But i always knew what I wanted to do in a sense—i mean, not be, but. I didnt really have the concept of author until I was in high school. But I was writing. The President : But you knew you wanted to read and write. Robinson : Yes, thats what I wanted. The President : Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?
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The President : And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small place in Idaho, which might have led you in an entirely different direction—how did you end up here, marilynne? Robinson : It was libraries, it was—people are so complicated. Its like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right? The President : Right. Robinson : I followed what was for me the path of least resistance, which meant sloan reading a lot of books and writing, because it came naturally. My brother is excellent in many of these things, you know? And I think we reinforced each other, he and i, but it was perfectly accidental. With all respect to that environment, many very smart people do not dissertation follow the path in life that people like my brother and I did. You learn from them even if you dont learn from them in a formal sense.
Now, you grew up in Idaho, in a pretty—it wasnt a big, cosmopolitan place. Robinson : The word cosmopolitan was never applied. The President : Which town in Idaho did you grow up in? Robinson : coeur dAlene is where i really grew. The President : How big was the town when resume you were growing up? Robinson : 13,500 people. The President : All right. So thats a town. Robinson : Yes, the second-largest city in the state at the time.
But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—love thy neighbor as thyself—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that youre actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But youre supposed to run house against the grain. Its supposed to be difficult. Its supposed to be a challenge. The President : Well, thats one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, its not as if its easy for them to be good Christians, right? The President : Its hard. And its supposed to be hard.
Its the human image. Its not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; its being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied. The President : But youve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an us versus them, and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes. The President : How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take. Robinson : Well, i dont know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, youre ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, theyre not taking their Christianity seriously. I dont know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, theres no question about that, or other religions, as we know.
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Does that sound, like, too stuffy? You care a lot about Christian thought. Robinson : I do, indeed. The President : And thats part of the foundation of your writings, fiction and nonfiction. And one of the points that youve made in one of your most recent essays is that there was a time in which at make least reformed Christianity in Europe was very much the other. And part of our system of government was based on us rejecting an exclusive, inclusive—or an exclusive and tightly controlled sense of who is part of the community and who is not, in favor of a more expansive one.
Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy. Robinson : Well, i business believe that people are images of God. Theres no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it applies to everyone.
But when its brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, i think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy. The President : Well, now theres been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly. Robinson : But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which weve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—thats what made it a viable democracy.
And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And thats just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, i think. The President : weve talked about this, though. Im always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments. Robinson : But when you say that to me, i say to you, youre a better person than. The President : Well, but I want to pick up on the point you made about us coming from everywhere. Youre a novelist but youre also—can I call you a theologian?
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But fear was very much—is on my mind, because i think that the basis slogan of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people. You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they dont agree with—you know? The President : Yes. Robinson : Because of the idea of the sinister other. And I mean, thats bad under all circumstances.
And why was fear an important topic, and how does it connect to help some of the other work that youve been doing? Robinson : Well, the essays are actually lectures. I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when ive given enough of them to make a book, i make a book. The President : so you just kind of mash them all together? Robinson :. Thats what. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too.
here in Iowa. And ive told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White house. And then we had dinner and our conversations continued ever since. So anyway, thats enough context. You just have completed a series of essays that are not fiction, and I had a chance to read one of them about fear and the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture. and you looked at it through the prism of Christianity and sort of the Protestant traditions that helped shape us, so i thought maybe that would be a good place to start. Why did you decide to write this book of essays?
But its very planned out and scripted. And typically, were trying to drive a very particular message that day about education or about manufacturing. But one of the things that I dont lab get a chance to do as often as Id like is just to have a conversation with somebody who i enjoy and Im interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some. And so we had this idea that why dont I just have a conversation with somebody i really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—. Marilynne robinson : Thank you very much. The President : Well, as you know—ive told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully theyll go out and buy your books after this conversation. I first picked up, gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa.
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