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Friday, August 17, 2012

A Surprising Apologist

I have long had an interest in apologetics, that pursuit in Christian life that seeks to explain and defend the intellectual and moral integrity of Christian faith in a time of increasing non-participation and perceived irrelevance.

C.S. Lewis is perhaps the best known Christian of the 20th century, but we are in a new day, and Christian apologetics faces some new challenges. Epistemological individualism, the political ascendancy of fundamentalism, intolerance of ambiguity and mystery, accompanied by widescale disenchantment, secularism, and various kinds of utilitarianism (such as, whatever leads to economic growth must be right), all call for new voices in apologetics. Many voices have risen to the challenge, but for me, one stands out above the others, and that is Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson's is somewhat of an unlikely voice in public apologetics. She is not a professional theologian or clergyperson. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. She is a congregationalist, a lay member of a United Church of Christ congregation, the most liberal of mainline Christian denominations, and she is affiliated with the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, and not a seminary or prominent church institution.

Her voice is strong. She does not suffer fools lightly. She refuses to use the term Christian right, preferring instead Manichean right, believing and living as they do, as if an evil demigod created the heavens and the earth, but Jesus' mission is to save us and take us away from this evil world, vanquishing the evil demigod so we might live free of our bodies in ethereal wonder. In other words, for Robinson, the so-called Christian right needs to be held to account, not because they are forcing some kind of Christian tyranny on everybody else, but because they are apostate.

On the other hand, Robinson has little patience for the historical ignorance and ersatz relativism of the postmodern left, nor the literalism and woodenness of what she calls scientism. She celebrates mystery, ambiguity and grace. She has the audacity to publicly defend both Calvin and Puritans. Most of all she loves a God of both justice and grace deeply. What is most winsome about Robinson is that her's is a mature faith.

If you are interested in reading her writing in an apologetic vein, these books contain essays that might be of interest: The Death of Adam, and When I was a child I read books. A much more difficult read is Absence  of Mind, her Terry Lectures at Yale.