Marilynne Robinson is one of those rare novelists, like Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, or Flannery O’Connor, whose work, though galvanized by a theological impulse, is adored by believers and atheists in equal measure. How to gain such a following? Waugh did it by being comic, Percy by being Southern, and O’Connor by being comic, Southern, and singularly weird. But Robinson, who hails from Idaho, isn’t very funny, and her Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead (2004), is narrated by an aged Iowa minister.

It would take some serious doing to concoct a worse recipe for mass appeal, but Robinson is up to the challenge: Whereas Waugh, Percy, and O’Connor are designated “Catholic writers,” i.e., eccentrics or willful reactionaries, she is a tough-minded advocate of John Calvin. Her essay collection The Death of Adam (1998) put her theological attitudes on unapologetic display; to glean the same from our...


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