In Jerusalem, Marilynne Robinson Touches Stones and Hearts

One of America’s most celebrated authors explains why she reveres Moses, opposes boycotts and likes to challenge conventional wisdom.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Marilynne Robinson.
Marilynne Robinson.Credit: Kelly Ruth Winter
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

Marilynne Robinson was hardly off the plane for 24 hours when she was taken for a walk, as guests of Jerusalem's International Writers Festival are, through Jerusalem’s Old City. She found it challenging to crystallize her impressions of a place to which she had never been before, but which, as an American writer and thinker whose work is ever engaged in a dialectical dance with Christian thought and the monotheistic tradition, holds such an important place on the Western world’s spiritual landscape.

“It’s a little bit difficult because it’s just so full of people,” she said one evening this week with a measure of wonderment, exhaling her first day of Jerusalem air. “And at the same time, it ought to be. Watching all these streams of the pious, you know, it’s very moving.”

Indeed, in this city where religion can feel like an extreme sport everyone is either doing or watching, the pious look and behave rather differently than they do in Iowa, where she lives and teaches at America’s leading creative writing workshop, and in Idaho, where she grew up. Perhaps what surprised her most was that despite herself – more specifically, despite her Presbyterian upbringing which eschews the icon-heavy, stone-kissing, it-happened-here religiosity of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faithful – she found herself moved at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which some hold to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion.

“Well, I’m one of those real Protestant types for whom all of these icons and things are a little bit problematic. And so while we were at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, if you stood in line you could actually touch the stone where the cross was set – if that is the stone where the cross was set – and so I’m standing in this line and I’m thinking, this is complicated because by mentality, tradition, etcetera, the whole event has another kind of meaning to me that makes it seem like touching the stone is a kind of trivialization of the event,” she says. “So I’m standing in the line and I’m thinking, ‘I’m never going to be here again.’ When I get to that place in the line, I might decide it’s not trivializing, or if it is trivializing, I will survive it – and so will Western civilization,” she muses professorially, eliciting laughter from a third conversationalist I’ve invited along for the literary ride: writer Andrew Tertes, a student of Robinson’s and a kind of disciple of her work. Tertes, a native of Connecticut who now lives on a moshav near Beit Shemesh, studied over numerous summers with Robinson throughout the past decade while she taught at the New York State Writer’s Institute.

“As it happens, I did touch the stone,” Robinson adds with a smile, “and if I’m changed by this I haven’t realized it yet.”

Famous for being a contrarian, it perhaps it no surprise that at the age of 70 she is still more than open to being changed. Her fourth novel, “Lila,” is due out this fall, and it takes place on what also might be considered sacred ground – the Iowa town where two of her previous novels take place: the eponymous “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and “Home” which won the Orange Prize in 2009. In this third book that completes a trilogy destined to become part of the contemporary American cannon – an advance review in Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work” – she returns to Lila, the young bride of a Reverend John Ames. Robinson says she didn’t know when she wrote Gilead that she would one day return to Lila. In the book, Ames is struggling with aspects of Christianity that Robinson says she finds unacceptable – in particular the idea that non-Christians will not be saved.

“The idea that God would create all these lovely pagans of all types with their destruction in mind is something that I can’t reconcile with my idea of a Christian God,” she says. Today a Congregationalist – she occasionally sermonizes at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City – conservative Christians are somewhat riveted by her work and its inherent grace. On the one hand, she calls for a return to liberalism in America, and on the other, she is famous for embracing the ideas of John Calvin, who she says gets a bad rap. But when she really gushes is when she talks about Moses.

“The great act of faith is generosity, that’s how you show reverence for God. And so I’m trying to resurrect the reputation of Moses. I mean, who compares? The most generous impulses come from him. There is nothing that is consistently more large-minded,” she says.

Her own generosity has translated into a year of pouring her energies into teaching and yes, preaching. Following the publication of her book “Housekeeping” in 1980, which won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel, she didn’t publish another novel for 24 years.

Had she focused just on her own writing, she says, “It’s true I would have written more books, but not better ones.” Like the proponents of the slow food movement, Robinson may be the perfect poster child of the slow book movement. “There are a lot of books in the world and there’s no need to be prolific,” she offers. This is what it means to turn the conventional wisdom on its head, to bring, as she puts it, “a skeptical eye to bear on any dominant model of reality.”

She may, in fact, be growing more prolific in time, exercising that other part of her brain that is an essayist. In 2012, she came out with a book of essays, her fourth, called “When I Was a Child I Read Books” – not a memoir as the title suggests, but an examination of ideas.

“In America, where we basically own a continent and we’re self-sufficient, there’s all this fear, as if we don’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning without fearing something. People are fearful of the government reading our e-mails. I’d like someone to read all my email for me,” she jokes. “It’s like fear is a hobby. The impulse towards fears is like an impulse unto itself. But if you are religious and believe God is to be trusted that, you have to assume from that that your neighbor is to be trusted as well.”

Robinson is no Luddite, happily toting along her iPad on the journey, but she has vowed never to join Facebook and Twitter, as many authors today do. In a festival circuit replete with younger writers who tweet, post and opine with abandon, one begins to understand why Robinson’s thoughtful prose has so many fans around the globe.

She never considered the possibility of not coming to satisfy voices in the BDS movement, or calls for divestment from Israel in some of the mainline Protestant churches.

“I don’t believe in cultural boycotts,” she says. “The world is a mess, there’s wrong on every side. I think it’s disgusting that we’ve boycotted Cuba all these years. With boycotts you paint people into corners, and it makes them more self-protective, and that makes concessions that are necessary all the more difficult.” She pauses as if searching for answers, but doesn’t find them. “I’m sorry about this conflict. I think everyone is sorry about this conflict. It’s a historical briar patch.” But when people allow politics take precedence over culture, she says, “we’ve cheapened our stock, we’ve talked ourselves down.”

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