Marilynne Robinson on Biblical Interpretation, Calvinist Thought, and Religion in America (Ep. 207)

For famed writer Marilynne Robinson, Genesis is the book that never stops giving.

Marilynne Robinson is one of America’s best and best-known novelists and essayists, whose award-winning works like Housekeeping and Gilead explore themes of faith, grace, and the intricacies of human nature. Beyond her writing, Robinson’s 25-year tenure at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop allowed her to shape and inspire the new generations of writers. Her latest book, Reading Genesis, displays her scholarly prowess, analyzing the biblical text not only through the lens of religious doctrine but also appreciating it as a literary masterpiece.

She joined Tyler to discuss betrayal and brotherhood in the Hebrew Bible, the relatable qualities of major biblical figures, how to contend with the Bible’s seeming contradictions, the true purpose of Levitical laws, whether we’ve transcended the need for ritual sacrifice, the role of the Antichrist, the level of biblical knowledge among students, her preferred Bible translation, whether The Winter’s Tale makes sense, the evolution of Calvin’s reputation and influence, why academics are overwhelmingly secular, the success of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, why she wrote a book on nuclear pollution, what she’ll do next, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to be notified when a new episode releases.

Recorded February 8th, 2024

Read the full transcript

Special thanks to listener Russell R. for sponsoring this transcript.

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m talking with Marilynne Robinson, one of America’s best and best-known writers. She is also a nonfiction essayist, and now she has a new book out, called Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson, which I recommend highly. Marilynne, welcome.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

COWEN: Why is betraying a brother such a prominent theme in the Hebrew Bible?

ROBINSON: I think it’s a small model of the offenses against ourselves as human beings that happen at every scale.

COWEN: It seems, in the Hebrew Bible, the older brother typically does worse or is somehow dethroned or put down. Why is that? What is that telling us?

ROBINSON: I think that there’s no necessity, no causality in the way that things work among human beings, that God is free to choose the younger brother. The conventions of human society, primogeniture and so on, are not salient in terms of God’s intentions.

COWEN: In your Calvinist view, is it elevating predestination over human institutions and human choices?

ROBINSON: Poor old Calvin always comes up, but I don’t think that there’s any theologian who ever walked the earth who didn’t say that David was chosen over his brothers because it was the intention of God. A great deal of determinist . . . The language is poor, but God’s choices are reflected continuously in the Bible. If that scene is predestination, it seems to me that that isolates it from the text in a way that’s not appropriate.

COWEN: Do you think there’s room in Catholic theology, or even Arminian theology, for human free choice to be the reason why these different events are happening, say, in Genesis or the Hebrew Bible, that predestination is a bit less general than you’re making it out to be in Christian thought? Or what’s your view?

ROBINSON: It’s pretty general in Christian thought. Thomas Aquinas believed in it, for example, wrote about it in the Summa Contra Gentiles and also in the Summa Theologica. It’s very difficult to conceive of an omnipotent God who is relatively powerless in the way that our conception of freedom would imply. I argue in the book consistently that God does actually restrain himself from intruding too far on our own nature at the same time that what he intends works its way through our nature.

COWEN: You write in your book, and I quote, “The great figures of scripture are not at all Homeric.” What did you mean by that?

ROBINSON: In a Homeric character, they tend to be demigods, for one thing. Their nature is complicated by the influence of a divine parent. They’re superhuman in a sense. In the Bible, there is no intention to make anyone exceed his humanity, that God is always working through people that are recognizably fallible, limited human beings. Part of the reason I think that we have so often God choosing almost at random among people is to make the point that he’s acting through them rather than they’re acting out of some singular quality of their own person.

COWEN: That would be true, say, for the elevation of Moses, who at first is a stumbling, bumbling figure, a stutterer, not very confident. But God elevates Moses.

ROBINSON: Exactly. Moses says, “I’m really not the person who should be doing this.” God says, “Your brother will be your mouth,” et cetera. He does not allow the absence of what appear to be heroic qualities in Moses to be disqualifying of Moses.

On the Bible’s influence and complexity

COWEN: How has the Book of Genesis influenced your fiction writing?

ROBINSON: I think it has actually influenced Western literature, English-language literature to a point where it’s very difficult to say where the influence begins. I think that there’s nothing in ancient literature that approaches it in terms of characterization, and there’s very little in modern literature that also would approach it from that point of view.

It’s these people who are rather obscure figures in the human world and overlapping generations of herdsmen. They’re incredibly strongly differentiated and characterized. I think that that’s something that has been an influence on all Western literature.

COWEN: How much do you feel that we moderns should feel free to do a pick and choose from Genesis, or from the Old Testament more generally? You write quite a bit about themes of grace and reconciliation in Genesis, and they clearly are there, say, in the Joseph story. But if you look at, say, God destroying almost the entire world through the flood, or you look at some of the battles fought in Deuteronomy, it doesn’t seem to be grace at all.

ROBINSON: That certainly is a problem. The Bible very directly confronts the horrible aspects of human history and human behavior. That’s true. It would be meaningless if it didn’t, because those things are so enormously important in human life and history. The fact that it doesn’t give us an easy way to understand these things does not mean that they’re not germane to its subject, which is the nature of human being and the nature of God.

The picking and choosing is certainly, certainly characteristic of the response that people have made to Genesis and to the Bible altogether. I think that if I could simply change emphasis and show that there are other ways in which things are to be understood, and that there are words like vengeance and jealousy and so on that are bad translations and distort the reading of the text.

I consider the Bible to be the most complex document on the planet. The fact that its difficulties are not resolvable by me in every case, or any case perhaps, I don’t think is a criticism of the Bible.

COWEN: I once knew a Calvinist. His name was John Robbins. He was what I call a bite-the-bullet Calvinist. He thought the Bible was divine revelation that was above human judgment. You simply had to latch onto whatever was in there and couldn’t really very much use your interpretive faculties to override it. What’s the view that you hold that leads you to differ from John Robbins?

ROBINSON: Read Calvin. These people that call themselves Calvinists — there’s no great likelihood that they will have read the Institutes or anything else that he wrote. The need of interpretation taking into account what appears to be the overriding meaning of the text is what Calvin did. His whole career was an explication of the Bible by his lights, using his Latin and his Hebrew and so on.

He says we’ve read this wrong for a thousand years, and it will take us a thousand years to get it anywhere near right. So, he does not believe in an absolutely straightforward reading of the text. He believes very much in an interpretation that reconciles the text to the best understanding we feel we have about the nature of God.

COWEN: You write in your book, and again I quote, “To refrain, to put aside power is godlike.” What did you mean?

ROBINSON: Simply that. The ability to assert, to the extent that one can, control over another person is a suspect act in itself. The way that we have been human despite transgressions and all the rest of it, the way that God has loved human beings in their humanity, in order to allow this to happen, we have to assume that God did not assert himself in a way that disallowed our nature.

COWEN: As a Calvinist, too, would not, in general, dismiss the Old Testament, what do you make of a book such as Leviticus? It’s highly legalistic, highly ritualistic. Some Christians read Leviticus and become a split Christian Jew almost. Other Christians more or less dismiss the book. How does it fit into your worldview?

ROBINSON: I think that when you read Herodotus, where he describes these little civilizations that are scattered over his world — he describes them in terms of what they eat or prohibit, or they paint themselves red, or they shave half their head. There are all these very arbitrary distinctions that people make in order to identify with one clan over against another.

At the point of Leviticus, which of course, is an accumulation of many texts over a very long time, no doubt, but nevertheless, to think of it as being Moses — he is trying to create a defined, distinctive human community. By making arbitrary distinctions between people so that you’re not simply replicating notions of what is available or feasible or whatever, but actually asking them to adopt prohibitions of food — that’s a very common distinguishing thing in Herodotus and in contemporary life.

So, the arbitrariness of the laws is not a fault. It is a way of establishing identification of one group as separate from other groups.

COWEN: So, you read it as a narrative of how human communities are created, but you still would take a reading of, say, Sermon on the Mount that the Mosaic law has been lifted? Or it’s still in place?

ROBINSON: Oh, it’s not still in place. We’ve been given other means by which to create identity. Moses was doing something distinctive in a certain period of the evolution of Israel as a people. He didn’t want them to be Egyptians. He didn’t want them to subscribe to the prevailing culture, which was idolatrous, and so on. He’s doing Plato in The Republic. He’s saying, “This is how we develop the idea of a community.”

Having said that, then there are certain other things like “Thou shall not kill,” or whatever, that become characterizing laws. Jesus very often says, when someone says to him, “How can I be saved?” He says, “You know the commandments.” It’s not as if God is an alien figure from the point of view of Christ, whom we take to be his son.

On ritual sacrifice and the Antichrist

COWEN: Ritual sacrifice plays a major role in the Bible, as you mention in your book, including in Genesis. Is that a human universal, and it’s still with us in some form, as René Girard might suggest? Or have we simply transcended the need for all this ritual sacrifice?

ROBINSON: In the books of Moses, he has adapted ritual sacrifice so that it’s clearly a feast. It’s a sacrificial animal of a kind that they eat customarily. Whenever these sacrifices are called for as ritual, they invite the widow, the orphan, the Levite, et cetera — these people who are assumed to be without resources. I think that this is true also in Homer, that they give bones to the gods and eat the meat as a community. This is probably a huge public health measure for one thing, simply making sure that everyone within a group is nourished every once in a while.

The idea of sacrificing the animal, I don’t know. I think it always depends on whether or not the animal becomes the Thanksgiving turkey or not. I think that that varies from one group to another, but among the Israelites, I think it was a feast basically.

COWEN: The negative side of the sacrifice, that you do away with something to achieve a ritual cleansing of violent impulses so they don’t turn more violent — that’s not part of ritual sacrifice in the Bible? Is that element of ritual sacrifice still with us?

ROBINSON: I find ourselves very puzzling, frankly. I think that what has happened in our civilization, as opposed to civilizations that have come before, is that we have the appearance of a relative absence of violence by historical standards. Then in reserve, in potential, we have a fantastic capacity for violence that would exceed anything that the world has ever seen before.

Maybe if we had some way of releasing this by littles rather than making more missiles and more bombs, maybe it would be healthier for us, ultimately.

COWEN: What’s the role of the Antichrist in your theology? It’s mentioned in Daniel. It’s in the Book of Revelation, but a lot of the Bible — it’s just not there.

ROBINSON: I tend to think the Antichrist is probably an array of bad human actors and behaviors rather than being a single figure, as some people think that it is. It seems to me that, for example, in the Book of Revelation, what you have is this cyclical pattern of history in which these Antichrist figures appear and work themselves through an epoch of history, and then it goes on to another epoch of history.

It seems to me as if you don’t have to look far to see things that are very, very much opposed to Christ very directly, whether they acknowledge this or not. Typically, they do not acknowledge it. So, I don’t think that Antichrist is necessarily an unusable term, well, I think that it is a term that should require scrutiny on the part of people who use it, certainly.

COWEN: For you, it comes in cyclical form, and it’s a matrix, rather than say, oh, singling out the pope, or singling out Hitler or some person yet to come. Is that fair to say?

ROBINSON: Yes. You look at history — there are a lot of terrifying people in history. It’s not just Hitler.

On teaching and preaching

COWEN: For how many years did you teach literature at the University of Iowa and other places?

ROBINSON: Iowa about 25 years, and then I did lectureships or briefer appointments in other places.

COWEN: How hard was it to teach literature to groups of students who I assume very often were not familiar with the Bible? How was that for you?

ROBINSON: That’s an interesting question. Sometimes, if you ask the right question, you’ll find out that there are people in that room that know a lot more about the Bible than you would ever expect them to. A lot of people tend to be rather private about their upbringing, perhaps. Then, often, it turns out that they were brought up in a religious context. Many, many people are.

There’s a sad phenomenon of Christianity having become identified with what are seen as very ungenerous positions and values. People are very reluctant to be identified with religion because they’re afraid that they’re also identified with the kind of politics that they have no respect for.

COWEN: Where in the world have the students most surprised you in this regard with what they knew about the Bible or how they understood it?

ROBINSON: I think that there’s a spontaneous generosity in younger people, and they admire Jesus. I think this is actually a more widespread feeling than actual adherence to Christianity, or acknowledged adherence to it. The impulse toward generosity, I think, insofar as it’s celebrated in the Bible, is the thing that attracts them.

COWEN: You’ve also been a preacher for many years — is that correct — in church?

ROBINSON: No. There was a time when the minister was often called away, and I would preach. This must have happened three or four times, and my whole reputation as a preacher has come from those three or four times. I’m actually very anxious about being in a pulpit. I feel like an imposter, and so I don’t seek out that opportunity.

COWEN: What did you learn from those three or four times preaching?

ROBINSON: That I had more to say than the 20 minutes of approved [laughs] preaching could accommodate. Also, perhaps, that people in churches have an internal 20-minute timer and begin to notice when you’re talking longer than they would’ve expected.

COWEN: Do you have a view on Bible translations? It seems to me there’s a new generation of translators. There’s a John Tabor translation of Genesis just out. There’s Sarah Ruden doing the Gospels. The view there seems to be the earlier translations — they don’t sound rough enough or authentic enough. They’re all a bit smoothed over. What translation or translations do you prefer?

ROBINSON: I like the Revised Standard Version, but that seems to be a little bit difficult to acquire at the moment. I don’t know why. It’s just the classic American Protestant Bible in its latest form.

I have problems with the later Bible, simply in the sense that they preserve words like jealousy and so on that reflect very badly — as they are understood in modern English — on God. The Jewish Publication Society doesn’t use the word jealous. They use the word passionate, which sounds to me like a vastly less injurious term. Likewise, vengeance — it’s a very bad translation of what meant judgment, implying that one could be vindicated as well as condemned.

I haven’t seen these terms criticized except with the one exception of the word jealous. I think that they are carried over because they sound biblical. People have been saying them since they were appropriate translations, but they aren’t anymore, and if anything’s going to be changed, that kind of thing should be changed.

On Shakespeare

COWEN: You did your PhD on Shakespeare, correct?


COWEN: Do you think Shakespeare was a Catholic?


COWEN: Do you think he believed in the Trinity, even?

ROBINSON: I wouldn’t go into detail like that. The question of being Catholic or Protestant in Shakespeare’s time was more a political question than a theological one, I think. The denomination — inappropriate word — but the church, as it were, that somebody in Shakespeare’s period would be reacting against would’ve been the Anglican church, not the Catholic church, because the Catholic church had been effectively expelled from England for a long time, since Henry VIII.

On the scale between having the king as the head of the church — the Anglican model — and the Protestantisms that were flourishing, and that were publishing, and that were preaching, and all the rest of it — popular religion of the period — I think that’s where Shakespeare would be found.

COWEN: Do you think his late play The Winter’s Tale makes sense? It’s often called a problem play. Is there a problem in the structure of the plot, the setup, the resolution? Or do you feel you understand it? [laughs]

ROBINSON: I don’t know. [laughs] I don’t know if I understand it. I love the late plays. I love the problem. He becomes very, very fascinated with grace and reconciliation in his late plays.

In The Winter’s Tale, of course, it’s the reconciliation between the king and his statuous wife. The play makes you realize what has been lost, what has been harmed at the same time that it is also a reconciliation, an embrace, an undoing, a forgiving. The same thing happens in Cymbeline, same thing happens in The Tempest.

COWEN: Do you think there are hints in The Winter’s Tale that the queen actually was unfaithful to the king, or he just completely is imagining it?

ROBINSON: I think he’s imagining it. Where else do you go? It’s very like Othello in that regard. I think that these women are to be understood as actually honest, virtuous people.

COWEN: Reading Shakespeare as a Calvinist, what do you feel that directs your attention to that, say, contemporary secular readers might not see?

ROBINSON: Calvinism was made to evolve. Calvin is making suggestions. He’s not doctrinal in the way that people seem to think, but he was making really valuable suggestions. One of them was certainly that any encounter with another human being is an encounter with God, and that it is always a question, and the question is always, what would God want from this encounter? It’s in his gloss in the Institutes on “Who is my neighbor?” as I recall. In any case, I think that’s very beautiful.

I think that that sense in Shakespeare of these enormously beautiful encounters, where people recognize each other, people pardon each other, people embrace each other — I think that could certainly be something that he explored as a suggestion taken from Calvin.

On Calvin’s influence

COWEN: Why do you think Calvin himself has lost so much popularity as a thinker? Of course, feel free to challenge that premise, but he has a reputation of being a nasty guy, not so thoughtful, very intolerant. The word is almost used as an insult in some circles. What’s your view on that, the evolution of Calvin’s reputation?

ROBINSON: Well, he was associated with virtually every early revolution in Europe — Cromwell, the French Wars of Religion, and so on, the Dutch revolution against Spain. He became so important in that sense that, of course, he was the object of polemic.

The American Revolution could be seen as another Calvinist revolution, and so could the American Civil War if you wanted to look at it from the point of view of the Great Awakenings and so on. His teachings introduced a great deal of volatility into the existing order anywhere. People defend themselves against that by speaking of him very harshly, and also completely reversing the implications and the consequences of his theology.

The cure, of course, is to read Calvin, which no one does, and the reason no one does is because they think they know what they’ll find. It’s very self-perpetuating from that point of view when a negative reputation is established.

There’s one person who was associated with a physical martyrdom on religious grounds, Michael Servetus. One person. Then look at any other king in Europe at that time, or any bishop in Europe at that time, and so on. You’ll see that, as sad as it is to have murdered one man, it’s a very minor event by the standards of the period.

COWEN: The edition of Institutes that I own — I think it’s about 1100 pages with relatively fine print. If you were making a case to people why they should read it, other than, “Well, you’ll see what Calvin really thought,” how would you try to persuade them?

ROBINSON: I say this as someone who wants to read Calvin carefully. You have to read him very carefully because, for some reason or other, the familiarity of theological language — if you’re interested in theology — so much of that language comes from him, but it’s very easy to read superficially. At the beginning of the Institutes, he says, “The only true knowledge of God is born of obedience,” which is a very important situation of the psyche, the mind in Calvinist terms.

He says if you want to encounter God, descend into yourself. Then he says if you want to understand yourself, contemplate God. He creates with this the possibility for very direct encounter between a human being and God, and holds metaphysics of what God is and what humankind are, which is again very beautiful because it’s a celebration of the brilliance of human beings. All this he does in the first couple of chapters.

He can talk about human beings for a long time without ever mentioning [laughs] sin or any of the things that are normally associated with him because he is of this renaissance humanism, the celebration.

COWEN: There’s also a view known or sometimes caricatured as hyper-Calvinism. Are you a hyper-Calvinist?

ROBINSON: I don’t know any of these terms. All I know is, I’ve read his books, and I appreciate his metaphysics.

COWEN: As I understand it, which is very imperfectly, the hyper-Calvinists take determinism more seriously. And they think, for instance, that trying to convert people or preach to them is futile, and we shouldn’t even bother doing it because God has settled everything.

ROBINSON: Well, one thing that Calvinists — perhaps not hyper-Calvinists — have done is produce thousands of volumes of sermons. Obviously, it was a very, very literary, printing press–oriented culture.

You can talk about people who have invented some theory that finds no confirmation in Calvin’s own work. He preached several times every week, and did a great deal toward what he considered to be the education of people in the scriptures, so started schools and so on. If somebody takes an idea and runs off with it and call themselves a hyper this or hyper that, it has nothing to do with the source material.

COWEN: How can we tell whether we’re saved or damned?


COWEN: Can’t tell.

ROBINSON: No. You can’t tell about yourself; you can’t tell about anybody else.

COWEN: Do you worry that the distinction between saved and damned leads to a certain tolerance amongst religious people for highly inegalitarian outcomes? If some people are elevated to heaven and others burn in hell for reasons not related to their free choices, that this then becomes also a political view, that extreme inequalities are something that are quite natural and sanctioned by God.

ROBINSON: Extreme inequalities are something that people seem sadly inclined toward. A decaying society always sinks into that in one form or another. But Calvin never says that you can judge whether anyone is saved or damned. Never, because he believes that as we appear to God, like David and his transgressions, and so on, we cannot say that those are acts that have a certain value in terms of their impact on the fate of our souls.

His cultures — the Dutch culture, the Protestant English-language cultures, America and the colonial period, and so on — are not marked by hierarchy by the standards of the period. If he were to say that there was an egalitarian energy in that period, it would have been Calvinism.

COWEN: Have you been to the Netherlands at all?

ROBINSON: Yes, I’ve been there a couple of times.

COWEN: Now, when you go, do you feel this is a modern version of a Dutch Calvinist culture? Or do you feel it’s an extreme rebellion against that? Because if you look at some metrics, say legal sex work, liberal use of drugs, the Netherlands seems to be fairly extreme. How do you connect that or model that in your mind as an outgrowth of an earlier Dutch Calvinism?

ROBINSON: Well, the Dutch Calvinism I’m aware of tends to be in the Middle West. It is not at all like contemporary Netherlands. You know what I mean?

COWEN: Sure, absolutely.

ROBINSON: It’s interesting with the Netherlands. I don’t know. I have talked with extremely erudite, devout people in the Netherlands. People are so attracted by the sensational, but we know that things happen in the Netherlands that are surprising. On the other hand, that’s gloss. There’s a lot of seriousness, and anywhere it’s a human tendency.

COWEN: If I think about this country, we used to have a stronger tradition of a devout liberal Christianity: the Quakers, William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther King. It seems to me this is weaker today in relative terms, much weaker than it used to be. Do you agree with that? And if so, why do you think it happened?

ROBINSON: I think that it’s probably fair to say that that’s true. There’s been a loss of a certain kind of confidence, no question. One thing we did is disaffiliate ourselves from our own educational institutions. Harvard, Yale — all these were Protestant schools founded by Congregationalists, Princeton by Presbyterians, and so on. When they became major national institutions, they stopped being self-identified as Protestant institutions. I think that the loss of dedicated intellectual institutions has been a sad thing for us, maybe a good thing for the culture at large.

On American religiosity

COWEN: When you mentioned having taught, including at Iowa, for about 25 years, surely you noticed that academics are amongst the most secular people in American society. Why do you think that is?

ROBINSON: I don’t think we can really tell. The thing about it is that, unfortunately, religion has become associated with inhumane values, inhumane episodes among the governing class, and so on. That makes people conceal their religion or their thoughts that are of a religious character.

When somebody calls you whom you would always have taken to be secular and says, “Would you pray for me because I’m in some kind of trouble,” how secular is that? People are private about religion, but I don’t think that that means that they’re as secular as they seem to appear.

COWEN: So, you think we Americans are much more religious than it seems at first glance?

ROBINSON: Yes, I do think that.

COWEN: Do you think the Midwest is still considerably more religious than, say, most of the coasts?

ROBINSON: Well, again, that’s the kind of thing I can’t really tell. I spend a lot of time on the East Coast, which is where I am now, and I suppose that is, to all appearances, more secular than most parts of the country. But at the same time, there’s a flourishing church here of my denomination, and so on. We don’t know what we’re comparing it against, for one thing.

Also, there’s just the fact that people can feel that they are sufficiently religious without affiliation with a church. Many people feel that way.

COWEN: If we take your Iowa, which presumably you know quite well, when I was younger, I had the impression of it as a Democratic Party–leaning, highly educated, fairly tolerant, liberal, Protestant state overall with, obviously, a lot of diversity. Today, it seems to be a state that, say, Donald Trump is going to win quite easily electorally, assuming Trump is running. How did that change? And why did the former philosophies held in Iowa not satisfy people?

ROBINSON: We’re talking about something that has happened over a brief period of time, basically during the governorship of this Kim Reynolds. I think that Trumpism is a fad that suddenly everybody’s doing the same thing, using the same language, and so on.

I’m very grieved by the change in the political climate in Iowa because I admired its generosity and civility and so on, and I hope that this is some weird temporary fluctuation because the basic decency and enlightenment of Iowa was so well established over such a long time, it’s hard to believe that this is a permanent conversion.

COWEN: Some thinkers, I think especially on the conservative right, have argued that as America becomes more pluralistic — ethnically and religiously pluralistic — that that, on net, marginalizes the influence of religion. That it’s easier for society to be fairly religious when there’s mostly one or maybe two religions in question, but when you have people from all over the world with a variety of religions or just very different understandings of Christianity, there’s a least-common-denominator effect, where most of us become more secular. Do you think that’s true?

ROBINSON: No, I think that one of the things that has been a resource in this country for many years is religious cultures that are derived from the place of origin. In other words, the multiplicity of religious institutions sustained religion as a phenomenon. I think that you would say, without much fear of contradiction, that if you’re going to find religious people now, you would go to immigrant communities because they sustain many things for people who might otherwise feel that they are adrift.

COWEN: Some commentators have suggested that the current woke movement, say from the progressive left, that it’s intellectually and ideologically an outgrowth of an earlier American Protestantism, that it has roots, in a sense, in the 17th century. Do you agree with that?

ROBINSON: I’d want to know what you mean by the word wokeism. Lots of things in this country have roots in 17th-century Protestantism.

COWEN: Say in San Francisco, there was an institution. It was called a Woke Kindergarten, and it taught American history a particular way. The New York Times segments emphasizing 1619, a particular kind of focus on issues of race, class, gender, trans individuals, the Me Too movement added up together as allied with the progressive left. I would take that to be one meaning of woke. Do you think that’s an outgrowth of American Protestantism?

ROBINSON: No. [laughs] Having lived among the American Protestants for 80 years, I would not necessarily say that that is a phenomenon that is in any way especially peculiar to us. Insofar as any social movement wishes to alleviate injustice, unhappiness, pointless cruelty — the way so many discriminations do — insofar as the point is to reduce that kind of criminal misery, really, I’m perfectly happy to adopt it as a Protestant and say, “Yes, we did that.” But I think, in fact, it is just the generous evolution of a democratic society.

COWEN: What do you think of the Benedictine option to just retreat and tend one’s own garden, be highly spiritual, and not engage much with the world? Is that a cop-out, or is that a legitimate way of being religious?

ROBINSON: I would say it depends on circumstance. I would say that when people feel that impulse, it’s probably because the world is in a bad way. They were actually withdrawing from problems that could be addressed — in theory, in any case. I think we’re responsible for each other, and my particular salvation is not as important as my honoring the sacredness of human beings and the world.

On Iowa and the success of the Writer’s Workshop

COWEN: How did you decide to live and stay in Iowa? You were born in Idaho, right? You grew up there?


COWEN: What led you to prefer Iowa?

ROBINSON: I went to college in Rhode Island and lived in Massachusetts and so on. I was quite a distance from Idaho, in terms of my experience, by the time I was invited to come teach in the Writers’ Workshop at the university in Iowa, which is such a classic phenomenon in American literature that I was very happy to go there and be part of it.

COWEN: How did the Iowa — what you might call writer’s scene — originally blossom?

ROBINSON: It must be 80 years ago by now. There was a lot of experiment at the university at that time. They were giving advanced degrees for physical art, for sculpture and for theater and so on, which was either unusual or unprecedented at the time. There were already groups of people in that city who met to discuss things that they wrote. The university just embraced them at a certain point, and that became the Writers’ Workshop, and many, many very distinguished writers have come through there.

COWEN: Do you think there’s any kind of unique Midwest or Iowa voice in fiction, the way there’s arguably a Southern voice?

ROBINSON: I think not because Iowa is just . . . Most of my students were from New York City or from California, or . . . People come to Iowa not to be Iowans, but to study at the workshop, whereas Southern writers identify as Southern. They want to be expressing that particular culture, so that’s a great difference.

COWEN: Why is it you think Iowa out-competes so many other writing workshops? People can, and have, set up writing workshops along the coasts, in larger cities. Iowa very often still seems to do better. Is that just history and path dependence? Or is there some comparative advantage still in Iowa that makes it work?

ROBINSON: It’s very hard for me to say because it’s the only program that I’ve taught in of that kind, but it’s a culture. One of the things that I think is a definite benefit is that they learn how to be helpful to one another, the people that are students there. They’re very good critics of each other. That’s one of the important things that they seem to learn. And the status of the place — everybody’s success feels like everyone else’s success because of the reputation of it as a community.

As far as the faculty are concerned, we were very autonomous. We simply taught as we felt was appropriate in whatever setting, absolute minimum of meetings or anything like that. I think that that’s part of the spirit of it also, that we are trusted and not regulated.

COWEN: When your students would arrive, what is it you had wished they had known but they hadn’t?

ROBINSON: Oh, so much. I can’t really generalize because we do get a diverse student body, and some of them are working with a great deal less than others in terms of educational background and so on, but that doesn’t make them less interesting. That’s one of the great equalizing things about writing as an art. If you do it well, you can make anything into an appropriate subject. You can make anything blossom into meaning.

COWEN: Yes. Do you play around with large language models at all, and AI?

ROBINSON: No, no, no. I’m just sneaking past. I feel very fortunate that my lifespan did not incorporate these things so that they became things that I had to actually be adequate with.

On nuclear pollution, movies, and work habits

COWEN: Your very first book, which is called Mother Country — it’s about nuclear pollution in Great Britain. Why did you write that book? Many people are surprised when they learn that’s a book of yours.

ROBINSON: My first book is actually the novel Housekeeping, and then —

COWEN: Nuclear pollution came after, I’m sorry.

ROBINSON: Yes. It was my second book. I was in England, and frankly, I picked up a newspaper and read about how ingesting plutonium is considered to be harmful to children. It was just very, very remarkable, the kind of information that was in the atmosphere about what was happening, particularly at this one reprocessing plant on the coast of the Irish Sea. There are Americans all over England all the time, and they can read a newspaper as well as I can, and they don’t see things.

They see violets and geraniums and not the fact that things are very different there. Many conceptions of what is appropriate economically and so on are very different. I could see what was happening. I could find information about it in all sorts of places. Why should I not write about it?

COWEN: Should the British just have done more and more expensive nuclear reprocessing the way the French did? Didn’t that work out okay for the French, and France today is glad that it went nuclear?

ROBINSON: What is your source of information?

COWEN: That a lot of European nations, due to the Russian energy price shock, have reconsidered nuclear. Those that stuck with it, such as Sweden and France, seem to be glad they stuck with it and now possibly want to expand it. There are better and worse ways of doing nuclear. Britain seems to have done a worse way, but aren’t there better ways that some countries have done and were happy they did them?

ROBINSON: I don’t know. There’s a great deal of secrecy, shall we say, that surrounds these things. I know that France built most of its reactors a very long time ago when Giscard d’Estaing was in power. Reactors don’t have a very long life — 30 years, 40 years. They’re past that. It would be incredibly expensive to replace them or to demolish them, whatever, decommission them. I don’t think we’re going to know.

The prestige of any country — for example, Russia — depends on the kind of information that we have about it. Frankly, you don’t have to look far in many cases — for example, in Russia — to find that things are extremely problematic and that they are problematic as a consequence of nuclear power.

The idea that somehow or other there’s something that can be done with these materials that were never meant to exist on Earth, it’s a polite fiction. It’s not true.

COWEN: Do you watch movies much?

ROBINSON: Not a great deal.

COWEN: Do you have a favorite movie?

ROBINSON: No. [laughs] I like serializations of 19th-century novels. I suppose that’s what I would say if I were to be perfectly honest. What other movies have I liked? I’m drawing a blank.

COWEN: The sense of, say, God’s grace that is in many of your books, you might say all of your books. Can you think of something from television or the cinema that, when you watch it, you feel someone is thinking, feeling along the same lines that you are, and you think, “That’s reflecting my vision of God’s grace”?

ROBINSON: Nothing comes to mind immediately, but as I said, I don’t watch films very much. I love the ending of The Tempest.

COWEN: There’s a good movie version by Julie Taymor. I think it’s quite good. If you haven’t already seen it, you would enjoy it.

ROBINSON: Yes. What’s the one where the great woman actor plays Prospero? Is it that same one you’re speaking of?

COWEN: I think it’s the same one.

ROBINSON: Yes, that’s very beautiful.

COWEN: What is your most unusual successful work habit?

ROBINSON: I think it’s becoming used to the fact that it takes me a long time to get to the place where I can work on something, that all this frustration [laughs] and depression that precedes my writing anything is part of the process of writing.

COWEN: Before my last question, I would just like to repeat to our listeners and readers, Marilynne Robinson has a new book out, which I enjoyed very much, Reading Genesis, which is about, of course, the book of Genesis in the Bible. I’m very happy to recommend all of her books and, of course, her famous novels. Housekeeping, I think, being my favorite. Last question is simply, what will you do next?


COWEN: I look forward to that. I will read it with pleasure. Marilynne Robinson, thank you very much.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

Photo Credit: Alec Soth, Magnum Photos