The Blinkered Prophetess
The Blinkered Prophetess
Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Doug Wilson

Like many conservatives, I have been able to enjoy the writing of Marilynne Robinson, even though she appears to be quite at home in the liberal mainline tradition. Despite the differences I have had with her outlook on many issues, her novels have been written with depth, nuance, and sensitivity. This is apparently because she writes about the Fifties, back when all those characteristics were still legal.

In Gilead and Home, when Ames and Broughton have their periodic political “fusses,” the first thing you see in and through the portrait is their humanity. You see how the issues are complicated, and how good people get themselves tangled up in complicated things.

You can see this in her treatment of the civil rights unrest in Montgomery, and you see it in her treatment of the Civil War — in the flashbacks in Gilead about Ames’ father and grandfather, and in the tensions between radicalism and pacifism. In her novels, some of the characters have demons, but none of them are demons. There are absolutely no cartoons.

The thing that is striking about all this is that it has become plain to me that Robinson would be clearly incapable of writing a first rate novel, of the same kind as these, set in the present time. In a recent interview with Religion News Service (more here and here), she spoke in some very skewed and unflattering ways about people she clearly doesn’t understand at all. She has a prophetic eye, pressed to the keyhole of a very small room. She is a blinkered prophetess.

In that interview, she discusses conservative Christians, and it is astounding — given how she writes her novels — to find nothing but cartoons. Think of an evangelical NRA Dad on a sitcom for CBS — that level. Christians want to carry a gun because they are “scared of the world.” Opposition to same sex mirage is an “old issue,” and there will come a time when we will stop “calling down brimstone.” Opposition to homosexuality based on the Old Testament shipwrecks, she says, on the modern practice of “eating oysters.” Those who think this way are “primitive.’ Well, color me Ooog. She says that pro-life Christians are all about “babies that don’t exist yet” and are “so negligent of babies that need help.”

Now it would be easy to get distracted here, and go charging off to answer the cartoon critique. That would be easy enough to do, but it would really miss what is happening. What we have here is a spectacular crash of a literary imagination — one that is capable of flying really high.

At the end of the interview, she is asked about Twitter and Facebook, and responded more revealingly than she knew. She said, “I’d have to educate myself about what contemporary culture is, because all of these words are essentially meaningless to me . . . So I might as well just write about 1956.” I think this is very wise, but she also needs to have limited herself to interviews about 1956. She has no more idea of what pro-life adoptive parents who vote against the welfare state are like than she has of Facebook like buttons.

Liberalism had its genesis in a failure of imagination, and as it has gone progressively to seed, it has become increasingly hostile to imagination — which includes the ability to place yourself in circumstances not your own. In the early days of liberalism, this was an insular and provincial approach. Sometimes it was cute. As William F. Buckley once put it, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” But as the intolerance intrinsic to liberalism has grown stronger, we now have the phenomenon of other views getting shouted down, run out of business, or packed off to sensitivity training.

Robinson is a holdover from the early days. She is an NPR liberal, not an intolerista liberal. She is a nice lady in a mainstream Congregational church, and apparently doesn’t get out much. She has had a failure of imagination here, not a full-fledged rebellion against it. Neither one is praiseworthy, of course, and her failure is culpable. But in her case it is also ironic and contradictory. She is an astute woman who is failing to be astute. It is like Wendell Berry that time, champion of natural, signing off on unnatural acts.

What is sad about this in her case is that she has been peculiarly gifted by God with an imaginative gift. When she exercises her impulses of imaginative and sympathetic charity — as she is able to do with John Calvin, for instance — she excels at it. But with modern day heirs of Calvin, not so much.

In his conclusion to An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis says this:

“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (EIC, p. 141).

Robinson does have the ability to enable readers to do that. When I was reading Gilead, I was astounded at Robinson’s ability to write in the first person, and to have the narrator be an elderly man, a pastor, reflecting on many years of ministry. The things I was familiar with rang true, and the things she introduced to me rang just as true. It was magnificent.

As it turns out, it was also a very narrow success. Conservative Christians who want to continue to appreciate her writing probably need to do it at a distance. Meeting her, and having an actual conversation, would burst the bubble she lives in.

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