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Q&A: Marilynne Robinson on guns, gay marriage, Calvinism
First Published May 12 2014 12:26 pm • Last Updated May 12 2014 12:26 pm

New York • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson draws a wide fan base that spans lovers of serious literature, including many conservative Christians. This fall, she will release "Lila," a follow-up to her earlier novels "Gilead" (2004) and "Home" (2008) about a 1950s-era Iowa town that won her many accolades.

Robinson’s diverse fan base was described in The American Conservative as "Christian, not Conservative." As the author noted, Robinson is far from holding up ideals put forward by the religious right. But that doesn’t stop conservative Christians from engaging with her writing.

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Before giving an address at Union Theological Seminary in New York this spring, Robinson spoke to Religion News Service about a variety of social issues. In the interview, Robinson explained why she believes Christians are fearful, why she loves theologian John Calvin and whether she’ll join Twitter. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

In your book "When I Was a Child, I Read Books," you refer to Christian fears. What kinds of fear do you see in Christians today?

There are so many kinds of fear Christians have now. There are some Christians who are anxious about identifying with tradition, because of any suggestion of exclusivism that brings with it; there are Christians so scared of the world that they want to carry a gun. Those are two very different kinds of anxiety, but I do think in both cases it’s a little bit un-Christian to have thinking and behavior governed by fear.

Are there issues that you are particularly concerned about right now?

Everything for me comes down to the idea that people are images of God. This makes me highly reluctant to see wars fought in any circumstances, and especially when no rationale can be offered for it. That’s just folly. I don’t understand the state of mind that makes people at ease with the idea that gun laws are being relaxed to the point that makes it overwhelmingly likely that homicidal people will have possession of these military weapons.

How did we get so scared of each other? I have never felt as if I was in a situation that could remotely suggest to me the appropriateness of lethal violence. And I’m not living in a gated community in Florida. I mean, who are these people? And what do they get out of all this fear?


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Gay marriage is one of the culture’s hot-button issues right now. Can people coexist in that controversy?

Sometimes I wonder about the authenticity of the controversies themselves. My own denomination (the United Church of Christ), has blessed same-sex relationships and married them as quickly as it became legal in my state. It has been a process that’s gone on for a long time. Nobody gives it a thought, so when you read in the newspaper that there are people calling down brimstone, it’s startling. In time it will become an old issue for the culture that simply will not bring out this kind of thing anymore.

For Christians who hold the view that marriage is between a man and a woman, do you think they’ll become a smaller group over time?

It’s hard to know. There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? I bet it must have been all around him. You can get in a lot of trouble eating oysters if you are a literalist about Leviticus. I’m a great admirer of the Old Testament. It’s an absolute trove of goodness and richness. But I don’t think we should stone witches. And if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive. There are a thousand ways that we would all be doomed for violating the Sabbath and all kinds of other things, if we were literalists.

As you may know, there’s a big case in front of the Supreme Court right now with Hobby Lobby and another group fighting over the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. Do you see this as an issue for religious freedom?

That seems to me like an artificial problem. I wish I could go to the Supreme Court every time I saw somebody trying to cut food stamps, or pre-K, or any of these other things. These people that are so attentive to babies that don’t exist yet, and so negligent of babies that need help. It’s part of the narrowing of the culture, so that only certain things are considered to be religious controversies. It’s a religious controversy, to me, that we would think of cutting back on help for the poor. Especially after our financiers have crashed the economy.

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