Marilynne Robinson vs. evangelical tribalism

Marilynne Robinson vs. evangelical tribalism May 1, 2012

“We live in a time when the claiming of a religious identity has become more important than abiding in what that truth implies,” Marilynne Robinson said last month at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.

That “claiming of a religious identity” and the elevating of it above the meaning, content or substance of that faith is what I’ve been describing as evangelical tribalism. Robinson, author of the novel Housekeeping and of the new essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, does not seem to be a fan of tribalism.

At least not as described by Rachel Stone, who recounts Robinson’s appearance at the Christian writing festival for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. Stone begins her article with an anecdote from Robinson’s talk in which an apparent evangelical tribalist did what such folks always do during any Q&A — asserted himself aggressively and demanded that the speaker account for which side of the culture war she pledged allegiance to:

“Bill Moyers would have loved your talk and Fox News would have debunked it. How do you expect to have credibility among conservative evangelicals?”

The question was pitched contentiously from the front of the auditorium at Calvin College. … As is usual for me when I hear what might be taken for fighting words, I became chilled, and trembled a little. In short, I felt afraid.

Robinson wasn’t. Without a hint of the fear that I felt simply as one who admires her greatly, even too well, Robinson said:

“The only obligation I recognize is to say what I believe to be true […] and to say it with kindness. I believe that is how a Christian conversation should proceed.”

The audience broke into applause. Later, by chance, I passed the questioner outside, where he was still fuming into his cell phone about Bill Moyers and Fox News.

Yeah, that guy. That guy always shows up at evangelical events, which is part of why we evangelicals can’t have nice things.

Stone says fear — the same fear that, I believe, drives evangelical tribalism — was the theme of Robinson’s talk at the festival:

Fear is unChristian, says Robinson. Calvinists — Robinson identifies herself as such — have been said to “fear God and nothing else.” Yet Americans — and perhaps especially, religious Americans — can’t seem to get over the idea that we are under attack. “We’re stuck in psychoemotional bomb shelters,” says Robinson, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” said Robinson with the hint of a chuckle. More soberly, she argued that fear — and people feeling “justified in fear” — leads to violence in the form of “preemptive self-defense.”

… Fear … shuts down creativity and the capacity for imaginative, loving identification with others, who, in fear, become perceived threats.

Others, due to fear, “become perceived threats.” And if they’re not threatening enough on their own, then we’ll just have to make them seem more threatening — pretend that they’re Satanic baby-killing monsters intent on destroying American families and outlawing religion.

That’s what evangelical tribalism looks like in practice. It’s driven by fear of the Other. Not because those others are different from us, but because we’re frighteningly indistinguishable from them. Thus the need for totemic tribal symbols and “stances.” And thus the need to confront everyone, everywhere and demand that they declare which side they’re on.

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  • Alvin Toffler foresaw something like this in his “Future Shock” series (Future Shock, The Third Wave, Powershift) when he suggested that as national identity becomes harder to define (look at the ongoing issues within Canada, for example, regarding provincial and national identity, especially in Quebec, or for that matter the failed attempts to create “pan-Soviet” or “Yugoslav” identities in the former USSR and Yugoslavia respectively), as well as due to parastate entities (think of oil companies and how governments effectively conduct “oil diplomacy” for them or vice versa for that matter) gaining more prominence, religious identity can become a potent substitute, particularly the fundamentalist strains of such religions which offer a form of security and stability in a world that seems full of change – most of it rather unsettling.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Don’t be that guy.

  • I had this conversation with my former power of attorney. It went something like what follows:

    Her:  You can’t be a liberal.

    Me: Why?

    Her:  Because if you’re a liberal, you’re against religion.

    Me: Why?

    Her: Because ALL liberals want to destroy religion!

    Me: WHAT?

    Her: It’s true!

    Me: No, it’s not. Why would liberals want to destroy Judaism and Shintoism and…

    Her: Oh, who cares if they destroy THOSE? They want to destroy Christianity! The REAL religion!

    Me: I’m pretty sure that the other religions aren’t imaginary.

    Her: Well, no, but they don’t count!

    Me: Anyway, I know that it isn’t true, because I don’t want to destroy Christianity.  I don’t care what you believe. It’s fine by me. I imagine that there are quite a few other liberals who don’t care, either.

    Her (furious): That’s a lie! 

    Me: What? Why?

    Her: You have to care!

    Me: But I don’t. It doesn’t matter to me what you believe, honestly–and why would it? It’s none of my business.

    Her (deeply disappointed): Now I KNOW you’re lying to me.

    Me (getting a bit miffed myself): No. I’m NOT.

    Her (with the air of one playing a trump card): Jesus said that he who is not with Me is against Me. If you’re not on Jesus’s side, you HAVE to be against Him. Unless you think that Jesus is a LIAR?!

    …I pretty much gave up right there.

  • Wait, if it’s all just that one guy, couldn’t you just stop inviting him?

  •  It does seem like “that guy” always gets to ask the questions, even at non-evangelical events, while the little Hermione Grangers (like me) wave our arms fruitlessly. Oh, well.

  • Marilynne Robinson knows how to handle that guy.  Perhaps if you invited her to all the evangelical events, you could have nice things again.

    Marilynne Robinson is probably the best novelist-who-is-a-Christian (as opposed, obviously, to “Christian novelist”) working today, and Gilead and Home are an example of what Christian novels could like like if Christian authors and publishers actually gave a shit about either producing good art or promoting good theology.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Oh, man. That Guy.

    I’ve seen him at departmental meetings at work where he nitpicks every minor directive in a misguided effort to embarrass management, inadvertently making them seem more sympathetic thanks to his overblown yet inconsequential criticisms. He shows up at your food bank re-pack event and insists your project is doomed unless you reorganize everything to his liking. He shows up at protests to protest that the protest isn’t protesting the right thing in the right way. He might even show up at an organizing meeting or two, but usually drops it once people fail to adopt his ideas and praise his genius to Heaven. That Guy isn’t one for stuffing envelopes or making phone calls, but he knows a shit-ton about the right way to stuff an envelope or make a phone call.

    He’s fucking everywhere. 

  • Tonio

    It’s driven by fear of the Other. Not because those others are
    different from us, but because we’re frighteningly indistinguishable
    from them.

    Some of them might have the mentality of people who grew up in abusive households, where they’re so terrified of their god that they worry about being collateral damage if others receive their divine punishment. Or worse, that they’ll be punished because their efforts to convert others weren’t successful.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “Marilynne Robinson is probably the best novelist-who-is-a-Christian (as opposed, obviously, to “Christian novelist”) working today”

    Seconded. Gilead is one of my favorites.

  • Jenny Islander

    Jesus also said that anybody who wasn’t against Him was with Him.  Perhaps because Christianity cannot be reduced to a checklist of shibboleths . . . ?  Anyway, try that one if she ever comes around trying to save your soul on Facebook or whatever.

  • ReverendRef

    Fear is unChristian, says Robinson.

    Well, yeah.  The first words out of angels’ mouths are usually, “Fear not,” or, “Don’t be afraid,” or words to that effect.

    “Don’t be afraid,” is a theme that runs through all of scripture, not just Christian scripture.  What are they afraid of?

    I think what they are afraid of is being treated like “everyone else.”

  • Tricksterson

    He might also want to ask for an exact quote where Jesus says that.