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Reviewing Marilynne Robinson's Genesis: A Thoughtful and Intriguing Analysis Written in Beautiful Prose.
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Reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s Genesis: A Thoughtful and Intriguing Analysis Written in Beautiful Prose.

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During a conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama, featured in a previous issue of the New York Review of Books, Obama noticed the unique aspect of Robinson’s writing that sets her apart as a literary figure of the 21st century. He acknowledged her as a novelist and suggested she also had a deep interest in theological matters, asking if he could refer to her as a theologian.

This could be considered an understatement. Robinson prominently expresses her faith in most of her literary works. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead series, which gained her global recognition, she delicately delves into the religious concerns and uncertainties of two fictional pastors in the Midwest. In her more recent essay collections, such as What Are We Doing Here?, she combines theology and cultural analysis to contemplate how her concept of Christian humanism can impact a politically divided and polarized Western society in the 21st century.

In her latest study on religion, Robinson explores this concept by retracing its origins – starting with the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Many of us have a vague understanding of the contents of this ancient text, from the story of God creating the world in six days, to the dramatic banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and the subsequent rescue mission led by Noah’s ark. Robinson suggests that it was written as an origin tale for a newly liberated nation, after the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt. In beautiful writing, she challenges modern readers to recognize the uniqueness of Genesis and its relevance to our present day.

Robinson illustrates how the ancient Hebrew authors borrowed liberally from the Babylonian mythologies created by their near-east neighbours. But with a crucial distinction. Great narratives such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish feature fickle, rivalrous deities who turn their ruthless gaze on mortals only when it serves their interest. In stark contrast, Genesis portrays a troubled love story between humanity and a divine creator who is described as, extraordinarily, “having created man in his own image”.

The vision of a single omniscient and benevolent God is a staggering new departure in ancient literature, with implications all the way down to design details. In the Garden of Eden, Robinson points out, “the beauty of the trees is noted before the fact that they yield food”. Here is a world packed with signs of a divine desire that the first humans feel at home. Compared with the surrounding myths on offer, this vision “is from the beginning an immeasurable elevation of status”.

Things take a disastrous turn when someone makes the unwise choice to eat from the tree that grants knowledge of good and evil, leading to banishment. Robinson skillfully guides readers through the story of Genesis, depicting how human history starts with violence and struggle as God attempts to remain faithful to his wayward creations. Significant events, such as Cain murdering Abel, the destruction of Sodom, and Abraham almost sacrificing his beloved son Isaac after waiting so long to have him, are interpreted with the drama of a novelist. The chapters that cover Joseph’s deceitful brothers are a brilliant portrayal of psychological turmoil as they grapple with guilt after selling their brother into slavery in Egypt.

It is believed that God operates in ways that are difficult for humans to understand. In the story, the cruel actions of the brothers ultimately lead to a positive outcome because Joseph becomes a influential figure in Egypt and is able to save the Israelites from starvation. The author Robinson proposes that the inclusion of unpleasant human behavior in the ancient texts creates a narrative focused on God’s devotion to humanity, rather than solely showcasing acts of goodness and bravery.

Over two thousand years after its creation, apart from its artistic and literary appeal, can this story hold any significance for a non-religious mindset? Robinson suggests that it can, especially in a dark time where the natural and social systems are deteriorating side by side.

Amidst present-day horrors, international conflict, and the looming danger of man-made environmental disaster, a piece that advocates for the beauty of the world and the immeasurable worth of human existence can provide a beneficial read, urging us to fulfill our obligations. Using the old teachings of merciful rabbis who refuse to give up on their people despite all odds, Robinson crafts a compelling contemplation on hope in a time when it is scarce.

Many fans of Robinson’s novels may struggle with considering such contemplations as they may lie outside their familiar understanding. However, for followers of the Gilead series, the reading of Genesis also offers a valuable introduction to the theological world of its main characters, the Reverends John Ames and Robert Boughton. In Gilead, as death approaches, Ames attempts to envision heaven but is unable to move beyond being filled with awe for the world he is still in. In a letter written for his young son to read one day, he describes the feeling of waking up each morning like Adam in Eden, amazed by the dexterity of his hands and the boundless brilliance entering his mind through his eyes. In this thought-provoking study, Robinson expertly traces this sense of wonder back to its remarkable ancient origins.

  • Marilynne Robinson’s book, Reading Genesis, is available from publisher Virago for £25. To help support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Please note that delivery fees may be charged.

Source: theguardian.com