Sunday, November 28, 2010

Marilynne Robinson, "The dark side of justice," 2004

Tonight I discovered an old notebook from a class I sat in on with Marilynne Robinson, author of one of my very favorite novels, Housekeeping, and one that I like a great deal, Gilead. Robinson teaches in the Iowa MFA program, but this was something different: a Bible study, conducted in the basement of a church. Peter Manseau, with whom I wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible, and I were in Iowa City to read from the book at Prairie Lights. Our friend Laurel Snyder told us about Robinson's class. She knew it was in a church, but not which church. So off into the night we went, and into a blizzard as well. We peered into several basements before we found it, in session, and interrupted nonetheless. Or rather, stood like frozen cattle in the doorway, staring at the great woman. She snapped at a heavily bearded poet to fetch us chairs and Bibles, and then we were in. Following are the notes I took in a miniature composition book I happened to have in my pocket.

"Can we imagine that He is happy?"

The story of Christ in the wilderness -- "How do we know this story? Did Jesus tell it himself? Regardless, it is strange, an embrace of natural laws, limitations."

A riff on the old English of "gospel," God spell, an accounting of Christ's speech patterns, the way he introduces statements with Amen, translated as verily. Literature, she notes, proceeds by pushing toward definition. (Really?) "The Messiah is a definition of how God will act in history." But Jesus, she proposes, presents a counterintuitive definition, since he is not an action hero.

"The revolution that goes on continuously," she says -- Christ in the world, I believe she means -- "is a refining of definitions."

"The whole Bible is trying to say, 'I take this very seriously.'" She speaks of God as an abused wife. She asks, "What would we do without feeling like we're on the dark side of justice?" Because justice has a problem: "As soon as the language of justice emerges, it becomes incredibly metaphorical."

Anything that threatens us, she says, we've created. Beneath which I write: "not so."