The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 336 pp)

Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, Marilynne Robinson earned her B.A. at Pembroke College and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received numerous awards, notably the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Pulitzer Prize, and a National Humanities Medal.

A Moving Faith

Does life require a moving faith? I ponder this question as my boy begins to enjoy attractional church services and the impending possibility of active, long-running church membership enters my thoughts.

As my son begins to consider nascent forms of Scriptural narrative, I think about how dead a standard service feels.

The worship leader sings with vague references to a greater power, as if the mere utterance shifts divine views about commonplace actions and emotions. These vague words highlighting vague feelings feel worthless. I recognize and praise the hard work from the people involved in such a production, but the output seems pointless.

Considering Meaningful Art

As I sit listening to these songs, I can’t help but compare them to meaningful works of art. Today, Julien Baker’s “Appointments” comes to mind where she repeats these phrases in a layered vocal run:

“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright
And I know that it’s not
But I have to believe that it is.”

Without any specific reference in the lyric, Baker expresses the depth of human emotion. Simultaneously, she expresses a “maybe,” a “no,” and a “yes.” How often do we think about what we want, hope for it, know it isn’t likely, but press forward anyway? Sign me up for worship, if worship played songs like this one.

Instead, worship songs ponder the vague and the insignificant. Three we give you glories and two praise be to Gods and call it a day.

Similarly, sermons seem to pave the widest avenue and preachers aim for the lowest common denominator. Today’s lesson? Careful about a critical tongue. Will do!

Christianity holds a rich history of letters, so why have we spayed and neutered it? I don’t feel anything at church, but Julien Baker’s music and Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, The Givenness of Things nourishes my soul.

Exploring the Givenness of Things

Compiled from various lectures and presentations given across the country, Robinson’s The Givenness of Things explores themes of faith and national identity on the face of it. Robinson’s essays meander through myriad topics, bouncing from one discipline to another in random-yet-meaningful ways. Robinson can wax poetic on metaphysics, transition to Shakespearian scholarship, shift to theology, and conclude with political science without missing a beat.

Even though none of these essays feel as tightly wound as a 5-point sermon, these reflections breathe life into Christian bones. No matter the topic, Robinson masters the voice of critic and pastor.

She uses Shakespeare to expand on the theological principles of love:

“Shakespeare, my theologian, never asserts but often proposes that we participate in grace, in the largest sense of the word, as we experience love, in the largest sense of that word. Beauty masses around the moments in which these thoughts are spoken and enacted” (49).

Cutting through the partisanship of identity politics, Robinson leverages the notion of the imago dei:

“Where would we be if the Hebrew God had not said and insisted that human beings share his image and are sanctified by it? Do we have any other secure basis for belief in universal human dignity? There is no evidence at all that this is anything we know intuitively. We would not now have a sizable part of our own population walking around prepared to engage in homicidal violence if they truly believed that that young man in the hoodie was an image of God” (170).

On the Face of It

But above all, Robinson focuses on givenness, a concept focused on a prima facie view of life.

“This is the anthropology of the soul, and, besides its cultural and political importance—we are created equal, we are endowed by our Creator—it is entirely compatible with the pragmatism that accepts things in their complex and veiled givenness, extrapolated neither to nor from. God so loved the world. God is love. Love one another as I have loved you. These sentences are intelligible to us because we do, in however misdirected or dilute a form, participate in this attribute” (80).

In other words, Robinson emphasizes life on the face of it. When scientists move past physics and search for the metaphysical or neuroscientific, when theologians proceed beyond the big picture narrative of Scripture to proof texting whatever they deem desirable, when politics becomes a fight for what is mine versus what is yours, we lose the path. So, Robinson urges, let’s shift back to the givenness of things.

Robinson, much like Julien Baker, expresses a rational-yet-profound faith. When I think about art and ideas that move me, concepts that raise the hair on the back of my neck, these women get it, more than the mundane Sunday service ever seems to understand. And so, while I’ll keep taking the family to the pews on Sunday mornings

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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