William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam, 1795–c.1805 (Tate Britain/Wikimedia Commons)

The existence of the world is a marvel to Marilynne Robinson. Our ability to apprehend even shards of that marvel fills her with gratitude and wonder—and faith. The world, in return, has given her stamina. The run of books she produced in her sixties and seventies was extraordinary: four interconnected novels (Gilead, Home, Lila, Jack) and four collections of essays orbiting themes of theology and science, national life and religious belief.

But Robinson, now eighty years old, is not simply a poet singing. In her essays, as she defends the philosophical frameworks that once made religious belief almost universal, she is impatient, even testy, with what she finds reductionistic in most descriptions of the world today. You get a sense that she just wants to write about grace but finds herself needing to argue for the idea that something like grace can even exist. Her defense of the grandeur not only of the world but of each human being, her defense of the testimony of “felt experience,” is everywhere in her essays. “I have felt for a long time,” she writes in When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), “that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull.”

To preserve grandeur, Robinson has engaged with a pantheon of older theological writers, especially John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Her canon alone makes her a voice crying in the wilderness. Even more unexpectedly, Robinson has managed to be both politically progressive and theologically traditional. Her defense of the American experiment, like her praise for Calvin, seems to come from another era—or from someone far to her right. Angels at the edges of old paintings would bend far to behold this rare literary figure: a liberal, a Calvinist, a prize-winning novelist who was once interviewed by a sitting president, who still searches out the good in our troubled American inheritance, who found her stride at an age when most people are plotting their retirement, and who goes on insisting that the categories with which we frame the world, we modern, enlightened critics of our own traditions, are unnecessarily narrow. “Beware, the time approaches when human beings will no longer launch the arrow of their longing beyond the human,” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra spoke, “and the string of their bow will have forgotten how to whir.” Marilynne Robinson (no fan of Nietzsche) is our last best lyrical archer.

Now Robinson has presented us with one more affirmation, one more arrow whirring against cynicism and smallness, and one more meditation on religious experience. Her latest book’s title, Reading Genesis, suggests modesty: she will read an ancient text. But that reading is expansive. In one long, unbroken meditation (there are no chapters, only section breaks), Robinson shows us the text through alternate lenses of theology and art. She reads Genesis as both a believer and a novelist. She also reads generously. For all the primitive violence, including violence attributed to God, for all the atmosphere of myth (humans living for nine hundred years, a flood covering continents, a garden guarded by angels and a fiery sword), the book of Genesis remains a source of nourishment and wisdom for Robinson. For while Genesis is full of problematic ancestors, the real story, for Robinson, is that God has always been stubbornly invested in us. “We are disastrously erring and rebellious, and irreducibly sacred,” she summarizes. “And God is mindful of us.” 


In the beginning were flawed human beings. The biblical writers do not sugarcoat their stories. The early chapters of Genesis give us the Fall of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel by Cain, and a flood that destroys a corrupt world. Following the restoration of the world after the flood, the mythical lens of Genesis narrows and becomes the story of a family. All the patriarchs and matriarchs are here, and all the figures who function as tributaries of this saga: Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar); Isaac and Rebekah (and Ishmael); Jacob (and Esau), Rachel, Leah and their sons, who will become tribes of Israel. Genesis ends with that family in saving exile in Egypt.

Before focusing on the story of Abraham’s family, Robinson spends a fair amount of time on the flood. The story is theologically difficult (what kind of God destroys what he has made?), but it is also textually problematic. There are other ancient accounts of a universal flood, including one in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which suggests that biblical writers used sources outside their own tradition. Robinson says this is obviously the case. She is untroubled by the implications: “The fact that certain Westerners have believed that Scripture should bear no relation to other ancient literatures has made its having borrowed a famous tale, though adapted to its own uses, a scandal of the kind that electrifies both fundamentalists and religion’s cultured despisers.” She is more interested in the ways the biblical writers used this common story than she is in defending its uniqueness. Surely few people who still consider themselves Calvinists, as Robinson does, would go along with her commentary here: “The text, so obviously borrowed, does not tell us that God once subjected the world to an all-obliterating flood. It gives us a parable.” But surely few members of the liberal mainline churches, like the one she belongs to, would take this story and its theological implications as seriously as Robinson does. She is deeply theological without being deeply dogmatic.

While Genesis, for Robinson, remains a work of theology throughout, as we move past the story of the flood, we move on to a “recognizable world where genealogy gives way to biography.” The scale becomes human: “We are introduced to a family on its way to Canaan,” Robinson notes, “but delayed in their travels at Haran, where Terah, Abram’s father, dies.” Soon, Abram becomes Abraham, to whom God promises descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky.

In the beginning were flawed human beings. The biblical writers do not sugarcoat their stories.

Reading the characters and events now with a novelist’s eye, Robinson’s attention feels free and exploratory. Even God becomes observable in artistic terms. She notes the “very great tact,” for example, “with which God enters the human world through Abraham.” The eighty-page subject index at the back of my copy of Calvin’s Institutes lists “terror” and “temptation,” but not “tact.” Nor do theologians usually describe God “coaxing,” as Robinson does, injecting gentleness into Abraham’s call: “Abraham was coaxed along in the way that he should go.” The human frailties of the figures in Genesis reinforce a theological premise, yes, but Robinson doesn’t reduce them to theological symbols. They are human characters touched by divine encounters.

The humanness of these biblical figures is part of what intrigues Robinson, but she also admires that the text does not sanitize their choices. After the flood, Noah, the lone righteous man on earth, is caught drunk and naked by one of his sons, who is disproportionately cursed for his troubles. Abraham’s nephew Lot offers to give up his daughters to a rapacious mob. Jacob’s sons, most gruesome of all, slaughter the males of Shechem for violating their sister. Genesis is hard to read in these places. Troubled by the treachery, Robinson nonetheless finds the text’s candor compelling: “There is nothing for which the Hebrew writers were more remarkable than their willingness to record and to ponder the most painful passages in their history, even the desperate, brutal confusions of the early period in the promised land.”

Robinson balances all this inscrutable, disturbing violence with novelistic noticings. Referring to Rachel’s sister Leah, who is “mother of most of Jacob’s children” but who isn’t the wife Jacob wanted, Robinson writes: “The Lord has compassion on an unloved wife, and great names enter history—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah. This is a beautiful detail, the kind of thing that is to be found only in the Hebrew Scriptures.” In the account of Abraham’s son Isaac, she notes “repetition and parallelism” as “strikingly important elements, leading up to a scene of deep emotional complexity, as great a scene as any in the Hebrew Bible.” Of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, she writes: “He is, in literary terms, a great character.” Of Joseph’s brother Benjamin: “If all of this were explored as fiction, he would be a great point-of-view character.” Of the scene that brings those two brothers together: “A novel drawn from this brief account of a very freighted moment, their counting Joseph among their number after years of his absence, and pairing him with Benjamin, his full brother, would find guilt and deep regret.” My favorite of these passing literary notes is the observation of tenderness in the promise to Jacob that “Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” 

Genesis is not a novel. It records the encounters between an ancient people and God, and Robinson takes that testimony seriously as theology. What her particular reading does, though, is thicken our understanding with a literary dimension. She honors humanness while affirming the divine. She reads novelistically but as one who believes.


The attention I’ve drawn to the literary dimension is the easier one. The only thing at stake in those observations of tenderness is our level of admiration. The theological dimension is more difficult. One of the most beautiful moments in Genesis, for me, is Joseph’s confession at the end of the book. He has been sold into slavery by his brothers, but that has resulted in their ultimate rescue. His reconciliation with those brothers is full of emotion, but his interpretation of what happened is a theological claim: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” A purely literary reading could praise Joseph’s generosity without worrying over the idea of providence, but Robinson won’t let us skim off the aesthetic from the theological. She won’t allow religion to be just about sincerity, or even feeling. In her essays, Robinson’s language about the way theology is watered down inside churches is more impatiently prophetic than tenderly pastoral: “I’m speaking here of the seminaries that make a sort of Esperanto of world religions and transient pieties, a non-language articulate in no vision that anyone can take seriously.”

What Robinson understands is that to have the song and the compassion and the grace that springs from religious faith, you have to have a world described by that faith. You need metaphysics. The version of rationalism we’ve inherited, she writes in Reading Genesis, defends “a simple model of causality, an explanation of everything so forthright as to displace all mystifications.” Religious believers, in her estimation, have ceded too much ground to a scientific worldview that seemed triumphant, inevitable, and seamless. She is heartened by more recent models in physics and cosmology—for example, hypotheses of dark matter and dark energy accounting for most of what the universe even is. If the old models are not adequate, then they cannot proclaim what is in or out of bounds. And if our human models always fall short of full understanding, why dismiss beliefs about what lies beyond that understanding, especially beliefs that have endured centuries, even millennia—beliefs that have been so central to our felt experience of the world?

Robinson’s unique contribution to this old debate has been not only to argue relentlessly in her essays, but also to enact belief—theological belief—in beautiful, compelling fiction. George Scialabba put it neatly: “Her essays have made a case for her Calvinist theological vision, while her novels have made a world out of it.” In this respect, she is in a category of one. Those peering angels can give her their undivided respect.

But there’s something else to be measured in this tandem project of Robinson’s. I’ve said she is theological without being dogmatic, but I think the key to her project involves making space for theology more than defending specific claims. It’s the realm of metaphysics she cares about, the idea that our experience suggests something grander about us and about our apprehensions than our scientific models can account for. For her, the Christian narrative gives that transcendent realm its coordinates, but it’s our experience as human beings—Christians or non-Christians—that tells us that we matter and that the universe has beauty. She wants to recover a place for that mattering.

The gift of Marilynne Robinson’s long shelf of late work, then, is its refusal of cynicism, its declaration of wonder and awe, and its affirmation that our little minds haven’t exhausted the meaning of the universe—and won’t. Long before Robinson picked up her pen, Simone Weil told us that we’d already “lost the whole poetry of the cosmos.” Robinson hasn’t given up on that poetry.

One of my favorite notes of gratitude and hope comes in her novel Gilead (2004). “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe,” her minister-hero declares, “and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” It’s a startling image. It reverses the sense that our lives are trivial details in an unimaginable vastness. In Robinson’s vision, the universe—and the God who wills the universe into existence at the beginning of the book of Genesis—has a deep interest in us, such that even our follies are part of some epic song. It’s elevating. Maybe it’s fanciful, or maybe it’s true and sublime. “It depends upon the universe,” as Saul Bellow’s Herzog decides, “what it is.”

Reading Genesis
Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$20 | 352 pp.

Todd Shy is the head of school at Avenues The World School in New York City and the author of Teaching Life: Life Lessons for Aspiring (and Inspiring) Teachers.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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