Writing Like Cicero for the Sake of the Soul

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Marilynne Robinson, whose novels Gilead and Home have moved many of us deeply, has just published a new collection of Essays titled When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Here’s a caution. Her fiction is more easily understood than her nonfiction. She admits, “My style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway” (87). That means her sentences sound like translations of good Latin. In other words, she writes non-fiction like John Owen.

The preface puts the book under the banner of America losing Democracy. The lead essay puts it under the banner of losing our soul. She would say, it's the same danger.

If you are willing to dig, there are gems in this hard ground. For example:

  • William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible, who provided much of the most beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plowboy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not. (6)
  • Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word "soul," and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. (8)
  • We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. (10)
  • Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again. (18)
  • I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture. (87)

But if you don’t know her, start with the fiction. First, Gilead. Then, Home. Then the Essays.

The quotes are from Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (New York: Ferrar, Strauss Giroux, 2012).