Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, Marilynne Robinson, Explains How Church, Faith and Theology Influence Her Books


What are you afraid of? That’s what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson asks writers who shy away from writing about faith.

The beloved author won the National Book Critics Circle Award on Thursday (March 12) for her novel “Lila,” the final book in her trilogy set in the fictional Gilead, Iowa.

Robinson is known for writing openly about belief, but it remains a subject few other writers take on.

“It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent,” Diane Johnson wrote in her New York Times review of Robinson’s book.

Like its predecessors “Gilead” (2004) and “Home” (2008), the new novel takes place in a 1950s Iowa town and focuses on minister John Ames and his family. The story is told from the perspective of his wife — and later, widow — Lila.

Robinson has been able reach varied audiences. A member of the liberal United Church of Christ, she is far from holding up ideals put forward by the religious right, but that hasn’t stopped conservative Christians from engaging with her writing. Earlier, she spoke with Religion News Service about guns, gay marriage and Calvinism.

Before giving an address at Union Theological Seminary last spring, Robinson also spoke about the tensions between faith and writing. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Could you see a character like Ames or Lila existing in 2014?

A: We’re living in a period where people have very little conscious historical memory. They’re not observing their circumstance from the point of view of its origins from preceding periods. There’s a thinness in what you would call “contemporary consciousness” that I’m not interested in.

Q: How involved are you in your church, the Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City?

A: I’m less involved than I used to be. When I had a little idle time, I used to teach classes in the church, and so on. I was a deacon; oh, those golden days. But now, I go to church every Sunday I’m in town. It’s very valuable to me, it’s a very meditative experience to me, and full of good thought, but I’m basically a passenger.

Q: You probably go through periods of active or less active involvement in church life, but what role has a local church played in your life over the years?

A: It’s given me the material for at least one novel (laughter). People always think my father was a minister or something like that. No, I just sit in the pew and watch. One of the things that it does is it ponders, at length, a great ancient literature, which is incredibly valuable all by itself. One of the things that attracts many people to church is it gives you the avenue to do something in society that you feel is good, to donate money or time or whatever. And simply because people in the church are socially minded, you get some information that is important about what’s actually going on around you. It’s a village. If you go to a church and stay there over time, you see babies baptized, and children confirmed, the middle-aged becoming the elders, becoming the much lamented. It actually configures your sense of things around the defined arc of human life. I have lived in a college town, which can create the impression that everyone is 22, but in my little village I have a very different sense of people, which I value very much.

Q: Did you experience some kind of Christian conversion?

A: I didn’t grow up anything else. I was more aware of my grandparents’ religion, who were Presbyterian, than my parents’. The becoming-a-Christian thing, I’ve never had any other tropism, shall we say.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Sarah Pulliam Bailey

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