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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Podcast with Marilynn Robinson and Christian Wiman


I value Commonweal, a monthly magazine I’ve read of and on since the 1970s. This Saturday afternoon I listened to a Commonweal podcast with Marilynn Robinson and Christian Wiman, a poet I’ve long admired, whose articles appear frequently in the magazine.

After the podcast, I located one Wiman book in my library but could not find the other. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art. Where is the book, I wonder?

Yet inside My Bright Abyss, I found two thick articles from Harper’s, a short piece from the WSJ, plus a letter I’d written to Wiman at Yale University about a Commonweal piece he wrote on a poet & prisoner. (I’ve mentioned before that my filing system is in books!)  And what was on the back cover of My Bright Abyss? A Marilynn Robinson testimonial:

“The thing that is exceptional about My Bright Abyss, aside from its intelligence and language, is the quality of theological reflection. It is lucid and not at all simple, a book in the great tradition of truly serious thought.”

Which is to say, the day before Easter, I listened to thirty minutes of serious thought between Marilynn and Christian. I learned that Wiman read Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, in his youth (1980s) and felt the influence of its beauty. The novel presents a whole world, alive with the mysterious and divine, in ways not easily understood. If you haven’t read Housekeeping, its setting is a remote Northwestern town (Fingerbone) on three glacial lakes in the 1950s.

During the podcast, Wiman said he approaches the Bible as poetry, or otherwise he finds scripture a stumbling block. In contrast, Robinson reads the Bible for instruction, feels its authority, and says that whatever she does not understand… only makes her read more. “Though not as a rationalist,” she said.  Her latest book is on Genesis, and she hopes to complete another on Exodus. She reveres the Bible for its recurrent questions, its beautiful literature, and for the abiding safety she feels from trusting in Providence. Yet Robinson asks, What will end God’s patience?”  I could answer this question with a quip related to last week’s blog on the Inferno and Fraud. But I won’t!

I do recommend a review of Robinson’s Genesis in The New Yorker’s March 11, 2024 issue. “Had to Happen,” is by James Wood, a fine literary critic, who does not share the paradoxes of Robinson’s religious tradition, especially regarding John Calvin (think Predestination).  But Wood regards Robinson as a great novelist. At the end of his review, he says of her: “This is one miracle that, having seen it with my own eyes, I’ll happily believe in.”

If you have not read Robinson’s literary quartet of Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack, the four novels are worth reading, and more than once.  

Next week I’ll begin writing about a writer I love, the late Wallace Stegner, and the subject of my May course.

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