The Givenness of Things: Essays. Marilynne Robinson. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, &Giroux, 2015)

I was startled to see this book of essays among our Church Library Collection; it is infrequent that I find companionship with those who also love the most discursive literary form: the essay! I had read Robinson’s work Gilead several years prior. While I recognized its value, it didn’t keep me up at night. When I began skimming this collection of essays by Robinson, I was surprised –and it has been keeping me up at night.

This collection of essays ranges from “Humanism” to insightful essays on “Servanthood” and “Grace.” Robinson certainly knows her Calvin and her early American Congregationalists (Jonathan Edwards). Even her brief history of the influence of the Wycliffe Bible in the 14th century is written in a nearly poetic style that I find riveting.My favorite essay–among many– is the essay referenced in the title of her collection, “Givenness.” This essay explores what we and the world are “given” and, I suppose, “called” to be in our essence. Robinson combines the early phenomenology of William James with Calvin’s profound and still accurate discussion of human nature, adding the religious anthropology of Jonathan Edwards to create a breath of fresh air for all who seek a context for “being” in the church as well as “being the church.”

The essay is a form that has long been neglected by churches in favor of the Power point and ten-minute sermon infused with pop psychology and post-modern video bytes. It seems that we have gotten away from the roots of the essay (linguistically, from the French, meaning “To try” –a form invented to reflect discursively on subjects which didn’t quite fit in to the accepted and stilted Aristotelian organized discourses on subjects.
The essay has been a powerful vehicle for religious discourse in American Christianity. The Deists made great use of it –Thoreau and Emerson immediately come to mind. Perhaps the resurgence of the “blog” will re-awaken the interest in discursive forms beyond the “listicle.” (I was introduced to this term by a truly talented essayist Anthony Bourdain, yes, the chef and producer/star of “Parts Unknown” –he is an amazingly talented essayist in the video format. He hates “listicles.”)

TI admit to a certain amount of bias; I love writing essays. Fiction has never been my forte –the world and its people are just too interesting to pass up observing.

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