Marilynne Robinson on Total Depravity

So while looking through the books at Borders a while back, I noticed that Marilynne Robinson had a collection of essays called The Death of Adam.  “That’s interesting,” I thought and gave it a quick scan.

Interestingly enough, she’s got an article on Bonhoeffer as well as one on the Puritans.  “Well now,” I thought once more.  I bought the book a little later and finally gave it a read over the weekend.  Lo and behold, the lady’s a Calvinist.  I will no longer be listening to the theo-hipsters lament Reformed theology’s inability to produce good artists and writers.  I will instead retort that our generation has a greater problem, the inability to ever actually be an audience.

So here’s Robinson on the famous “T” in TULIP:

The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity—“depravity” means “warping or distortion”—was directed against casuistical enumerations of sins, against the attempt to assign them different degrees of seriousness. For Calvinism, we are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace. This is a harsh doctrine, but no harsher than others, since Christian tradition has always assumed that rather few would be saved, and has differed only in describing the form election would take. It might be said in defense of Christianity that it is unusual in a religion to agonize much over these issues of ultimate justice, though in one form or other every religion seems to have an elect. The Calvinist model at least allows for the mysteriousness of life. For in fact life makes goodness much easier for some people than for others, and it is rich with varieties of cautious or bland or malign goodness, in the Bible referred generally as self-righteousness, and inveighed against as grievous offenses in their own right. 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.

“On Prigs and Puritans” in The Death of Adam pg. 155-156

The point of the article is that modern and postmodern Americans, particularly liberal and cosmopolitan Americans, are priggish, enslaved to their perfectionism, dietary laws, and over-sensitivity, and they could do with a strong dose of Puritan freedom.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

13 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson on Total Depravity

  1. It’s not so much that Calvinism cannot produce artists, but that it cannot (or very rarely) produces certain types of artists. Calvinism (like all “low church” Protestant traditions) focuses on the Word of God, on Scripture, and on the receiving of this Word by faith, by hearing. Thus, Calvinists have excelled in the written word — in poetry, hymns, sermons, and stories. What Calvinists scarcely produce is great works of visual art. By focusing less on the tangible realm (works) and more on the mental realm (faith), Calvinism has naturally produced great art that accords to the latter, while the Catholic tradition (and other “high church” traditions) has produced great art that accords to the former. Look at the difference in worship services: Catholics genuflect before the altar, cross themselves, kneel, stand, kneel again, and always receive the bread and wine. Calvinists sing lots of hymns, listen to long sermons, and rarely receive communion (usually once a month or quarterly).

  2. Robinson actually points to the Calvinist gravestones as a contradiction to the claim that they lacked visual art. The Hungarian Reformed architecture also explodes such a statement.

    But really, how much causation can we really establish on these questions?

  3. Yes, and there are other exceptions that people point to. But, they are still very much exceptions. Generally, it holds. Plus, the exceptions themselves can be dubious upon closer examination — often the “Reformed” visual art is borrowing quite clearly from Medieval and (sometimes) Renaissance styles, with little to no creative development. I saw this quite a bit as I lived in Scotland. (But I do like the Hungarian Reformed architecture — it’s probably the best exception).

    The links (causation) make sense, as I noted. It’s hard to argue with history. I’d recommend reading William Dyrness’ Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards. I posted an excerpt from it on my blog a few months ago:

    Reformed Aesthetics

  4. Kevin,

    Well, Reformed people shouldn’t think of artistic production as one of the marks of the church, with the confusion of common grace and the Kingdom as such implied by that (not that you’re doing so); so I don’t think we need to worry too much about how much art Calvinists have produced . Too, we nowadays tend to valorize all art; but older generations still had a strongly instrumental view of it, and were quite capable of making religious assessments of relative worth and even danger of certain forms; a frame of mind moderns find uncongenial, but which is more consistently religious. Calvinists were certainly (and rightly) suspicious of “religious” visual art.

    Your point is sound: there are certain kinds of art whose development was moderated by Calvinism. But although Dyrness is good on the matter (and Finney too, whom I’m sure you’ve read), I think it might not be quite right to say that the Reformed painters simply adopted older themes uncreatively: consult for instance the studies of the Dutch art historian Reindert Falkenberg on the remarkable shifts of visual rhetoric which take place after the Reformation in Northern painting. We wouldn’t expect complete discontinuity from earlier Christendom- they were “Reforming” rather than “reinventing” after all- but they were more creative as painters than you might think, often precisely where they were continuing medieval traditions in ways more subtle than apparent.


  5. Thanks for the Falkenberg reference. I’ll have to check it out. Certainly the Dutch painters are a fine example of Reformed visual art utilizing Reformed insights and creatively advancing art. Once again, everyone points to the Dutch painters — they were an exception. There was not much comparable in the Swiss Reformed, German Reformed, French Reformed, Church of Scotland, Reformed Anglicans, British Separatists, or the Reformed in America and Canada.

    I actually agree with a lot of the Reformed critiques of Catholic “visual culture,” and I greatly appreciate the shifts in art brought by the Reformation. My own piety and aesthetics is quite Reformed (with love for Medieval Northern European styles). I just think it is interesting to note the differences and why they exist.

  6. But Kevin, the situation gets even less clear when we ask whether other factors might also account for the excellence or deficiency in each tradition.

    Calvinism, for example, is not intended to primarily achieve anything either way in the realms of visual art and written literature. How can we know that such claims are anything but non sequitors?

    Does bowing to a cookie really make me a better painter or sculptor? I don’t get the connection.

    Maybe the Northern Europeans are just less gifted at painting. Perhaps its in the soil. Or perhaps their political leaders didn’t promote it as well.

    That Calvinism is not relegated to the mental and ethereal realms ougth to be evident by its commitment to the magistrate. Calvinistis have been very politically minded people, and the polis is full of people!

  7. Commitment to the magistrate? You couldn’t have picked a better example of the Reformed commitment to due and rational process — Reformation and Enlightenment virtues par excellence! But, bowing to a cookie? Yes, that is another great example. That is not rational (not necessarily irrational, just non-rational). It is like how all art requires an element of “seeing” beyond the merely rational, beyond what achieves certain definite ends. It is risk and a bit of vulnerability — like love, the root of all great art.

    I don’t suppose that I’m going to convince you. I think in 10, 20 years, you’ll understand what I’m saying. It took me lots of time with theology, studying art, going around Italy, living in Scotland, etc. for me to understand what I’ve briefly laid out in this thread.

  8. Here’s a good article by Peter Leithart:

    Why Evangelicals Can’t Write

    Everything he says about evangelicals can be applied to all “low church” Protestants, especially in visual media but certainly also in fiction (Leithart’s topic) since fiction requires “imaging” through words (unlike hymnody and homiletics which is more a rhetorical art, inclusive of the imagination to be sure but intending more to capture one’s assent).

  9. Kevin,

    Leithart is unfortunately a fount of bad generalizations here; there is simply no easy way to prove such a conclusion as he hopes to offer; it reads a little like a rehash of Greeley’s tired old “Catholic imagination” thesis. The fact is that literature was dominated in the 18th and 19th centuries by people of Protestant background, including some influenced by the first wave of evangelical renewal in the 18th; as Leithart himself admits (and the bit about the “Anglicans” of English’s literary heyday not being quite Protestant is very uninformed and anachronistic). And I’m afraid his range of literary acquaintance is fairly narrow: one might, for instance, mention that Theodor Fontane, of a Huguenot family and subject of a Reformed king (Prussia), was of central importance to 19th c German literature.

    But the principle is questionable more generally. Where is the indigenous Eastern Orthodox novel? Shouldn’t that most iconic of Christian peoples have generated something like that first thing? And on the other side of things, one might want to ask just how it is that Iranian film is among the best in the world, when Iranian religion is at least as religiously aniconic as Reformed Christian religion is- maybe more? And how is it that many of the best novelists (and filmmakers) of our time aren’t Christian at all? Shouldn’t they be on the “right” side of Marburg for this to have happened, on his account?

    Leithart seems in any case to presume a confusion of common grace and Christianity, in which the production of artefact seems more important than the production of holiness, or at least, is to be taken as some reliable sign or necessary effect of it (Lutheran sign, not Zwinglian sign, of course). But Maritain, whom he cites, never really makes that mistake.

    On Steven’s perhaps too-unkind reference to unreformed eucharistic practice: bread-worship is a case of what modern critical theorists of image and representation would call reification and fetishization; it is not a case of good semiotic, but is rather representation at its worst, art which sutures the viewer into idolatry, not to put too fine a point on it; Calvin on this topic is a remote antecedent of Berger on ads. And that unreformed elements-cultus is generally the death of art, contra Leithart’s Marburg thesis: why are the great RC novelists mostly either unchurched ( from de Laclos and Balzac to Malraux and Robbe-Grillet) or converts whose imagination was more native (and Romantic) than genuinely churchly (eg Percy- who by the way was inspired by the Protestant Pierce’s theory of sign)? One might argue that the supposedly “right” side of Marburg, with its theology of presence (in Heidegger’s sense) actually forecloses the possibility of art, since it makes sacred sign too plenary, too final, too absolute and too jealous of rivals. And here is where Leithart might actually be able to better his argument: American evangelicals are often enthusiast (in the old sense), and thus little monstrances of fake plenary presence themselves, which means the death of reason and art; but this is not because they are *unlike* non-Calvinist views of representation, but rather, because they so closely approximate them, mutatis mutandis.

    And about the question of evangelical commitment to the magistrate: it was a profoundly iconic relation, not a rationalist one. See for starters Kantorowicz’ classic “The King’s Two Bodies” for the medieval background of the king as vicarius Christi, and then consider the Protestant notion of the king as having jus circa sacra and direction of the visible church, and the notion of ecclesiopolitical “conformity”(the term used in England). Conformity to the king in Protestant models was in many ways a transposition of medieval devotional ideas of conformity to Christ via methods of identification through Andachtsbilder either literally imagistic or textual, only here, the Andachtsbild is the ordered commonwealth, patterned charity, whose iconic head and center is the sovereign. The book attempting a vindication of Charles I was called Eikon Basilike, and that is no coincidence.

    Do look up Falkenburg’s work: he is a really fine historian.

    I apologize if I seem a little exasperated- but I am in fact a little exasperated with generalizing pronouncements of the sort under discussion.


  10. My apologies for being “perhaps too unkind.” I’m just a fundie at heart, open word and all 🙂

    On the point of the king, I see no reason to suppose that it is indebted to rationalism. Didn’t James claim divine right? Didn’t the Reformers appeal to the OT example of Josiah?

    Surely the ideal king loves his people, and even more, he should be willing to die for his country. Isn’t that passionate?

    I just think we’re too quick to accept false characterizations against our own fathers in the faith and likewise to quick to romanticize the other traditions.

  11. Kevin,

    Yes, I’ve read the Leithart article before, but he’s trying to prove that Protestants cannot write, which is what I initially pointed out was false and you agreed opting to move to the question of visual art. Now you point me back to the issue of writing.

    I think Leithart is just reductionistic here, as he admits, but perhaps to the point of fault. The Anglicans were definitely Reformed, albeit a bit Zwinglian at times, and that seems enough to be an exception to give us pause.

    Shakespeare, Spencer, Milton, and Bunyan- Oughtn’t these be significant exceptions to the rule? What about New England literature? What do we do with Whitman?!!

    How many counterexamples does it take to falsify the thesis?

  12. I’d like to know who all these wonderful Catholic writers are Kevin doesn’t want to mention. I can think of a few:

    Evelyn Waugh
    Graham Greene
    Flannery O’Connor
    J.F. Powers
    Walker Percy

    Let’s see, the first two are from dang ole Anglican England. O’Connor and Percy are from the Protestant South, and Powers is from a Protestant Midwest.

    I agree ultimately with Steven – these lines aren’t easy to draw and in most cases, the authors (like the Southerners mentioned) wouldn’t tolerate it. Personally I’d like to know how many Catholics are reading O’Connor.


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