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What are We Doing Here?

By Marilynne Robinson
October 2018 | Review by Jonathan Stephen
  • Publisher: Virago Press
  • ISBN: 9780-34901-046-5
  • Pages: 320
  • Price: £18.99
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Book Review

The distinguished American author of these essays was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama and has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She is widely respected among conservative evangelical figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

The fifteen essays in this collection are mainly edited versions of lectures delivered at universities in the US and elsewhere. They vary considerably in length, and though some are more academic than others, the entirety remains engaging and accessible to general readers.

Robinson writes from the perspective of one thoroughly immersed in Puritan history and literature. She aims to refute the hopelessly shallow and pejorative manner in which this great, nation-moulding tradition is currently regarded by both popular perception and academic prejudice alike. Crucially, her definition of Puritanism is not confined to the 17th century. She traces its origins to Wycliffe in England, and further back still on continental Europe.

The author ably presents the formative influence on the birth of the American nation of those dissenters who fled to the New World to escape persecution. She also addresses well the interaction between Old and New England during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth period. Robinson sees this as history that is not merely untaught, but almost completely forgotten. It is also, she writes, to the incalculable detriment of the moral fabric of contemporary America.

Puritanism is shown to be far from the common parody of a narrow, joyless creed. It is, rather, an expansive worldview that exults in a love of freedom to explore the vast capabilities of the mind, conscience and soul of those created in God’s image. How stunted, in comparison, are the pathetic, deterministic and degrading explanations of human behaviour currently in vogue. In this regard, the term ‘humanism’ is used in the book not in its usual sense, but to describe a perspective that places humankind at the centre of God’s creation.

This overarching theme and its effects are traced out in numerous, fascinating ways throughout these essays which cannot be mentioned in this short review. There is frequent repetition of key insights — inevitable given the nature of the book — but this does serve to reinforce its essential lessons.

The author does not refer to herself as an evangelical. This is, I assume, because of the crass debasement of the term in the American religious mainstream. But, all in all, this is a challenging and thoroughly worthwhile read. We should be grateful when we are encouraged to view ourselves, the universe and everything in it as the Puritans did — with the eyes of God.

Jonathan Stephen
Bridgend

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