Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson gave an interview to Sarah Pulliam Bailey of the Religion News Service that has to rank as the most intellectually shallow interview I have ever read.

If you don't know, Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction (Gilead, Home) and non-fiction (The Death of Adam, Absence of Mind) writer. I haven't read her fiction, but have been impressed with her non-fiction books. I've sensed a deep, thoughtful, inquiring mind in them. With one caveat: Chesterton reminded us that an open mind is like an open mouth: it is supposed to close on something solid. Her books do a lot of skillful ranging around and negotiating issues, but there aren't enough solid conclusions in them.

Anyway, this interview is such a train wreck that, as much as I want to, I cannot ignore it. It occurs to me as I read it that while Robinson claims to have been left behind by contemporary culture (she's never seen Facebook and doesn't know what Twitter is), her answers are a perfect distillation of what a very high percentage of young people think. And if people like me never respond to this kind of nonsense, how will anybody's mind ever change?

Here goes:

On War and Guns

A: Everything for me comes down to the idea that people are images of God. This makes me highly reluctant to see wars fought in any circumstances, and especially when no rationale can be offered for it. That’s just folly. I don’t understand the state of mind that makes people at ease with the idea that gun laws are being relaxed to the point that makes it overwhelmingly likely that homicidal people will have possession of these military weapons.

Translation: "Because people are made in God's image, there's rarely anything worth fighting over." 

Well, "Amen" to the image of God part and "Amen" to requiring rationales for war. But I'm curious why the doctrine of the image of God would make somebody reluctant to see wars fought "in any circumstances." The image of God ought to make one eager to see innocent life protected (Boko Haram, anyone?); I would've thought it would heighten, not diminish, one's inclination to support wars with humanitarian aims. (Not that I'm advocating a humanitarian aim as sufficient by itself.) 

Guns. She says people are okay with "relaxing" gun laws, which will, with overwhelming likelihood, result in homicidal people having "these military weapons." I'll ignore the lazy ignorance about that last description. I'm not aware of any major incident of gun violence in America occurring with "military weapons," but I won't fault her for not knowing anything about guns. It's not beyond the pale to be mistaken about types of firearms.

But I'm pretty sure people are resisting the addition of new gun laws. So nobody's talking about "relaxing" anything, as far as I know. They want to maintain (and enforce!) the current rule of law, which is embodied in the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights. And the reason they oppose these new laws is they believe them to be ineffective in accomplishing the stated goal (keeping guns out of the hands of homicidal people), and have the unintended consequence of making said homicidal people more effective in killing innocent people because of decreased deterrents. And these pro-gun advocates happen to have most of the empirical evidence on their side. But Robinson apparently doesn't have enough imagination to think through all the humane, positive, and rational reasons somebody might oppose gun control; she'd rather just continue with the shockingly incurious (and ugly) assumption that, for the cavalier pro-gun crowd, life is cheap. Disagree with the pro-gun crowd, if you wish; but this is a pretty extreme straw-man.

It is kind of ironic that she next goes on to talk about fear

How did we get so scared of each other? I have never felt as if I was in a situation that could remotely suggest to me the appropriateness of lethal violence. And I’m not living in a gated community in Florida. I mean, who are these people? And what do they get out of all this fear?

Translation: "I've never been the victim of violence. So I don't understand what everyone's so scared of."

This is a new version of the (probably apocryphal) story of a New York Times film critic who wondered how Nixon could have won the election: "Nobody I know voted for him!"

I guess I am to suspect that Marilynne Robinson has never bothered to read the crime section of her local newspaper. I am not in a gated community, either. I'm in a city of a little over 100,000 people. Right now we have a billboard in our town seeking information about the breaking and entry, robbery, and murder of a lovely elderly couple. A cold case. Murdered in their beds in a quiet, sleepy Montana city. But Robinson cannot fathom why anybody would ever be afraid. Who are these people? What do they get out of all this fear? They must like being afraid. 

So these two consecutive thoughts came out of her head:

 Look! Homicidal people with guns! You should be afraid! What is the matter with you? I cannot understand your complacent state of mind! Don't you know these people shoot up public places and kill innocent people?"

"What's that? You want a gun to protect yourself and other innocent people? What are you, some kind of crazy? There's no danger out there! I've never seen or experienced any! I have no idea what you're talking about.

It's enough to make me embarrassed for her.

The irony goes deeper because Robinson makes much of being a devotee of John Calvin. She's sort of known for rehabilitating Calvin, and even has a great line in this interview about Calvin: "[He] has a strange reputation that is based very solidly on the fact that nobody reads him." She herself notes that one of things she likes about Calvin is that "he allows for the reality of great evil." And yet Robinson cannot understand why anybody would ever be afraid of anybody. Oh, how quickly I forget: she started out worried about "homicidal people" having "these military weapons." You see, her fears are justified; yours are irrational.

Same-Sex Marriage

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.

Translation: "I and my friends abandoned the Bible's view of sex a long time ago. I'm startled that people exist who haven't."

I'm kind of startled myself by this comment: "so when you read in the newspaper that there are people calling down brimstone..." wait. What is a newspaper? Oh, no. Sorry, that's a rabbit trail. Am I seriously to believe that Marilynne Robinson doesn't know a single soul who disagrees with same-sex marriage? She had to read about these exotic creatures in the newspaper? Liberals love to talk about the "bubble" or echo chamber of the Right Wing and the "epistemic closure" of the conservative mind. But this has to be one of the most insular things I've ever read.

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.

Translation: "I have never read a single intelligent thing about the Bible and sex." 

You know what else was routine and normal in the Hellenistic culture of Jesus' day? Infanticide. Spousal abuse. Misogyny. Kidnapping. Slavery. Did Jesus even mention those things? I bet it must have been all around him. And his silence must equal... approval. Right?

Of course, Jesus did have a lot to say about sexuality, and he always grounded it in the text of Genesis 2. But maybe he was one of those "primitive" types who privileged those one or two verses over the combined wisdom of Marilynne Robinson, literally everyone she knows, and the United Church of... um, "Christ."

Contraceptive Mandate

A: That seems to me like an artificial problem. I wish I could go to the Supreme Court every time I saw somebody trying to cut food stamps, or pre-K, or any of these other things. These people that are so attentive to babies that don’t exist yet, and so negligent of babies that need help. It’s part of the narrowing of the culture, so that only certain things are considered to be religious controversies. It’s a religious controversy, to me, that we would think of cutting back on help for the poor. Especially after our financiers have crashed the economy.

Translation: "I have absolutely no idea what the contraceptive mandate issues are. But...look! Evil Republicans and Wall Street financiers!"

Her first answer alleged that gun-control opponents are morally deficient: they don't care enough about dead people. Then same-sex marriage opponents are "inauthentic" and "primitive." They don't have any legitimate reason to believe as they do. Now Christians not wanting to be coerced into buying abortifacient drugs for somebody else has an "artificial" objection. As in, either it's a fake issue or they're faking their outrage.

We are not witnessing a charitable generosity of spirit here. You know what we're witnessing?


I know. It's a buzzword these days. But I think we may have found a real-world example. This is a narrow-minded dismissiveness, ignorance, and intolerance of other viewpoints that you'd have to dig fairly hard to find among public intellectuals on the other side of each of these issues.

Need more evidence, though? How about this beauty: "These people that are so attentive to babies that don't exist yet, and so negligent of babies that need help."

Read that one again. That's not an off-the-cuff sentence. That's one of those pre-planned ones you keep in your back pocket. It's been trotted out before, no doubt. Can you think of an uglier caricature of a pro-life person? Negligent of babies that need help? I frankly cannot.

It has become clear that Robinson doesn't know anybody who owns a gun; she even asked, "Who are these people?" She doesn't know anyone who opposes same-sex marriage; she had to read about them in the newspaper. She apparently doesn't know any pro-lifers, either. She doesn't know any of these kinds of people, but she knows they're morally deficient, inauthentic, insincere, and now they're hypocrites who neglect babies in need. Oh, and they hate poor people, too.

I am now at the point I am wondering why anybody is asking Marilynne Robinson her opinion about anything, anything at all. I mean, she's written some good books, but this interview suggests that the well of intellectual sophistication is bone dry. I don't think she's kidding around when she says at the end, "People ask me why I don’t write about contemporary culture. I’d have to educate myself about what contemporary culture is, because all of these words are essentially meaningless to me."

Robinson wrote a pretty good book called Absence of MindMaybe that's what happened here.

Brian Mattson