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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essaysby Marilynne Robinson
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 Jesuss as well as Marys. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesuss 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 cant 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 childrens. 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 arent 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 ones 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 worlds 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. Christs 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 Christs 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 writers 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 writers 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 Jesuss 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 Gideons 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 Pauls 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 Freuds 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 Gods 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 Winthrops words. And if Calvins commentary is to be trusted—and by Winthrop it probably was—she changed the meaning of Christs 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 worlds 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 dont 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 Fathers 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.
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