What Are We Doing Here? Essays / by Marilynne Robinson. 12.26.2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 9780374282219

Adult Rating: 4

Marilynne Robinson is a set of self-described identities that are not generally found together: biblicist, Calvinist, mainline Protestant, theological (and all-around) liberal. Her essay collections, including the new What Are We Doing Here?, reflect these interests and proclivities—and likewise build up to something unique: an intellectual who writes about Christianity and the Bible with genuine knowledge of each and with a distinct voice.

Robinson is the author of the Pulitzer-prize-winning Housekeeping as well as several successor novels known for their theological themes, their classic American setting, and their excellent prose. Her essay collections bear all the same features. It was an odd experience for this reviewer to find himself more proud of the good ol’ U.S. of A. after reading certain essays: Robinson is something of a conservative liberal who refuses to throw under the utopian bus the traditions and institutions which made her who she was. Born in a no-name Idaho town during the thick of WWII, she was nonetheless given an education which, quite clearly, rivals that of any wealthy prep school elite.

Given her paradoxical self-descriptions, it is no surprise that some of Robinson’s viewpoints are less persuasive than others. She explicitly affirms “the authority” of the Bible, interprets it carefully and often, and yet feels free to go her own way on several key issues of contemporary import (e.g., she supports gay marriage). From the perspective of Christian theology, this is a weakness in Robinson’s ad hoc essay collection.

But Robinson’s strengths are so strong that, even when the reader does not agree, the reader profits. Her prose style is clear but demanding—in a way that confers respect upon those lucky enough to have the skill, time, and opportunity to read Robinson.

To evangelical Christians this reviewer says: do read Robinson. Read her for her critiques of scientism and Darwinism and materialism; read her for her rich understanding of the tradition of the Puritans both English and American. Read her for her careful insights into Scripture, despite and because of their unexpected source. Stick around for her critiques of various political ideologies. And then just enjoy the sheer pleasure of reading someone who knows how to write.