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Wednesday, August 31, 2011  

Marilynne Robinson, Michele Bachmann, and Resentment

While taking a break from other things yesterday, I came across this Paris Review interview with Marilynne Robinson from 2008. It's well worth your time, at least if you're interested in Marilynne Robinson (and you should be!). But something about it rankled me. The interviewer keeps asking about Robinson's religion in ways that struck me as rather subtly demeaning. "Do you think of yourself as a religious writer?" "Are religion and science simply two systems that don't merge?" "Is it their disdain of religion and their championing of pure science that troubles you?" "But doesn't science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?" "Did you ever have a religious awakening?"

I don't think these questions were meant to be stupid or condescending (and they end up being good questions in that they're foils for Robinson's very fine thinking on the issues they are attempting to raise). But they are, because for some people it's simply impossible to conceive of a religious person as something other than an exotic arrival from a morally and intellectually hermetic world. As my friend Kyle likes to put it, people assume that their own very culturally-contingent secularism is a sort of default setting for humanity from which religious people have departed for strange, pathetic, or monstrous reasons.

Don't get me wrong--no one's worldview is entitled to kid-glove treatment. But when I read Matt Taibbi explain, rather naively in my opinion, that Michele Bachmann's appeal to her supporters is all about playing on their resentments and you shouldn't laugh at these stupid ridiculous people because that makes them more powerful, it gets my back up a little. I certainly don't identify with Bachmann politically, and not really religiously either. But how obtuse must you be to imagine that the question of whether to demean the deeply-held views of a whole lot of people boils down, in the end, to a matter of tactics? The highbrow cat-noises in the Paris Review differ in style from Taibbi's hyper-aggressive take, just as widely as the generous and academic Robinson differs from the demagogic and often ludicrous Bachmann. But the point is the same: to try to peek behind the mask of normalcy for a glimpse the snarling, modernity-rejecting troglodyte behind. Now we're all big kids in this playground and we're all responsible for taking it in stride when someone acts like a jerk (this goes for you, too, atheists, the next time you're inclined to complain about some televangelist saying something that hurts your feelings). But in the event that you want to learn something from or about someone who differs from you in some significant respect, you might start with the premise that they are more or less gifted and flawed in the same measure and in the same ways you are, that they do not worship shallow depressions in the ground, and that they do not act and feel as they do because they saw Jesus in a tortilla.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:28 AM
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