Breaking Up With Marilynne Robinson Over the Dark Side of PuritanismHistorians in the News
tags: religious history, Colonial History, Marilynne Robinson, Puritanism
Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister who served as senior minister of New York's Judson Memorial Church and then as executive director of LA's Progressive Christians Uniting before retiring in 2014. He remains deeply involved in national and regional social justice projects touching on race, class, and religion.
Breaking up is hard to do, and I am not at all prepared to discard my deep love and admiration for novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Among her novels, I treasure Lila in particular for its deep tenderness. Among the essays, “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” appeals for its exquisite critique of prevailing neo-Darwinian ideas about who we are and what we’re capable of as human beings. But Robinson’s readers know that all of her essays burst with fresh insight and hum with her spare, quiet authority. Not for nothing has Marilynne Robinson been ranked among the finest writing teachers of this era.
Robinson is also known to be a generous and attentive person. She was generous to me nearly two decades ago when I asked her to contribute an essay for a collection I was editing about the threat of the Christian Right. She delivered a gem titled “Hallowed Be Thy Name” that ended up taking pride of place in that book. It delights me that she happily does the ordinary tasks that faithful members do in her small Congregational church. And who cannot be charmed by what appears to the mutual admiration society established between this distinguished scholar/teacher/artist and Barack Obama?
Last but not least, Robinson knows her Bible. I mean really knows it. As in mastering biblical Hebrew in order to dig deeply into the subtlest meanings of foundational texts; and, as in understanding why certain of the texts deserve to be called foundational. On the theological side, Robinson has wrestled Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries to the ground. And there is little doubt that she has read more widely into the voluminous scribblings of the English who took Calvinism into the new world than anyone since the legendary Perry Miller.
And this, for me, is where the problem begins: with Calvinism and with the Puritans in particular. Robinson is seriously devoted to those 17th century guys in their conical hats and buckled shoes, and she seems to be increasingly obsessed with getting the rest of us to love them too. Or, at least, to stop ridiculing them as narrow humorless bigots whose preoccupation with sin imparted a permanent unhealthy pallor to American culture. Robinson has a new piece beating this familiar drum in the current issue of Harper’s.
To be clear, I do understand why Robinson would wish to correct the caricature of Puritans as hopeless cranks—a caricature that the intellectuals and humorists of the Roaring Twenties did much to create. But I worry that she contributes to a different distortion when she makes them out to be prototype human rights heroes. And also: enough, already.
In her latest for Harper’s Robinson celebrates a 1641 document called the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. She makes big claims for this document and also for a little-known Puritan divine named Hugh Peters who sailed back to England to serve as Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain before dying a grisly death by torture during the Restoration.
In telling the story of colonists like Peters who were extremely well educated (many with Cambridge degrees) and who represented the most high-minded and cosmopolitan vector within the Protestant Reformation, Robinson wants to make the point that, from the beginning, the American story was about ideas of justice and liberty, not simply about wealth and power. She wishes to make the further point that because of our unwarranted bias against Puritanism, the standard account of American history “smothers what might otherwise be a natural interest in colonial New England as the most progressive society in the world at the time.”