Attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, I was very happy to hear that Marilynne Robinson would be giving their keynote. Each of her three novels are highly prized. Ms. Robinson received a Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN award and was nominated for a Pulitzer. Her latest novel, Home, was a finalist in the National Book Award, and won the Orange Prize for Fiction.
No slouch, Marilynne.
She’s written, as well, a number of nonfiction books of essays on culture and thought, most often about religion and faith.
She’s a Congregationalist with a bright Calvinist core.
She’s an amazing, award-winning writer–and has been motivational in speeches in the past. Calvin College and the Festival of Faith and Writing invited her because a) she is a Calvinist, and b) she won a Pulitzer, and c) she won the Pulitzer for a book about a minister’s life. She could motivate their writers. And she had been a keynote speaker at the festival in 2006 as well as given an address then to the Calvin Seminary, which was hailed as magnificent.
But Marilynne is no trained monkey as some at Calvin College discovered the night of her keynote address. She is a mama bear.
No doubt some folks there believed she would be addressing writing, or faith, and talk about craft. The Festival is the premiere venue for writers of faith–the best writers, in the most literary style, and probably some of the more left-leaning thinkers in the Evangelical Christian writing world attend this event. Writers in general tend to be progressive. It’s hard to be a reader and be closed-minded.
Still, I think most at Calvin College didn’t know quite what to do with Marilynne’s address, “Casting out Fear.”
Casting Out Fear
She started off saying that she needed to speak her mind–that she couldn’t get her thoughts away from the concept of Fear. She introduced herself as a Calvinist, saying that because she was a Calvinist she refused to fear. Who should fear? She quoted some passages on fear, specifically that “perfect love casts out fear” and that “we should fear not those who hurt the body, but fear those who could destroy our souls.”
She spoke on the normalization of fear in our society. That people act on fear before they know facts. She talked about how we see each other through a lens of fear fueled by the differences that we have with each other. She made a case for the American mind turning difference into fear. It’s not a new case–the reaction of Americans to waves of Irish and Chinese immigration speak to a culture of fear born from difference and the unknown. But she really started to talk about how the media seemed to be spreading this idea of fear even more.
Then she took a sharp left turn that left the auditorium cricketfull.
Christians had picked up that culture of fear and turned it into victimization, paranoia, and exclusivism. Spotlighting an almost anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. (Did I say “almost”?) she asked for us to find common ground. “People who have a religious tradition have more in common than those outside a religious tradition.” Religion, she offered, had a strong human-oriented base: faith should promote tolerance and have a civilizing effect on society “instead of judgment of others.” She argued that people were all created in the image of God–that each of them were worthy of note and worthy to understand. Since we really are in the majority, she would later argue with stats, we should be transforming society into a more civilized place.
Then she really got into it in front of a crowd, who I think were a bit stunned to be spoken directly to as sharply as she came, “There’s no plot to suppress people from writing about religion or faith.” I don’t think she realized how her general ideas on Christians might be taken by this group of Christian intellectuals and writers. (She needed a tea party crowd, perhaps, to catch the full impact.)
She used the fact that here we were at a Festival for Faith and Writing as an example. She might have just said, see, no stormtroopers. “Why can’t we get past the mistaken idea that religion is under threat?”
She brought up that she had won the Pulitzer for a faith-based novel, a novel about a minister. Surely a society that was angling to cut religion off at the knees wouldn’t have awarded such a strongly Christian novel. “Forty percent of Americans are in church on a Sunday. We have a religious population, a church population.”
So why this belief that we are being persecuted as Christians in America? “It’s bizarre!”
“Believers seem to think that barbarians surround them with one purpose: to dismantle their sacred places.” She was right. Fox News, not only the mouthpiece of the Christian Right, but also the hand inside the puppet of most believers I knew, spouted daily that there was a War on Religion. This war was caused by heathens who attacked the Christian life, the Christian word. Handily, it was always the Christians who were anti-gay who seemed to think that gays were out to destroy marriage and family. Many gays are spiritual people, some Christian, and the last thing they wanted was to destroy God. We really just want to rescue him from the Right.
“Society will be gracious to those who will be gracious to them,” she said, to ease our fears. If we start treating others in society better, they will be gracious back to us.
In response to a Christian society soaked with fear and paranoia, Marilynne Robinson asked, “How deeply do we trust the faith we abide by?” If we truly trust God, should we be running everywhere fearing that hoodlums will keep us from God, that society will take away our faith?
“Christians shadowbox with ourselves that the world is our enemy.” But she had a bigger message to us–that we needed to love the world, and the people in it.
“We have bigger business than defending our faith against one book some Englishman might publish to rile us.” Nice stab at Christopher Hitchins, but also a sharp edge for us who rise to the bait.
“Calvinists refuse to fear–they have the serenity of deeply convinced people.”
“Fear is a stimulant that makes you focus. When we get habituated to fear we even start to distrust non-fearing people.” She stopped. “Compared to societies all throughout history–we have it good. If ever there was a people on Earth that could take a deep breath it’s us. But no, we’re all in deep psychological bomb shelters.”
She tried to calm us: the youth in America are fine, she said. They are good kids. Our society was fine. It was not on a decline. “It’s dangerous to assume you’re in decline as a generation. Believing we are weak and threatened makes us insecure and unwise in how we deal with other countries.”
She noted that every time a country outside the US got up on its feet, got out of debt, improved its society, the US felt threatened. Articles upon articles would come out asking if China was going to overtake us, or if India was going to rise too high. Instead she asked, “Why can’t we see our successes in their successes and prosperity?”
“We’ve begun to rationalize preemptive defense.” Here she referred to the Zimmerman/Martin situation a bit. “People feel justified in fear that they can take preemptive violence. People are being encouraged to carry weapons. Who do you want to shoot? Which image of God has been getting on your nerves lately?” This brought the house down–in a funny way. People laughed at the absurdity of shooting someone.
Bringing back her “every child of God” theme, she said, “what about risking respect towards everyone? There’s an elegance in that.”
Two directives she left us with: “Talk ourselves out of our crouch of fearfulness. If you’re frightened, you’ve already given in.”
“If you’re frightened, you don’t trust God. God told us he would protect us. Trust God and abandon fear.”
Well, you could have heard a pin drop through most of her speech. I don’t know why anyone was surprised. Marilynne Robinson’s latest book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, examined her life as a Christian humanist, someone who believed in the value of every person (ooh, that’s so classically Christian). She talked about her life as a liberal. In fact, the essay “Wondrous Love” from that book of essays sounds a LOT like her speech with the addition of several hymn reminiscences.
Certainly those at the Marilynne Robinson Appreciation Society could have predicted this. And I think they were probably pleased as punch. (I like their website–it’s beautiful and thought-provoking. But that’s Marilynne’s effect–she is a writer who provokes thought. She doesn’t just poke the non-believers, either. She is an equal opportunity poker.)
I know sitting in the back of the stadium, one level up, that the young people with me were amazed and happy that she was speaking out. Had they too felt some sort of division between the world and our faith, between secular society and Christian society–meaning secular people and saved people? Had they felt oppressed? Had they watched other Christians insist that we were at war?
We were surprised at her boldness, perhaps. That she had taken this opportunity to say something that might not jibe with those who brought her to Calvin College. Did she not know what might happen? And yet, I sensed from Ms. Robinson that she knew exactly what she was doing. She wasn’t subtle.
I’d seen Margaret Atwood wryly make fun of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs during her keynote address a few months back, and the crowd really didn’t know what she was doing. It was sly and dry and underhanded–but right there in front of everyone as she described a life of writing without the AWP, an organization that feels it is a necessity for the world of writers and publishing. Marilynne was a bit more stringent and obvious. Though she was including all of Christendom in that speech. There are no culture wars, she seemed to say. No one is out to get us. We are fine. Live your life in respect to other people and beliefs in the world. Get along with people. Assuming that everyone was out to get you created enemies.
For writers, her challenge was to abandon the schtick, the foolproof crowdpleaser, the preaching to the choir, that the “world was secular and hated us.” But most of us, I think, most of us writers in the room didn’t make our living on Christian victimization. I think her speech was towards the non-writing crowd, those that needed to hear. I wonder what various publishers thought of her speech. But maybe it too was to the writers–to write of a world that could be loved and worked with, not one where secularism contaminated those without faith.
Later, the next day, I did find myself WAY too close to a group of older conservative men in the lobby of Calvin College. Why at a writers conference they felt safe speaking so loudly, I don’t know. I thought their reaction was important to note. They were telling another man about the keynote address, which he couldn’t attend.
“You should be glad that you didn’t go. Terrible. Absolutely terrible,” one said. First they accused her of being drunk. I loved that. It has such a Day of Pentecost ring to it.
They said she was critiquing Christians for being too “apocalyptic” and yet the Liberals had their “global warming and population explosion”–and this last fear of Liberals–“have you seen all the empty spaces in the world?”
Pshaw, they said. “She deals only with writers. She’s living in ignorance. All that adulation she’s received. Did you hear her mention her prizes?” they said. (I thought, why yes, she mentioned them to make a point that society was not anti-Christian. )
“She did win the Pulitzer,” one of them said.
“No she didn’t. I don’t think she did. She was nominated.”
“No I think she won it.”
“I’m not certain she did.”
They loved the introduction given for her by another fellow professor and lamented that Marilynne had just “left that poor woman abandoned” after that brilliant introduction. She hadn’t lived up to the introduction, they were saying.
“She’s in the academy in the worst possible way,” said the academician. “She doesn’t want the academy criticized–she will defend it.”
They took offense to her being promoted as a Calvinist. “Don’t carry the burden of defending Calvinism,” they said to her as if she were there. “It doesn’t need it.”
“I felt like walking out.”
“I did too, but I was stuck between two women. One of them passed me a note during the talk. She couldn’t take it anymore.”
Their talk went on, rather oblivious to the writers and staff of the College walking around them. They spoke with an air of recklessness that I had to assess as combination of privilege, immunity and anonymity. They all wore nametags, which made them easy to identify and google. Of course, eavesdropping has to be a sin, especially when you hear something like this, and spreading it has to be a sin. And yet, speaking loud conservative negative opinions criticizing your hired keynote is every man’s right!
It makes me wonder who is allowed to speak about Christianity and culture then? Who is allowed to assess where we are, what we’re doing? if not Marilynne, who? Is it only the male professors, the male writers, the conservative writers, the straight writers, or those that agree with Calvin, CRC doctrine? And what are you allowed to say as the spirit moves you? Marilynne was definitely riffing that night–but riffing on a theme–a culture of fear had invaded Christianity and she called it by name. Was the Festival of Faith and Writing saying that you could speak your mind but not if you disagreed with the majority? And who these days would have been the majority in that crowd?
Hmm. I’d like to believe that these three men were the minority–that writers today, in that room, were with me, and we were beaming. Eighty percent (80%) of the conference was attended by women. We had speakers that talked about other cultures, other faiths, those that pushed the progressive envelopes. I want to believe these three men were an isolated voice on its way out.
Perhaps they weren’t even representative of Calvin. I’d like to believe that.
However, these were three older, conservative men. The Board of Trustees of Calvin College is 75% male, Calvin College staff is 68% male, most faculty are Christian Reformed Church (and they have the right to discriminate in hiring on basis of religion, though in other parts of their website they claim they don’t discriminate on basis of religion.) –and these three are readers, possibly writers (one of them definitely), one of them a professor. They were well-informed, intellectually engaging and engaged. Do they speak for Calvin?
No, they were speaking to each other. Was it any of my business what they said to each other? Well, someone is always listening, aren’t they? And as we know from the Festival, some of these people will write about you.
My Reaction to Marilynne
This was on Friday, the day I was struggling with how to say something about how Calvin treated gays. I had written the poem earlier but felt stymied from posting it, or starting a controversy or anything. I felt silenced. On Calvin College campus, the voice of a gay Christian man, a gay Christian writer, wasn’t going to be acceptable. I had felt the least empowered by the Festival on that day, and Marilynne Robinson showed me how to have courage–as PART of the Festival. And I credit the Festival for bringing her. She had an opportunity to speak–and she spoke out about the one thing that hampered Christians the most: their fear. Their fear kept them from enjoying the things God had given them, it promoted enmity with their immediate neighbors, and their international ones. And certainly it created enmity with their perceived cultural neighbors. Instead of being safe, she spoke her mind. The Festival encourages writers to speak out. To speak against injustice.
Calvin College wants to transform the world with its students, its teaching, its institution. Inherent in that mandate is the belief that they are the transformers. They will decide how society will transform. What they don’t like is for someone to come in and ask them to transform. Well, it’s about time, I say. Calvin College, and evangelical Christianity in general, needs to be transformed and renewed.
I am so proud that I was there to hear Marilynne Robinson speak. And I am proud that the Festival brought her, and wasn’t afraid to bring someone who might say something challenging. Indeed, it is the mantra of both Calvin and the Festival.
We should all be so bold, or in the words of one professor there– so “drunk”–that we finally say what needs to be said.