attention to how the actions and reactions of individuals add up to — often, in spite of themselves — the great sweep of history. The mystery that confronts us every day as we read the news (read: bad news) is how to understand at the same time the irreducible mattering of each human life, and the vast scale of what’s happening in the world. Can the one really count among the ungraspably many?

This is a mystery Robinson sees Genesis addressing directly, most starkly in the moment where God shows an elderly, childless Abraham the stars in the night sky and declares, “So shall your descendants be”:

… how is one unique life to be thought of over against God’s intention that there should be, as there have been and are, uncountable multitudes of lives? Is the meaning of a single soul diminished by sheer numbers of souls? Do any of us exist in excess of God’s capacity for awareness, compassion, or love?

Famously a self-declared Calvinist, Robinson wrestles in her reading of Genesis with the text’s insistence at the same time on divine intentionality within human history, and on genuine human agency within that. The Hebrew writers, she says, “knew how history happens”, as the aggregate of “numberless little episodes of anger, cruelty, presumption and the rest”, and what that means for every one of us:

Theologically speaking, the possibility that, however obscure we think we are, we can be or refuse to be the agents of great harm, seems brilliantly designed to make anyone at all a significant moral actor.

And yet: “The covenant” — which is to say, God’s promises laying out his intentions for the humans he has made — “would be in continuous peril if it depended for its survival on human loyalty rather than on God’s steadfastness. From a scriptural point of view, this could be said of everything that matters.”

Everything that matters. What is gained, if you choose to accompany Robinson on this expedition through the territory of human origins, existence, and consequence, is the capacity to hold together two crucial ideas: that what we do matters, and that there is no possibility of us truly knowing what it is we do:

When Jesus says of his executioners “They know not what they do”, we can appreciate how very radically his words understate the case. If the same were said of the mythic progenitors of human history, Adam and Eve, or of the splitters of the atom, the creators of antibiotics, and all the rest of us, the truth of these words would overwhelm our power to conceive.

To take Genesis seriously makes it possible for us to talk about the experience and the meaning of being human; to take Easter seriously makes it possible for us to talk about mortality and immortality, the ruination and the mending of the earth. It’s true we don’t talk so much about God in public anymore; Reading Genesis stands as evidence that we may all be the poorer for it.

 

Marilyn Robinson
Everything that matters: Marilynne Robinson’s book on Genesis teaches us how to talk about God

 

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She is the author of For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined and of The Pleasures of Pessimism. She is also a co-host of the podcast Life & Faith. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.


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