Marilynne Robinson visited the Netherlands this November!We met her at the John Adams Institute on Sunday afternoon where she talked with Yvonne Zonderop. Robinson started out jokingly, saying she was a little unclear on what she was supposed to talk about today. She had brought her newest book The Givenness of Things, a collection of essays, while most people were clutching copies of Lila. She ended up discussing both.
I was immediately impressed with Robinson. She set the tone and theme for the afternoon with a short talk about Alexis de Tocqueville and the Enlightenment. She spoke out against the idea that religion and science are at odds and gleefully told us that she likes to go against the grain with almost anything. This becomes immediately clear when she calls herself a Calvinist and the explains that it doesn’t mean what you think it means. She does this more often throughout the talk, explaining history and current events in different and interesting ways, showing she has no problem making up her own mind on things.
Zonderop did a good job interviewing Robinson. She seemed a little nervous at times, but who wouldn’t be when confronted with such an author. She gave Robinson plenty of space to talk about the things she thought were interesting and kept up a good conversation. The first questions focused on Lila and she told us she wanted to write a book about the history of Iowa, because it seemed like no one there could tell her about it. After reading about Iowa she found that the mid-west was a very different place from the rest of the U.S. It was very progressive, never had laws against interracial marriage and women and people of color were always welcome at the universities. She talked knowledgeable about Iowa and the mid-west and it was clear she had done her research. It was fun to see her going on about certain things, wanting to share her knowledge and the interesting things she’s learned with the audience.
With some questions Zonderop asked, Robinson could seemingly go on talking forever, telling us about little details and interesting things. Other questions she answered with just a simple yes or no. Whenever Robinson did this, you could see her smile a little and just sit back. They were somewhat cheeky moments, where she made the audience wait in anticipation, and when became clear she wasn’t going to say anything further, you could see Zonderop scramble for the next question to keep the conversation going.
A lot of members from the audience seemed to be as well-read and well-spoken as Marilynne Robinson herself. They asked her insightful questions – and sometimes monologued – about the givenness of things in Lila, coincidence and religion. On coincidence Robinson said that reality is much more complex than we think. We set off things without grasping the consequences. She finds her own life implausible, moment by moment – never would she have thought to talk to the president – and just takes it as it comes.
The question about religion pushed the talk into the second subject Zonderop wanted to discuss. Robinson is often very critical of religion and is very outspoken about her own faith, in her books as well as in interviews. She says that we don’t read the Old Testament enough. The idea that Jesus rejects it, is false. He actually does the opposite and quotes it often. ‘If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me’, she said. Her view of religion is one that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Robinson herself thinks this is because the media likes to focus on the sensational. She’s also a literature teacher and gives a class on the bible as literature. It’s the basis for a lot of stories, but she keeps finding that her students are often embarrassed to be seen walking to class with their bible. She laughed about this, but turns serious again as Zonderop asks about recent attack in Paris that happened only two nights earlier.
The attacks are an obvious provocation and acting irrational would be taking the bait, Robinson said. Feelings of fear and anger are to be expected, but if you define people as your enemy and persist in it, soon they will be. But she doesn’t call for making an extra effort towards Islam. Why would we decide to do this for Islam and not any other religion. Just acknowledge it, she tells us. When delving further into Christianity she talked about how Christianity is supposed to be difficult, how you are supposed to struggle with life and your faith. It’s never about taking the path of least resistance, but about constant learning and betterment. She concluded by saying that God trusts us more than we trust ourselves, which felt to me like great encouragement after what happened in Paris.
The talk with Marilynne Robinson was definitely one where you needed to use your head. We went from history to science to religion and current events in the span of an hour and a half. It was amazing to see how much Robinson’s fans appreciate her work and her thoughts. Everything that had been said made me feel like learning – studying the history of our world to make sense of today – but above all it made me very excited to talk about this book with our book club next month.
Again a special thank you to the John Adams Institute for organizing another great event. Make sure you check out their upcoming events, so you don’t miss out!
Photos by Gerrit Serné