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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998)

af Marilynne Robinson

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526734,132 (3.82)8
"In the tradition of nineteenth-century novelists who turned to the essay, Marilynne Robinson offers an authoritative approach to refining the ideas our culture has handed down to us. Whether considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by midwestern abolitionists; how creationism, "long owned by the Religious Right," has spurred on contemporary Darwinism; or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's continental origins, Robinson writes with great conviction."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (mere)

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This was a beautiful book. Marilynne Robinson uses such beautiful language to express herself. I was amazed by these essays. She has a talent for expressing in poetic words ideas that I feel deep down inside but have no idea how to formulate or write down or even explain to others.

This book is a series of essays written at different times, many of them with a theological theme. In this book, she explored the life and writings of John Calvin (which she actually read, contrary to almost everyone - myself included - who has strong opinions of Calvinism yet who hasn't ever gone back to the source) and discussed the nature of Calvinism and Capitalism and how so much of that we have projected onto our erroneous perception of Calvin and his theology. She has almost made me want to pick up a volume of his Institutes and get reading.

She has discussed how in modern times we have neglected the poor and the suffering and although we may say we are Christians and dutifully holding fast to the word, we've forgotten the spirit of Christianity. There are chapters in here on our destruction of the environment as humanity seems to always justify the wants of the many over the needs of the few. She inquires as to what happened to true liberalism and how the politics of the modern day movement seem to be a farce as to what the word really means.

I was only aware of Marguerite of Navarre as a name, not a real person, a real presence in the early days of the Reformation in France. I learned more of Bonhoeffer and the connection between the early McGuffey readers and the abolitionists. It was a fascinating read.

I was moved. Her intellect amazed me. I agreed with her in many things as I understand in my heart what she penned so eloquently. I would recommend this book to anyone who has looked around and thought that there was something wrong with the society we have built around us and who perhaps would like a fresh perspective and something new to ponder. ( )
  Chica3000 | Dec 11, 2020 |
In this award-winning collection, the bestselling author of Gilead offers us other ways of thinking about history, religion, and society. Whether rescuing "Calvinism" and its creator Jean Cauvin from the repressive "puritan" stereotype, or considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by Midwestern abolitionists, or the divide between the Bible and Darwinism, Marilynne Robinson repeatedly sends her reader back to the primary texts that are central to the development of American culture but little read or acknowledged today.

A passionate and provocative celebration of ideas, the old arts of civilization, and life's mystery, The Death of Adam is, in the words of Robert D. Richardson, Jr., "a grand, sweeping, blazing, brilliant, life-changing book."
  StFrancisofAssisi | Feb 1, 2020 |
Summary: A collection of eleven essays taking modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward its intellectual antecedents.

Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction discovers a view of life framed in older, theological modes of thought that trace back to the Reformation and beyond. Her appreciation for that framework is evident in this collection of essays that takes modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward, and often uninformed rejection of these older modes of thought. Much of this is grounded in one of the fundamental premises of Robinson’s thought–go back to the primary sources!

She demonstrates this in an introductory essay where she takes Lord Acton and others to task for misrepresenting John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as his name appears in French), often failing to actually read Calvin himself. She returns later in the collection in two essays on Marguerite of Navarre to defend Calvin against charges of religious bigotry and to recover the contribution Calvin has made to democratic ideals. In particular, she addresses the case for which Calvin is most excoriated, that of Michael Servetus, noting that Calvin was not among the civil authorities who sentenced him and that his execution for heresy was the only such to occur in Calvin’s Geneva, mostly because of the troublesome character he had been. She doesn’t excuse the execution or Calvin’s role but tries to set it in a context of a restrained policy, considering the times.

This “contrarian approach” is taken up in her initial essay on Darwinism as she explores the much more brutal human ethic of survival, selfishness, and progress, contrasted with the older one of human dignity as creatures in God’s image, as well as an understanding of human fallenness that does not excuse human evil with socio-biological explanations.

She notes the struggle of modern thought to face reality when confronted by the crises of life that raise profound questions about our existence. She writes of an older way of understanding such things:

“The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us. Oddly, people in this culture have been relatively exempt from toil and pangs and death, to, if length of life may be regarded as a kind of exemption. So why do these things seem to terrify us more than they do others? One reason might be that, as human populations go, we are old. A few decades ago the median age was in late adolescence, and now it is deep into adulthood. Midlife has overtaken the great postwar generation. So the very fact that we have, in general, enjoyed unexampled health has brought us in vast numbers into the years when even the best luck begins to run out. This is true of the whole Western world (pp. 81-82).

Two of her essays concern Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Holmes McGuffey. In the case of Bonhoeffer, we see a contrarian who withstands Nazi ideology drawing on wellsprings of an older faith. In McGuffey, whose famous readers are taken to task for bourgeois values, she observes his associations with abolitionists from Charles Finney to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane radicals of Cincinnati. His readers shaped a consciousness in the American Middle West that had no place for slavery in human society.

This is followed by a delightful essay on “Puritans and Prigs” in which she contends the Puritans were a far more joyful and liberal band that stands in contrast with modern liberal, fish-eating “priggishness’ and that the Puritans understanding of human fallenness makes room for forgiveness and the restoration of people, rather than their outright removal from society. She also challenges, in her essay on Psalm 8 the idea of the “transcendent” that has been such a part of American religious and philosophical thought. She writes”

“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous” (p. 243).

Whether writing about family or wilderness and ecology, as she does in other essays in this collection, or Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and McGuffey, Marilynne Robinson challenges modern ways of thinking about these issues and persons. Some will no doubt be angered by this, hearing in Robinson a call to return to some former repressiveness. That, I think, is to misread her. I think rather her argument may at times be one of, “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and substituting the polluted waters and questionable heroes of modernity?” What her essays do is question our intellectual conventions, and suggest that we may not want to believe everything we’ve been told in school. ( )
  BobonBooks | Aug 7, 2017 |
Marilynne Robinson crafts exquisite sentences, and her thoughts on contemporary culture and our unfair devaluation of certain religious histories are profound and worthwhile reading. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
Great prose, backed with some good ideas and some dubious ones. Robinson makes sweeping generalizations that'll rub you the wrong way if you have any 'intellectual' pretensions at all, as I do, but most of them are fairly accurate. Her hope with this book is that her readers will go back to the study of history, or rather, the history of ideas, and take it very seriously. The problem is that the study of the history of ideas she seems to prefer is a little, well, tendentious: the 'truth' about Calvin is to be found *only* in his own writings, for instance, and the same goes for the American Founding Fathers and everyone else. Robinson seems unwilling to even consider the possibility that the rich and powerful are rather more likely to be liars, self-deceived, or both, and that specific historical circumstances have a huge influence on ideas in general.
This is part of a larger picture that she gives us in her essay on Darwinism and, more abstractly, in 'Facing Reality.' The idea there is that we've constructed a 'reality' for ourselves which ignores a number of very important and very real facts, both historical (Calvin) and contemporary (in short, the civilizing instinct). This 'realism' ends up ignoring or downplaying anything that can be considered a subjective experience: religion, of course, but also art, morality, compassion, altruism... A prime way of downplaying these experiences is to show how they've been used in the service of evil, so that 'religion' is identified with, say, 'the crusades,' rather than with Bonhoeffer. Her call to the study of ideas is meant to defend our cultural ideals from being identified with evil in this way, to suggest rather how we can identify the good in those ideals.
Occasionally she gets carried away with an idea and lets it ruin her argument, as for instance when she complains about people trying to overcome the causes of our discontent. "Might we no all have been kinder and saner," she asks, "if we had said that discontent is our natural condition?" Well, you might want to ask the following groups of people about that: serfs, slaves, the nineteenth century working class, the populations of colonized countries, the contemporary inhabitants of nations run by religious or military tyrants. In all of these cases "the obstacle to collective happiness" is indeed other people, but this belief did not and does not mean that "terrible things seem justified." In the rest of her essays Robinson stresses the need to overcome social injustice; why does she stoop to knee-jerk conservatism here? Because she doesn't like political correctness; because she rejects the idea that history and culture are "a vast repository of destructive notions and impulses." Well, I don't like PC, and I don't think history and culture are that, but that's not a reason to reject all social reforms.

I highly recommend the essays on the family, Bonhoeffer, Wilderness (mainly awful, actually, but leads to a very intelligent conclusion) and Darwinism. Unless you're jonesing for a defense of Calvin in the face of Whiggish, nineteenth century scholarship, you can probably skip 'Marguerite de Navarre.' Psalm Eight is autobiographical, and I think tedious, but maybe you like that kind of thing. The introduction just makes Robinson sound like someone who doesn't bother to read the books she's attacking, particularly Weber (whose point was that capitalism is just as much a subjective attitude as an objective fact, and that the praise of material success underpinned by theology was very good for the development of that subjective attitude; his point was not 'Calvin sucks, man.' This is another problem of Robinson's approach to ideas: Weber was engaged in a very serious intellectual dialogue, of which this book was a small part. It is important only in the context of that dialogue; if you want to complain about idiotic readings of his book, fair enough, but that's not his book anymore than witch burnings is Calvin's.) ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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"In the tradition of nineteenth-century novelists who turned to the essay, Marilynne Robinson offers an authoritative approach to refining the ideas our culture has handed down to us. Whether considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by midwestern abolitionists; how creationism, "long owned by the Religious Right," has spurred on contemporary Darwinism; or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's continental origins, Robinson writes with great conviction."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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