Friday, 5 June 2009

Calvin, Gilead, Home and the Orange Prize

A friend who had been attending Geneva's Calvin 500th anniversary celebrations last weekend, tipped me off to Andrew Brown's interview with Marilynne Robinson who has just won the Orange prize for her book Home.

I've not yet read Home but enjoyed her previous book Gilead alot so I'm glad to have a new book to look forward to.
Here are some quite extensive extracts from Brown's post - he interviewed Robinson when in Geneva last week, his proposed radio programme about Calvin sounds very interesting, but we'll have to wait for that.

There are two remarkable things about Marilynne Robinson, who won the Orange Prize for fiction: she's a very good writer, and she's a very serious Christian. Her two most recent novels. Gilead and Home, have retold the story of the Prodigal Son from different viewpoints, set in a small town on the Iowa prairie in 1956. "Retelling" is not what you think when first you read them; then the overwhelming effect is of being told a story, and hearing a voice, for the very first time. But both are, in fact, books about the workings of grace in human life, just as Brideshead was. But they are Calvinist, not Roman Catholic, and their pleasures are very much more humble ...

The link between joy and beauty and the apprehension of God is one which is very vivid in Robinson. I interviewed her last week in Geneva, as part of a Radio 3 programme I am presenting on Calvin (Smashing the Idols goes out on August 30); and she gave an extraordinary justification of Calvinist Christianity as making possible the modern novel.

"One of the things that has really struck me, reading Calvin," she said then, "is what a strong sense he has that the aesthetic is the signature of the divine. If someone in some sense lives a life that we can perceive as beautiful in its own way, that is something that suggests grace, even if by a strict moral standard ... they might seem to fail."

Calvin gets such a bad press for being a killjoy, closer of the theatres etc., that it's more than a little refreshing to find a modern novelist talking in other terms about him and about grace.
As we were queuing to sign the visitors book in the staircase outside the British ambassador's this evening I found myself humming Psalm 8 in French from the Geneva Psalter (a little touch of Protestant resistance in Catholic Rome - and it is a lovely melody, I particularly like tous les poissons sur les chemins des mers) - Robinson mentions Calvin's translation of Psalm 8 towards the end of Brown's post.

Meanwhile you can also read an interview from a rather different perspective with Robinson by Emma Brooks here.

And Dr B has contributed this link to Marilynne Robinson's book of essays, "The Death of Adam", which include the theology of Calvin and the hstory of the Puritans. As the review in the New York Times put it, "Puppet theories of human nature are always out to dissuade us from thinking words like nobility, honor, courage, loyalty, love and virtue actually mean what the dictionary tells us they mean. Robinson urges us to take another look." Another review states,
Perhaps the most serious charge against Calvin by his modern detractors is that he was ashamed of the human condition, that he denigrated our common humanity. Robinson meets this criticism honestly and head on. She points out that Calvin's attack on his own humanity and on our common humanity arise from his exalted view of what we human beings were created to be and are capable of be coming. His apparently dark assessment of human nature can be understood only in light of the dialectical relationship between our sinful nature and our nature saved by grace. Rather than being "inhuman and world-hating," Calvin's theology is quite the contrary. His description of our fallen nature is given only for purposes of contrast to our saved nature in Christ.