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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought…
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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

by Marilynne Robinson

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Great prose, backed with some good ideas and some dubious ones. Robinson makes sweeping generalizations that'll rub you the wrong way if you have any 'intellectual' pretensions at all, as I do, but most of them are fairly accurate. Her hope with this book is that her readers will go back to the study of history, or rather, the history of ideas, and take it very seriously. The problem is that the study of the history of ideas she seems to prefer is a little, well, tendentious: the 'truth' about Calvin is to be found *only* in his own writings, for instance, and the same goes for the American Founding Fathers and everyone else. Robinson seems unwilling to even consider the possibility that the rich and powerful are rather more likely to be liars, self-deceived, or both, and that specific historical circumstances have a huge influence on ideas in general.
This is part of a larger picture that she gives us in her essay on Darwinism and, more abstractly, in 'Facing Reality.' The idea there is that we've constructed a 'reality' for ourselves which ignores a number of very important and very real facts, both historical (Calvin) and contemporary (in short, the civilizing instinct). This 'realism' ends up ignoring or downplaying anything that can be considered a subjective experience: religion, of course, but also art, morality, compassion, altruism... A prime way of downplaying these experiences is to show how they've been used in the service of evil, so that 'religion' is identified with, say, 'the crusades,' rather than with Bonhoeffer. Her call to the study of ideas is meant to defend our cultural ideals from being identified with evil in this way, to suggest rather how we can identify the good in those ideals.
Occasionally she gets carried away with an idea and lets it ruin her argument, as for instance when she complains about people trying to overcome the causes of our discontent. "Might we no all have been kinder and saner," she asks, "if we had said that discontent is our natural condition?" Well, you might want to ask the following groups of people about that: serfs, slaves, the nineteenth century working class, the populations of colonized countries, the contemporary inhabitants of nations run by religious or military tyrants. In all of these cases "the obstacle to collective happiness" is indeed other people, but this belief did not and does not mean that "terrible things seem justified." In the rest of her essays Robinson stresses the need to overcome social injustice; why does she stoop to knee-jerk conservatism here? Because she doesn't like political correctness; because she rejects the idea that history and culture are "a vast repository of destructive notions and impulses." Well, I don't like PC, and I don't think history and culture are that, but that's not a reason to reject all social reforms.

I highly recommend the essays on the family, Bonhoeffer, Wilderness (mainly awful, actually, but leads to a very intelligent conclusion) and Darwinism. Unless you're jonesing for a defense of Calvin in the face of Whiggish, nineteenth century scholarship, you can probably skip 'Marguerite de Navarre.' Psalm Eight is autobiographical, and I think tedious, but maybe you like that kind of thing. The introduction just makes Robinson sound like someone who doesn't bother to read the books she's attacking, particularly Weber (whose point was that capitalism is just as much a subjective attitude as an objective fact, and that the praise of material success underpinned by theology was very good for the development of that subjective attitude; his point was not 'Calvin sucks, man.' This is another problem of Robinson's approach to ideas: Weber was engaged in a very serious intellectual dialogue, of which this book was a small part. It is important only in the context of that dialogue; if you want to complain about idiotic readings of his book, fair enough, but that's not his book anymore than witch burnings is Calvin's.) ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
This book is next to impossible to rate: you want to alert readers to the loveliness of the prose, and I for one wanted to admire the logic and cogency of the arguments, for I love and cherish this writer. And yet ... the essays (the ones I read) are, as promised, contrarian in nature. Ms. Robinson objects to the lionization of Darwin, pointing out that he was an unabashed racist and eugenicist, and that his legacy is used as cover for callous and radically greedy economists and social scientists. She certainly does not question the fact of evolution, but objects to any requirement that the faithful should have to prove their God exists. She also objects to such presumption and insulting behavior in her graceful and radiant novel, "Gliead."

The reader interested in a unique take on modern beliefs and mores would be hard-pressed to do better than take up this collection of essays. I was not always persuaded that her didactic constructs fit her arguments. I was sometimes bewildered by juxtapositions, and felt that they arose from an angry, not necessarily studied, stance. ( )
  LukeS | Jun 11, 2009 |
This is a book about America, specifically about the religious thought that has influenced our country's formation and changes. The first few essays tackle subjects ranging from Darwinism to the abolitionists. For a while I could see similarities between these essays and some of Wendell Berry's. Both value community and question things we consider to be "progress."

That was all fine by me, but I am admitting that I am not finishing this book. I was actually taking notes, even writing my first outline in a long time, but I have to concede that I'm just bored now. Marilynne Robinson clearly has a lot of respect for John Calvin, and I'm sure he's a worthwhile person to follow, study, etc., but I'm tired of reading about him. This first essays merely made mention of him, but starting with essay #8 (out of 11) the focus has shifted directly on him and seems that it will stay that way for the rest of the collection.

I'm almost always interested in reading spiritually-minded intellectuals, and Marilynne Robinson fits that bill and I don't regret getting acquainted with her. I'm interested in reading her novels, but I just can't make myself finish this piece of nonfiction. ( )
  araridan | May 25, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312425325, Paperback)

In this award-winning collection, the bestselling author of Gilead offers us other ways of thinking about history, religion, and society. Whether rescuing "Calvinism" and its creator Jean Cauvin from the repressive "puritan" stereotype, or considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by Midwestern abolitionists, or the divide between the Bible and Darwinism, Marilynne Robinson repeatedly sends her reader back to the primary texts that are central to the development of American culture but little read or acknowledged today.

A passionate and provocative celebration of ideas, the old arts of civilization, and life's mystery, The Death of Adam is, in the words of Robert D. Richardson, Jr., "a grand, sweeping, blazing, brilliant, life-changing book."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:13 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

"In the tradition of nineteenth-century novelists who turned to the essay, Marilynne Robinson offers an authoritative approach to refining the ideas our culture has handed down to us. Whether considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by midwestern abolitionists; how creationism, "long owned by the Religious Right," has spurred on contemporary Darwinism; or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's continental origins, Robinson writes with great conviction."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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