Marilynne Robinson’s Calvinism is an alternative to The Gospel Coalition’s Calvinism


The Gospel Coalition’s bloggers frequently praise Marilynne Robinson, and that’s only right. She has won a Pulitzer Prize, and she has written acclaimed novels and essays.

Better yet, Robinson has been open about the influence of John Calvin on her thought and her work. The Gospel Coalition bloggers couldn’t be happier, and who could blame them? A Pulitzer Prize-winner apparently has soaked deeply in Calvin.

Based on Justin Taylor’s past Gospel Coalition blog posts, Marilynne Robinson is once, twice, three times a Calvinist lady (apologies to Lionel Richie).

As recently as Sept. 22, 2014, Robinson received glowing praise for  Lila: A Novel.

None of that is a problem. But there is a problem. On crucial issues, attitudes, and dispositions, The Gospel Coalition and Robinson couldn’t be farther apart.

I suspect the distance between them is ignored because in The Gospel Coalition, the “Calvinist” label covers all sins.

But never mind what I suspect. Let’s take a look at some excerpts of what Robinson says — all of which I admit I like:

Here’s an excerpt of the Religion News Service’s interview with Robinson:

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

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Search The Gospel Coalition site. Good luck finding any blogger or pastor simpatico with Robinson’s views on same-sex blessings and gay marriages and biblical interpretation.

(My golly-gosh! She sounds like an Episcopalian!)

It’s not just same-sex marriage that reveals striking differences in the mentalities of The Gospel Coalition members and the mentality of Robinson.

In her interview with The Paris Review, Robinson says several things that are far too moderate and liberal to appear in The Gospel Coalition’s posts. Here’s a sampling:

I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.

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At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

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Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

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Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

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The idea that you draw a line and say, The righteous people are on this side and the bad people are on the other side—this is not gracious.

That last excerpt seems the antithesis of The Gospel Coalition posts, which seem to draw all kinds of lines.

And maybe they’re right to draw lines. It’s hard to define something when it can be anything.

Funny, though, how those lines curve around a liberal who claims Calvin.

The Gospel Coalition’s lines don’t curve around liberals who merely claim Christ — search the site for critiques of Peter Enns, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren.

Those folks will be whole and redeemed in the eyes of The Gospel Coalition — if only they claim Calvin.

That’s the underlying problem: it’s never really about Jesus and the Bible. It’s about precise angles on Jesus and the Bible, not allegiance.

Allegiance is such an internal thing, such a hard thing to pin down, the only way to prove allegiance is to espouse very specific, very precise views. Who goes there? Calvin groupie or Other?

It’s like a gang initiation — how far are you willing to go to be one of us? Claim Calvin, and you’re in.

Yes, plenty of other groups do this, too.

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