Monday, October 24, 2011

Americans as Soft Moralists and Prigs

I'm reading through Marilynne Robinson's Home written about the fictional character of Presbyterian pastor Robert Boughton and the return of his "prodigal son" of twenty years, Jack. This is Robinson's third novel after penning the pulitzer-prize winner Gilead back in 2004. Without having a lot to say at this point about either book, other than they are engaging and beautifully-written, nonetheless, I came across a New Yorker article written by James Wood. Wood doesn't seem to be particularly friendly to Christians, especially evangelical Christians, but he seems to have a positive regard for Robinson (who would likely refer to herself as a "liberal" or "mainline" Christian), particularly some of her thoughts about Americans in their rejection of "sin," Calvin and the Puritans, being what she calls "soft moralists" and "prigs":

But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot: “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf—it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.” We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, “Americans never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation. “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” Robinson writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.” Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists. I do not always enjoy Robinson’s ecstasies, but I admire the obdurateness with which she describes the difficult joys of a faith….  The Homecoming, by James Wood

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