What Are We Doing Here?

by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 315pp, £19

As a novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson is unusual – unusual for our time, that is. “I have adopted myself into an old Protestant tradition, once important in England and America, now relatively unknown in the world at large and in America as well,” she writes. It has “a rich and brilliant theology and a remarkable history”, but it is only a “small part of Christendom”.

She explores this theme in 15 essays in this book. Most were given as lectures, and if Robinson’s audiences were alert and appreciative, then the condition of American culture is healthier than is often supposed, for Robinson is demanding, her arguments close-knit, her range of references – historical, theological – wide. She requires concentration from a reader – how much more from an audience.

She is successful, a hugely admired novelist whose works include Housekeeping and Gilead. Yet, from an article on the internet she learns that “if someone were bio-engineered to personify unhipness, the result would be Marilynne Robinson”. It’s a charge she accepts happily, even with pride. What, after all, could be less hip than a septuagenarian woman born in Idaho, teaching in the Iowa State University and declaring that she is a Calvinist? Well, there are certainly not so many who profess themselves as that.

Even in my own once-Presbyterian Scotland, John Calvin and his follower, or vicar, John Knox, are, as Bertie Wooster would have put it, “down in the cellar with no takers” – few anyway.

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