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On depravity and grace

BOOKS | A novelist’s take on Genesis will challenge her fellow liberals

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On depravity and grace
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MARILYNNE ROBINSON, one of America’s most celebrated living novelists, is known for weaving theological themes into her fiction and essays. Reading Genesis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2024) is her book-length meditation on the first book of the Bible in which she explains the theological framework behind her writings.

She calls Genesis, as well as the rest of the Bible, a “theodicy,” an explanation of the problem of evil. Robinson introduces her readers to a gracious God, whose forbearance with humanity becomes all the more remarkable when juxtaposed with humanity’s depravity. Before the Flood, the world was filled with violence, but the floodwaters can’t wash away wickedness. Despite humankind’s continual failings, God embraces His image bearers, extending a gracious covenant.

None of Israel’s patriarchs look particularly heroic under Robinson’s scrutiny. Her keen eye for human nature reveals the depths of familial dysfunction present in these familiar stories.

Robinson considers herself a Calvinist, though one formed by a socially liberal denomination, and her approach in Reading Genesis dovetails with John Calvin’s own goal with his Institutes. To appreciate grace, we must know both God and ourselves. If we understand how glorious He is, we’ll better understand our own sinfulness and frailty. That understanding of ourselves drives us to an even greater appreciation of God.

While Robinson assumes the Bible’s authority, she thinks questions of historicity and authorship distract from the point. Her lack of interest in these issues will no doubt vex theological conservatives, as will some of her interpretations, but they will welcome her attempt to read Genesis in light of the New Testament. This readiness to embrace the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old, however, has a notable exception. She struggles to understand God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Perhaps she neglects the New Testament’s interpretation of that event because it might bring her too close to a doctrine of atonement, which is conspicuously absent in her book. Robinson talks at length about God’s grace and loving forbearance, but in her reading, His justice and wrath disappear into the background.

Even if Robinson’s book does irritate conservatives, they aren’t her primary audience. She seems to write to her own liberal circle, which views religion skeptically and certainly doesn’t assume the Bible speaks with authority. Evangelicals don’t need to be convinced of humanity’s depravity and God’s graciousness, but many on the theological and political left do. Robinson’s assertions might sound scandalous to liberal ears, but I doubt she’ll receive any pushback. Her literary acclaim will ensure she’s applauded for her ruminations in Reading Genesis, and then those ruminations will be quickly forgotten.

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD’s arts and culture editor. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University and resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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