Marilynne Robinson on Biblical Beauty, Human Evil and the Idea of Israel

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

Marilynne Robinson is one of the great living novelists. She has won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Humanities Medal, and Barack Obama took time out of his presidency to interview her at length. Her fiction is suffused with a sense of holiness: Mundane images like laundry drying on a line seem to be illuminated by a divine force. Whether she’s telling the story of a pastor confronting his mortality in “Gilead” or two sisters coming of age in small-town Idaho in “Housekeeping,” her novels wrestle with theological questions of what it means to be human, to see the world more deeply, to seek meaning in life.

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In recent years, Robinson has tightened the links between her literary pursuits and her Christianity, writing essays about Calvinism and other theological traditions. Her forthcoming work of nonfiction is “Reading Genesis,” a close reading of the first book of the Old Testament (or the Torah, as I grew up knowing it). It’s a countercultural reading in many respects — one that understands the God in Genesis as merciful rather than vengeful and humans as flawed but capable of astounding acts of grace. No matter one’s faith, Robinson unearths wisdom in this core text that applies to many questions we wrestle with today.

We discuss the virtues evoked in Genesis — beauty, forgiveness and hospitality — and how to cultivate what Robinson calls “a mind that’s schooled toward good attention.” And we end on her reading of the story of Israel, which I found to be challenging, moving and evocative at a time when that nation has been front and center in the news.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio App, Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of this audio essay will be available within 24 hours of publication in the audio player above.)

Credit…Leonardo Cendamo / Getty Images

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Annie Galvin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld, with additional mixing from Efim Shapiro. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Sonia Herrero and Alex Engebretson.

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