Though she’s best known for novels like her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, in recent years Marilynne Robinson has quietly been building an impressive body of nonfiction work. In What Are We Doing Here?, her third collection of essays since 2012, she again discourses with depth and sensitivity on an impressive range of topics in theology, philosophy and contemporary American life.
Save for two undated essays that conclude the volume, all of the pieces comprising the book were written between 2015 and 2017. Many were delivered in the form of lectures at churches or institutions of higher education around the world. As in her last book, The Givenness of Things, Robinson doesn’t flinch from engagement with deep aspects of Christian theology, something that may be a difficulty for more casual readers. An enlightening theme of several pieces is Puritan belief and culture, as she seeks to rescue thinkers like Jonathan Edwards from the stigma of narrow-mindedness traditionally attached to the label of Puritanism.
Robinson is at her most accessible and eloquent when, as a “self-professed liberal,” she focuses her critical eye on prominent aspects of our current political climate. As she explains in “A Proof, a Test, an Instruction,” written a few weeks after the 2016 election, she’s an unabashed admirer of Barack Obama, describing her respect for him as “vast and unshadowed.” The two engaged in a deep and impressively wide-ranging conversation in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 2015, which was later published in The New York Review of Books. She concludes this book with the essay “Slander,” lamenting how her mother, who died at age 92, “lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic,” as a result of her obsessive devotion to Fox News. Readers who share Robinson’s strong political views will appreciate how forcefully she defends them in this challenging but worthwhile collection.