Kathleen Norris’ lecture at the Frederick Buechner Center

“So what” is an essential question for people of faith: what does it matter that we worship, or meditate, or chant sutras? Another way of looking at that question — one that any church congregation could ask itself — is what would we, our neighborhood, our society miss if we weren’t here — we crazy people who choose to act as if God does indeed exist? The rector of my church in Honolulu asked that question of our congregation several years ago, and it moved us to expand our ministries in ways we could never have foreseen. We now offer free-wi-fi to the neighborhood; and host a weekly farmer’s market. We added a hot lunch to our monthly grocery give-away, giving our many elderly neighbors who come a rare chance to socialize.

But sometimes just the presence of a church — a space for something as useless and marvelous as worship — can be a powerful witness. Last year a woman staggered into our church office — she’d had a bad fight with her boyfriend, and had taken an overdose of barbiturates. She’d left their apartment, and after wandering for a bit, was headed to a park where she might curl up under a tree and die. We’re across the street from that park; and the woman told the church secretary that when she saw the church she realized that she wanted to live. Tell that story the next time an atheist tries to tell you that churches serve no purpose; or a misguided and bitter poet says that religious language is a dead language.

via Frederick Buechner Center.


Today in Marilynne Robinson links

Did you know she was a “narrative Calvinist“?

An interview with her from The Atlantic. It’s all worth reading, but perhaps given other recent blog entries, this exchange is especially interesting:

How has it been for you being a profoundly religious person who’s spent much of your life in the mostly secular university setting?

I’m a great admirer of secularism. At its best, I think it’s one of the best things that we have. I don’t believe in insinuating religion into conversation. I don’t believe in excluding it from conversation. I enjoy the fact that people’s innermost thoughts are their own. I think actually that writers tend unusually to have a religious aspect to their thinking, whether or not they’re formally religious in any way. I never feel isolated in this.

At the same time, it’s an inappropriate use of a classroom to exclude the possibility of religious thought, or to insinuate it. But any human situation is imperfect. People are on one side or the other. I think people who choose a religiously oriented education can get an excellent education of that kind. I like being in a larger environment. I’m already interested in what interests me almost to the point of obsession, and I don’t feel the need to be in a setting that reinforces it.

The idea that there are huge spaces in which everyone feels equally at home, and that everyone can choose within the vast ways of responding to religion or anything else, is excellent. It’s much too precious, should never be ridiculed or minimized.

A review, also from The Atlantic, of her oeuvre.

An audio interview with her, from The Guardian. Gilead is the featured book in The Guardian Book Club. Here’s her writing about it for that audience.

And finally, Andrew Delbanco’s review of When I was a child I read books, from last month’s New York Times.

Marilynne Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books

Her new book of essays is out.

One of the essays is here (Guernica)

We should drop the pretense that we know what we don’t know, about our origins and about our present state. Specifically, we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.

I would like to propose a solution of sorts, ancient and authoritative but for all that very sporadically attended to. What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God? It will certainly be objected that we have no secure definitions of major terms. How much do we know about God, after all? How are we to understand this word “created”? In what sense can we be said to share or participate in the divine image, since the Abrahamic traditions are generally of one mind in forbidding the thought that the being of God is resolvable to an image of any kind?

But it is on just these grounds that this conception would rescue us from the problems that come with our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed. It would allow us to acknowledge the fact, manifest in culture and history, that we are both terrible and very wonderful. Since the movement of human history has been toward a knowledge and competence that our ancestors could not have imagined, an open definition like this one would protect us from the error of assuming that we know our limits, for good or for harm. Calvin understood our status as images of God to have reference to our brilliance. He said, truly and as one who must have known from his own experience, that we are brilliant even in our dreams. There is much that is miraculous in a human being, whether that word “miraculous” is used strictly or loosely. And to acknowledge this fact would enhance the joy of individual experience and enhance as well the respect with which we regard other people, those statistically almost-impossible fellow travelers on our profoundly unlikely planet. There is no strictly secular language that can translate religious awe, and the usual response to this fact among those who reject religion is that awe is misdirected, an effect of ignorance or superstition or the power of suggestion and association. Still, to say that the universe is extremely large, and that the forces that eventuate in star clusters and galaxies are very formidable indeed, seems deficient—qualitatively and aesthetically inadequate to its subject.

Another essay from the collection “Reclaiming a Sense of the SacredChronicle is particularly thought-provoking and moving.


When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Another excerpt is here (Commonweal)

Reviews are here:

A comparison of her and Terence Malick (Tree of Life)

Truthfulness, Dignity, and Aesthetic Quality: Marilynne Robinson on the possibilities of Christianity

Marilynne Robinson, the author of the beautiful novels Gilead and Home, recently visited Duke University where she gave a reading and was interviewed by Jason Byassee. In the course of that interview, she said

What people need in this culture is truthfulness, dignity and aesthetic quality. Not everything in the world, but many things are depleting exactly those aspects of life now.

The churches are in a position to give people what they urgently need and give them something that is only consistent with their dignity as human beings.

This intrigues me because of what she suggests about what the churches might offer humans “truthfulness and dignity” and the importance of beauty. One of the great challenges facing us as individuals and as a civilization is the extent to which everything in our world tends towards our diminishment–the reduction of human desire to consumption, of human community to immediate self-satisfaction, and of human fulfillment to wealth accumulation.

There’s a sense in which our encounter with beauty, whether that be the beauty of nature, of art or architecture, of literature or music, invites us to self-transcendence. It’s what I see when I watch a wanderer off the street encounter the interior of Grace Church, or chat with a visitor after our choral Eucharist. It’s also something of what Grace has offered in the midst of the political turmoil over the last year.

The entire interview is here. And her reading of parallel passages from Gilead and Home available as a podcast.

Robinson has also published a rambling essay in the most recent issue of The Nation. In this piece she reflects on developments in the culture of the West in the wake of financial turmoil by playing the present off against the cultural conflict of the Cold War.

She writes:

I have always identified the United States with its best institutions and traditions, its best thought, believing, and having seen, that they could act as a corrective to the less admirable aspects of the culture. I have profoundly enjoyed the wealth of experience that has been offered to me, and I hope I have made some use of it. Yet it seems to me, on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization. This may sound alarmist. But it is true, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, that fear is very much to be feared, not least because it is a potent stimulant. Nothing is so effective at foregrounding self-interest. Yet fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase.

Some poetry for Tuesday in the Third Week of Advent

First, from The Guardian comes an article by Carol Rumens on David Wheatley’s “St. Brenhilda on Sula Sgeir.”

Then, Robert Pinsky on sonnets by John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins that refer to Jeremiah 12:1: “Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously?” (KJV).

Donne concludes his sonnet with an image of a forgetful God. It’s a notion I’ve been coming back to often in the past few months. It definitely challenges common assumptions about God, but is of great consolation, too.

Wendell Berry in Madison

Wendell Berry gave a reading in Madison yesterday. He was the keynote speaker for the Wisconsin Book Festival. Taking his cue from the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s program called “Making it Home,” Berry read his story of the same name. It is the tale of a soldier returning home from World War II and walking the last miles. Berry is a poet, essayist, and writer of fiction who has a great deal to say about the relationship between people and the land. In his introduction to the story, he spoke of the destruction of WWII, and of how in the years following 1945, a parallel destruction took place in the American landscape with the rise of industrialized agriculture and wanton removal of our natural resources.

Berry’s writing is suffused with a sense of the sacred; he has a keen eye for the landscape and for the landscape of the interior self. His language has the cadence and imagery of the biblical text. And occasionally there is a direct or close paraphrase. For example, the last sentences of the story he read are “Honey, run yonder to the house. Tell your granny to set on another plate. For we have our own that was gone and has come again.” That last is of course an allusion to the words of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son

In the question and answer period that followed, Berry stressed again the central themes of his life’s work, the importance of place, of the relationship between the people and the land, and the notion that communities are not virtual or digital, but rather created and maintained in place. That is something of theological import, given the long struggle within Christianity over the nature of community and the idea that the body of Christ transcends the local and particular.

Berry is a profound thinker and a beautiful writer and hearing him read brings the people and the land of the Kentucky hills to life.