Summary: Marilynne Robinson, the renowned American novelist and essayist, received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead, perhaps contemporary literature’s best description of the complexities of faith. As with her other essay collections, When I Was a Child I Read Books focuses on religion, science, U.S. history, and life in rural America.
Why this is The BEST: Robinson productively combines a spirited defense of religion with admirable honesty about its historical deficiencies. In response to the claim that polytheistic religions are tolerant when monotheistic faiths engender war, Robinson notes how the wars between Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, and many others all involved combating polytheists (115). When critics complain about the barbarism of biblical law, Robinson points out that the Bible is much kinder to thieves that the medieval courts that hanged them (73, 101). Many human societies could also learn from the Pentateuch’s compassion for those in debt (106-109). The Bible’s insistence on testimony for criminal conviction prevents the torture often involved in self–incrimination (107).
Strikingly, Robinson also defends our sacred canon from Christian critiques. Christianity tends to emphasize spirit over law, but Robinson stresses how law can be “a means of grace,” using the command to restore a poor man’s pledge each night as an example (72). Where some criticize the parochial concerns of the Jewish Bible, Robinson finds universalism in the stories of Jonah, Ruth, and Job (99).
Moving from defense to offense, Robinson highlights the contribution religion makes to a richer life:
In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that (15).
A related passage contends that secularism lacks the terminology for expressing religious awe (159). Science has unsuccessfully tried to remove the mystery from human experience. She also wonders whether Jefferson’s self–evident truths about the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness work absent religious scaffolding (162).
As noted, Robinson also identifies religious failures and analyzes why we are witnessing the declining popularity of religion. “But just as discredited institutions close the path to Christianity for many good people, undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many more” (137). She candidly admits that we “have seen too much intolerance and too little love” (134). Contemporary religion is often guilty of “retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension” (5).
All of the above should strike a chord in our community. An Orthodox Jewish mob harassing a Conservative bar mitzva at the Kotel “closes the path” for some who might have otherwise drawn closer to Jewish tradition. On the one hand, religion often suffers from unfair criticism, and we should calmly and articulately point out our critics’ errors. On the other hand, religious people often turn quite defensive and refuse to admit to any communal flaws. Orthodox Judaism also knows its obscurantist and xenophobic tendencies (notice the current popularity of certain trends in Israeli politics, particularly within religious parties) as well as the overall dumbing down (as in the shift from education to edutainment). We would be a much healthier religious community if we could forthrightly discuss our shortcomings.
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, an associate editor of TRADITION, is Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.