Marilynne Robinson is a consummate artist in at least two literary genres - the novel and the essay. The novels are now beyond the need for recommendation; not to have read them is to have missed storytelling that probes the depths of human experience and persuades the reader of the loveable fragility of human beings caught up in the tragi-comic dramas of their own lives. I expect to read the novels again in the same way I expect to listen to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto again, and drink a Cappucino with a bacon rolldown at the Pavilion Cafe again, and make time to meet with friends and tell the stories of our lives to each other.
The essays are a different genre, but they are written out of the same generous view of the world as the novels. Trying to explain why Robinson is such a captivating writer, and why the best words to describe her writing might include such unlikely c0-descriptors as wise, astringent, holy, old fashioned, uncompromising, compassionate, analytic and discursive, begins to sound as pointless as painting a word picture of Van Gogh's Cafe on a Starry Night. For example to say her writing is holy is misleading, if by that is meant dealing with holy subjects. But it is precisely the right word to describe the concerns and inner life of the writer who sees the world as the theatre of God's glory, holiness and love, and does so without reducing these to mere words, platitudes and other safe but anemic terminology. God is God in Robinson's writing; no domesticated super parent, and no speculative construct rising from the wayward certainties of philosophies like so many kites cut free from their strings.
Reading The Givenness of Things has the surprising effect of wanting to go and read the novels again in the light of the author's confessions of faith, doubt and patience with a God who doesn't suit those who have bought into the consumer customer care culture as the palce where we discover what life is all about. For Robinson life is all about living in the world of creation and people as someone who observes and listens to the heartbeats of life. In her essay on Metaphysics she quotes Calvin; it should be said that Robinson regards Calvin in precisely the way the great Free Church of Scotland preacher Alexander Whyte advised of his students when he told them to "get themselves into a relation of indebtedness to one the great minds of the past." She is not uncritical of Calvin, but she regards him as a safe standpoint from which to view the changing landscape of ideas. He is the measure of theological and cultural movements and developments, and his intellectual and theological hold on the reality of God enables her to test whether these movements and developments are passing fads and fashions, or insights of enduring importance because rooted and grounded in the Christian tradition of scripture and doctrine.
The abandonment of metaphysics as an essential foundation for human knowing she sees as both tragic and a mistake. She takes with utmost seriousness the poetry of the Johannine prologue and the Colossian hymn (1.15-20) "My Christology is high, in that I take Christ to be with God, and to be God. And I take it to be true that without him nothing was made that was made. This opens on all being of every kind, including everything unknow to us still, and everything never to be know to us, for which our words and concepts may well be wholly inadequate. So naturally I view cogency with considerable mistrust." This essay becomes a conversation around the nature of God and the revelation of God in Jesus the Christ. The Prologue of John "has nerved me to embrace the thought that the presence of Christ in the moment of Creation would have meant that the nature of Christ is intrinsic to Creation, and an aspect of the relation of God to the world from the very outset. At which point she quotes Calvin who in his commentary on John 3.16 urges the believer to gaze in faith, "fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love."
It is an interesting comparison, the writer of the essays in full theological flow, and the writer of the novels where God is a leading character in the background whose presence or absence impinges on the characters, their choices and circumstances, what they do and what befalls them. And then from the same essay there is this: "I understand Calvin to mean that the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth made manifest what was always true, that there was a love that could only be made known to us through a gesture of such unthinkable grandeur and generosity - over and above the grandeur and generosity of Creation itself." It is worth noting, Robinson describes God with words to often absent from mainstream theologies of whatever hue - grandeur and generosity.
Each of the essays in this volume is similarly confessional, theologically moored in "biblical and traditional theology." It's a mistake to be less than attentive to a writer whose thought range and conversational breadth includes John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Descartes, Chrysostom, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards and an array of secondary writers and thinkers I'd never heard of before! The theological vision and framework that informs the essays, particularly the recurring expositions of the nature of God in Christ, are limned and woven through the fabrics of the novels. A close reading of this essay on Metaphysics followed by a re-reading of Lila will be an interesting exercise in hermeneutics, or source criticism, or spiritual autobiography.