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“Our” Novelist: Marilynne Robinson? Or Saul Bellow?

By November 9, 2011 3 Comments

As an “immigrant” to the Reformed tradition, I have often found that some of the “natives” in the tradition resonate with Chaim Potok’s The Chosen–a staple of high school curricula (or at least the Chrisitan school curricula with which I’m familiar).  I think I understand why: the novel paints a picture of a tight-knit community whose identity is a blend of faith and blood, spirituality and ethnicity–a reality very analogous to the Reformed communities of which I have been a part.  Indeed, it is perhaps not entirely ironic when I describe myself to these friends as a resident “Gentile.”  

I was struck by a different kind of analogy with the Jewish community suggested in James Davison Hunter’s important book, To Change the World.  Criticizing triumphalist and misguided Christian programs for “transforming culture,” Hunter points out the disproportionate cultural influence of the Jewish community in the United States.  When I had opportunity to interview Hunter about the book, I returned to this theme:

JKAS: Your analogy to the Jewish community in the United States—an analogy you touch on in the book—is intriguing. For instance, I find myself imagining an emerging school of Christian literature, a sort of Christian parallel to the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and others that is mainstream in the sense that their work appears in the New Yorker and is reviewed in the New York Review of Books, but is also constantly struggling with a kind of marginality and difference. That is, it seems like Roth (I’m thinking of The Ghost Writer and the Zuckerman novels) is often dealing with a sense of alienation—being at the center of culture but never quite “in.” Is that the kind of parallel or analogy you mean to suggest?

JDH: I think that is exactly right. Protestantism has been moving from the mainstream to the margins of American society over the last 150 years or so. This reconfiguration in the social world has been especially intense in the last half of the twentieth century. (Christianity, in its broad range of communities, has participated in this.) This marginalization is the source of some incredibly interesting dynamics. For one, it has certainly animated the politicization of evangelicalism and parts of Roman Catholicism in the effort to reverse the trend. At the same time, it has also forced an ecumenism among the orthodox communities in these traditions that would not have likely happened without the structural change.

But most interesting to me is that the increasing marginality of Christianity to the larger culture has also created a tension that is beginning to yield creative energy. This dynamic is similar to that which is described by Thorstein Veblen in his essay, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” published in 1919. Veblen argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to being caught between “the conventions into which [they have] been born” and the conventions of the gentile “into which [they have] been thrown.” Their creativity and achievement, in other words, was rooted in their marginal status in an alien world—of never being quite at home anywhere. In my view, there are signs that these dynamics are beginning to have the same effect within the Christian community. We’ve certainly seen this in recent decades in the contribution of Christians to philosophy and American religious history. We’re seeing signs of it in other areas of intellectual life as well—possibly including an inchoate school of Christian literature. But before we get too excited, it is worth noting Veblen’s own cautionary observation that should the Jews ever accommodate completely to the mainstream of culture, the springs of their creativity would dry up.

The history of the Jewish community in America through the twentieth century is a history of a community that was very tactical in its use of social and financial capital on behalf of scientific and cultural achievement. We have much to learn from them, not least from how they have thrived in a world that has been indifferent at times and outright hostile at other times.

Again, aspects of this conversation could equally describe Reformed communities that have a rich cultural vision, animated by a desire to be engaged, creative contributors to the common good.  

Given these analogies and overlaps, I have been an especially interested reader of an unearthed lecture given by Jewish novelist Saul Bellow back in 1988, “A Jewish Writer in America,” recently published in two parts in the New York Review of Books (see Part 1 and Part 2).  So over my next couple of posts here at The Twelve, I want to tease out this analogy through some of Bellow’s suggestive reflections on the place of the Jewish intellectual in American culture.  Following up on Hunter’s intuition, I want to suggest that perhaps we Reformed folk might find more germane wisdom from Bellow and Roth than Updike and Robinson.  In the meantime, enjoy the Bellow pieces and I’ll see you back here in a couple of weeks for further reflection on these themes.  


  • Eric says:

    Thanks James for a thoughtful piece, I very much look forward to the follow up.

    I think that the contrast between Bellow and Robinson is highly instructive. I love Robinson's novels, yet perhaps for reasons which suggest that they are not healthy in what they produce in me, which is a comfortable nostalgia for a lost world.

    This comes to me after a conversation with a good friend who hadn't been to England for some while. Their image of England and the English was somewhat romanticised, as I guess it is for many who visit from the US. And as I pointed this out we mourned that which had disappeared, except in the purview of a tourist bus taken to the England of their dreams, stately homes and the like, kept as are visitors to China etc. from seeing the truth.
    In a sense reading Robinson is an act of grieving, but it has to been declared such. 'The past is a foreign country they do things differently there'. Hartley's words ring very true in this regard.

    I guess it begs in part a question about what if anything is 'The Vocation of the Novelist?'. But with regard to faith communities, especially those of a Christian bent, we would perhaps do better to listen more to those authors who have for many years been 'singing the Lord's song in a strange land'

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I am looking forward to these postings.

  • WIlson Brissett says:

    I look forward to the coming posts. I wonder if ^ Eric's nostalgia when reading Robinson holds up for her early novel "Housekeeping" as well? If we let this book set the tone for reading her corpus so far, we would discover a fictional project that understands itself as operating in the margins, much as the Smith/Hunter conversation suggests. Even John Ames sees himself as a parochial objector on the edges of the modern world. It seems to me that Robinson's project is to re-imagine the relationship of Christianity to modernity–a task that is desperately needful right now in the American church.

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