Behold: A World-Class Novelist Wrestles Anew With Biblical Genesis

Reading genesis

Richard Ostling via Religion Unplugged

(ANALYSIS) The American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has accumulated numerous literary prizes, among them the 2005 Pulitzer, but also honors in religion. Her new non-fiction book “Reading Genesis” wrestles with the grand themes and thorny issues raised in the Bible’s first book. It’s a climactic testament at the twilight of a distinguished life and career. 

Is Genesis culturally relevant? As Robinson notes, billions of people have traced their roots to Abraham’s devotion to the one and only God, unique amid antiquity’s proliferation of pagan deities.

Is it newsworthy? Oscar nominee “Barbie” (global box office approaching $1.5 billion!) is, among other things, a pink-obsessed riff on Adam and Eve leaving Eden.

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Robinson’s bestseller is quite simply a masterful, highly readable achievement that deserves a wide audience across customary divides. Its unusual form is a single brisk, serpentine essay of 230 pages, minus chapter divisions and footnotes. (The one key flaw is not the author’s fault. Shame on Farrar, Straus and Giroux for omitting an index).

She treats Genesis, and indeed the Bible in toto, as theodicy, that is, meditation on the classic, cosmic and complex problem of evil. This discipline tries to explain “the darkest aspects of the reality we experience, and it must reconcile them with the goodness of God and of Being itself against which this darkness stands out so sharply.” At the center of it all is “a flawed and alienated creature,” namely humanity — ourselves — “still sacred, still beloved of God” despite everything. 

Some deeds recorded in Genesis are so “ugly” we wonder why they’re even in the Bible, but writers found it wrong to delete Israel’s embarrassments. The narratives are not primarily examples of virtue, she asserts, but “trace the workings of God’s loyalty to humankind through disgrace and failure and even crime.” Ultimately, “the interactions of human circumstance, providence, and grace are pure mystery.”

It’s necessary to sketch the background of an author who explores such contested terrain. During her years (1991-2016) teaching at the University of Iowa’s renowned Writers’ Workshop, Robinson was an active congregant in the United Church of Christ, often characterized as the most liberal of the “mainline” Protestant denominations. 

Further, her book often assumes, without belaboring the point, the modern scholarly view that these narratives are more mythological than strictly historical. That may cause the book to be shunned by suspicious literalists among Christians and Jews, for whom reliable history is central to the authenticity of the Bible and to proper interpretation. 

They may figure that however revered the writer and however serious the thinker, there’s little to learn from a leftward-leaning laywoman who’s no credentialed theologian. Does “Reading Genesis” lack value for such believers? Guess again. Most every one of her elegant paragraphs offers invigorating thoughts about the nature of God and man shown in Scripture. 

In fact, there’s such vibrant faith in the biblical God here that James Wood, New Yorker critic and also Harvard professor, finds it miraculous that such a “great novelist” could ever call herself something of a “Calvinist,” seem to “trust in divine intervention the way you or I might trust a train timetable,” and be “loaded up with the severe paradoxes of her religious tradition” that he apparently abhors. 

No captive to 21st Century fashions, Robinson defies high culture’s supposition that belief in a living God is “ignorant, childish, primitive.”  She sidesteps historicity debates for the purpose of taking a fresh look at the biggest of big pictures. The project befits words about the Creator and creation thousands of years ago in Psalm 8: “What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine”? (Jewish Publication Society translation). 

Many scholars treat Genesis as a hodgepodge of contradictory sources (commonly labeled J,E,D,P). Instead, Robinson sees a carefully edited and consistent book that deals with the contrast between God’s goodness and justice. Throughout, she is astonished at the love and regard God extends to the flawed and fallen humans that he originally created “in his image.” If we “are to be granted individuality, agency, freedom, meaningful existence as human beings, then God must practice almost limitless restraint,” she proposes. 

A typical example is Cain, not just the first murderer but one who jealously slays his own brother, the innocent Abel. Biblical law will soon prescribe the death penalty for murder because human life is so precious. But God not only lets Cain live but grants him a mysterious “mark.” Contra the common but mistaken view, this is not punishment but protection against vengeance. What needs explanation, then, is not why God is so punitive but rather so indulgent and merciful. 

It’s well-established that Babylonian myths precede the Hebrew account of Noah’s flood. Like other writers, but with special flair, Robinson draws a sharp contrast between the Hebrew version and the capricious pagan gods who are all-too-human and at the same time callously show no regard for humanity.

Thus, Genesis “begins with the emergence of being in a burst of light and ends with the death and burial of a bitter, homesick old man,” which “brings us to the present moment” of bewilderment because it is so hard to see that “brilliant first moment” in humanity modern or ancient. She concludes, “I know of no other literature except certain late plays of Shakespeare that elevates grace as this book does.”

To pursue a further deep dive into unconventional waters, Robinson’s opus bears comparison with “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis,” a 2003 classic by Leon R. Kass still available in paperback. This noted scientist and ethicist with the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought had a thoroughly secular upbringing. But midlife dissatisfaction with a narrowly scientific view of humanity and wisdom inspired years reconsidering his Jewish heritage by leading a weekly a seminar on Genesis. 

Kass is neither orthodox nor Orthodox and, like Robinson, a lay philosopher whose  ideas will have value if readers seek out more traditional readings for comparison. Unlike Robinson, Kass wrote an academic exploration of 666 pages (there’s that apocalyptic number again!). Yes, there’s an index. Kirkus Reviews described this work as “a learned and fluent, delightfully overstuffed stroll” through Genesis.

Reading Genesis by Marilyn Robinson, $29.99
Available at the Wandering Bookseller

Richard N. Ostling was a longtime religion writer with The Associated Press and with Time magazine, where he produced 23 cover stories, as well as a Time senior correspondent providing field reportage for dozens of major articles. He has interviewed such personalities as Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI); ranking rabbis and Muslim leaders; and authorities on other faiths; as well as numerous ordinary believers. He writes a bi-weekly column for Religion Unplugged.