Thursday, July 2, 2009

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "The Death Of Adam: Essays On Modern Thought" by Marilynne Robinson

Several of my recent past Friday evenings have been occupied with reading Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson's "The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought." No memorable meals were consumed during these Friday evenings, but on one of these evenings, during a rainstorm, sitting on my porch swing reading Robinson's essay entitled "Family", my eyes never left the text for seven minutes. During those seven minutes, my street flooded. I saw such sights as a neighbor on his roof climbing a metal ladder to reach a metal gutter during heavy rain, thunder and lightning and hail. (He is a former city councilman, no less.) I saw people drive fifty miles an hour into flood waters. (The neighbors screamed at one, asking if she knew better than to drive straight into a flooded street. Her reply: "I didn't know!) These cars were followed by police cars traveling the same rate of speed and getting stuck in the same flood waters. On another Friday evening, a tornado passed through, blowing down massive trees and electrical wires. Most of my neighbors lost their power, but I still had electricity to power my reading lamp. So I will always associate the reading of this book with experiencing the destructive power of nature and incredible human folly.

With that being said, I have found Robinson to be one of the finest essayists I have come across. In terms of boldness and style, there are few if any who approach these qualities displayed in "The Death of Adam."

What do I mean when I discuss her boldness. Robinson is what a Conservative would label a Liberal. She is an Obama supporter. She identifies herself as a Christian in "The Death of Adam", but is not friendly to the Evangelical persuasion of which I belong. Yet, in these essays, she does not hesitate to deviate from Liberal orthodoxy on a number of issues. She is not a Creationist, yet is no follower of Darwinism. Her criticism of Darwinism and the effect Darwinism has had on our culture is simply some of the best criticism of Darwinism from a non-scientist ever written. Robinson has the courage to reveal some of the ugly truths behind Darwinism's development and its impact on history. Here is an example from her essay "Darwinism":

"...Darwin freely concedes to the savages (as to the ants) courage and loyalty and affection. He describes an anthropologist's overhearing African mothers teach their children to love the truth. These things do not affect the confidence with which he assigns them to the condition of inferiority, which for him is proved by their liability to extermination by the civilized races." (p. 35)

Robinson correctly identifies the influence Spencer (of Social Darwinism fame) had on Darwin, and even more surprising, even traces the influence Darwinism had on the development of Nazi ideology. According to organizations that seek to stamp out any challenge to Darwinist orthodoxy, such as the National Center For Science Education, anyone who expresses such views as Robinson's is a narrow bigoted Protestant Fundamentalist out of step with the rest of "enlightened" society, even out of step with that "enlightened" institution known as the Mainline Church. (See my previous article.) In "The Death of Adam", Robinson identifies herself as a Christian who is partial to mainline Presbyterian churches.

Another example of Robinson's intellectual courage is her defense of John Calvin against those who portray Calvin as a frigid soul who was an enemy of liberty and whose theology spawned Capitalist greed. She accuses Calvin's critics of ignoring the Social Justice aspects of Calvinist theology, as well as charitable works done by Calvinists acting on that theology:

"If subsequent generations found in Cauvin a pretext for misogyny or rapacity or contempt for humankind, as historians sometimes claim, it is surely because they determined to find one. They could easily have found pretexts in his theology for acting well, if they wanted them." (p. 187)

Robinson breaks from accepted orthodoxy to make the case that the intellectual foundations of America's liberties has their roots in Calvinism as much as the Enlightenment. She is the first non-Evangelical I've come across who makes such a case.

In politics and economics, I am a Conservative. I am also an Evangelical. Robinson is none of these. In her essay "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion", she refers to Evangelical/Fundamentalists as " the clods and the obscurantists." She laments the rise of the "clods" who have ended the dominance in Christianity of the cultured mainliners who are, she believes, the true heirs of the Christianity that produced much that is good about Western culture. She has nothing good to say concerning Creationists even as she assails Darwinism. She believes that Liberals are the charitable givers in society, that it is the Liberals in and out of the Church who are most responsible for charitable works among the poor and those unable to take care of themselves. She is apparently unaware of recent sociological data that indicates otherwise. (See here and here.) Yet even if one disagrees with her, she does have insights that cannot be discounted. She is correct in pointing out how much our current prosperity is produced by a system that undermines the family by allowing employers to keep their workers on the job with little time off. I find much to disagree with Robinson in her essay "Wilderness." However, her overall thesis that Man, in always seeking to escape Civilization to live in unspoiled country, eventually causes the unspoiled country to become spoiled. Instead of seeking isolation, one should work to redeem Civilization. I can agree with that. (And Christians who are seeking to live where no man has ever gone before need to consider how their attitude is leaving many without a Christian witness.)

At first, I thought I would write a multi-part review of "The Death of Adam." However, I found that this would not be practical. There is so much good content that I did not know where to start and if I wrote all that I wanted to write, it would take more time than I have. So I'll have to put "The Death of Adam" away for now and return to it at a later date. Some would think it strange that an Evangelical/political and economic Conservative could find so much to agree with Robinson and yet not adopt her views on religion, politics and economics. Yet I can only engage any author's work through the filter that is an inseparable part of who I am.

"The Death of Adam" is published by Picador.

The next books I'll be reading for "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual" will be a collection of speeches, essays and letters by William Faulkner, "Fundamentalism and the Word of God" by J.I. Packer and a book on sharing the Bible with Muslims.

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