Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist delivers three lectures on campus
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson will deliver three lectures at Washington University this week as a part of the Assembly Series sponsored by the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.
Robinson, the author of four novels and several nonfiction books, is best known for her 2015 interview with former President Barack Obama. After her first novel, “Housekeeping,” was released in 1980, she became a visiting professor at the University. Robinson now returns the Distinguished Humanities Lecturer to deliver her talk, “Holy Moses: An Appreciation of Genesis and Exodus as Literature and Theology.”
In a packed Umrath Lounge, Robinson delivered the first of her three lectures, titled “Moses and the Ethos of Scriptural Narrative,” Tuesday, Nov. 13.
Robinson gave a second lecture on Jacob Nov. 14 and will give her last lecture Nov. 15 at 4:30 p.m. in Umrath Lounge.
While introducing Robinson, Director of the Humanities Digital Workshop and the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities Joe Loewenstein tied Robinson’s lectures into the current political landscape.
“We’ve had a few hard months here in America. It seems to have been yanked from our grasp. But the yanking has had a clarifying effect since it has sharpened us to what we see for ourselves and for each other…Honest community, a long view, privilege of uncertainty,” Loewenstein said. “These are a few of Robinson’s special concerns, and unless I mistake her, they are universal urgencies that became a special responsibility of Americans.”
Robinson’s lecture on Moses was shaped around the story of the flood in the Book of Genesis of the Bible and the function of human violence and evil.
“Forbidden ideas are rarely extinguished, no matter how much blood is spilled,” Robinson said in her lecture.
According to Robinson, after her first failed novel, she was deeply upset when she came to an important realization.
“I was very depressed by the realization that you can’t tell people something that they don’t want to know,” Robinson said. “And then I thought, ‘Who’s out there in history who has actually made an accurate interpretation of the problems of their time and acted appropriately to this understanding?’”
Robinson, who retired in 2016, is a professor emeritus at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Iowa’s celebrated graduate writing program. She believes that the modern reader struggles with looking directly at suffering and evil.
“Over the last few years, I’ve taught scripture in workshops,” Robinson said. “One of the things that’s difficult for modern readers, or at least modern readers in our culture, is the fact that the Bible does look very, very directly at suffering and evil…we read something terrible, and we think, ‘What’s that doing in the Bible?’ But if you think of the Bible as being meant for people at large in a big modern world over thousands of years, it would have no value if it did not talk about what life must have felt like for most of them for quite part of the time.”
Robinson argued for ways to approach the Bible as a piece of great literature, encouraging others to read it in the manner that one would read “The Iliad” by Homer.
“[Robinson’s novel] ‘Gilead’ was really meaningful to me when I was 16 or so, and I always held it in a special place. So, I wanted to come hear her for that reason,” junior Gwyneth Henke said. “I also am a Religious Studies major here, and I think that there’s a lot of [resistance] to talk about religion or even feel religious, whatever that means, and I think Marilyn Robinson is one of the bravest and most loving thinkers for that of our time, so that drew me.”
Junior Morgan Dunstan said she was inspired by Robinson’s presentation.
“It was just fun to hear and know that she’s going out into the world and talking to people who maybe don’t give as much of a crap about this as we do,” Dunstan said. “I’m not religious, but I think that religion is the most beautiful thing, and I love when people acknowledge the beauty of the Bible as literally just a piece of literature.”
Many of the other students in the audience left feeling satisfied with what Robinson had to say.
“The excerpts that I’ve seen of her writing have always been gorgeous; so, I was really excited to hear her speak,” Dunstan said. “I’m in the Danforth Center for Religion and Politics, and I work with the Center for Humanities. This is exactly the convergent point of my two interests. A theological novelist being invited in by the Center for Humanities? Nothing better could ever happen to me in a day.”