"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
In his poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” In a novel titled “Home,” Marilynne Robinson shows it’s not always that simple. The book is a companion to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Gilead,” which is written in the form of a letter from an elderly minister to his young son. The same characters appear in the same place and time in “Home.” But the perspective shifts across town to another aging minister and his family’s troubles.
- Susan Page Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
- E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies.
- The Right Reverand Jane Holmes Dixon retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The year is 1956. A minister is in failing health, any day could be his last. He's worried about what will happen to his family after his passing, especially the fate of his son. If the plot sounds familiar, it's because we chose the companion novel to Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead" for this month's "Readers' Review."
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the Orange Prize-winning book "Home," Susan Page of USA Today, poet E. Ethelbert Miller of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University and The Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore.
MS. DIANE REHMLet's talk about the book, "Home," and hear your comments. I'm sure many of you have read it and would like to join in the conversation. 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to all of you.
MS. SUSAN PAGEGood morning.
THE RIGHT REV. JANE HOLMES DIXONGood morning.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERGood morning.
REHMSo good to have you here. How do you think "Home" stands? Does it stand on its own? Is it too connected to "Gilead?" Do you have to read one to appreciate this one? What do you think, Jane Dixon?
DIXONWell, I read "Gilead" knowing that I was going to be on here. I had not read it and for me, it was helpful to have had that experience of reading "Gilead" to sort of set up for me in a better way than if I had just picked this up. On the other hand, if I hadn't, I really can't answer that.
REHMWhat do you think?
PAGEI -- you know, I think it is the most remarkable thing I've ever read, these two books, because it's not a prequel or sequel.
PAGEThey cut -- they take place at exactly the same time in this very small town, centered on these two households of people. Yet they're...
REHMWho are very close.
PAGEWho are very close and they're quite intertwined and yet, I think they both stand alone. I think you could easily -- and we'll hear about whether you can pick up the second one without having read the first one, but they -- it's -- they both totally stand, on their own it seems to me. And yet when you read both of them, they enhance one another.
REHMThey certainly do.
PAGEAnd Jane, I was wondering if it was like The Gospels, in that it's a different perspective on some of the same events.
DIXONAbsolutely. I hadn't -- I'm embarrassed, I hadn't thought of it that way, but that's a wonderful comparison.
REHMEthelbert, what do you think?
MILLERI like this book. I like this book, well, because I am father. I like this book -- my wife is from Iowa. I like this book in terms of how it deals with race. It's very subtle, it's very meaningful. What I felt was the dominant thing in the book was the fact that when the characters come together, it seems as if the whole issue of confession is important. There is that statement in Glory talks about -- Glory talks about the confusion between the word secret and sacred and I think that's very, very important how this book is shaped.
REHMA lot of people have said to me that this story reminds them of the biblical story of the prodigal son. How do you see it, Jane?
DIXONWell, I don't think there's any question about that, that it is that story of the one who has been sort of gone outside the family's norms mores pretty significantly and yet he is the one that the father is so longing to see. Yet the interesting thing about that -- with that is the daughter, who is their Glory, who's had her own sort of getting away from the family norms and her Presbyterian upbringing in her own life, she comes back. Father seems not to care about it exactly. I think he...
REHMHe takes her for granted, sort of.
DIXONHe -- well, he does, but there's one place in there where he says, he knows that her life may not quite have been what she -- you know, she thinks it is, but -- so that's an interesting thing that they've got the two that sort of come back and their relationship between Jack and Glory, the two had been away and had lives that are very different.
MILLERYou could also ask, is there a balm in "Gilead?" We know, for example, at the end of this book, when Della Miles shows up that there are no black people in "Gilead." And she is a -- I mean, I think the ending of this book, it's a very, very spiritual, healing, it redefines, I'm home, where you know there had been no black people in this city, there's been no black people in this home, but she shows up and you begin to see the extension and she realized that this is going to be part of her family.
REHM...being the wife of Jack, who's been kept hidden because she is African-American. She comes back briefly, but she didn't stay because she's afraid.
REHMShe's afraid in that white town.
PAGEAnd afraid, in fact, to stay -- be out on the highway...
PAGE...after dark. She needs to get to a place where she feels safe. I -- the prodigal son is definitely at the core of the book, but race is just streamed through it.
PAGEAnd that's true of both -- both books, I think. "Gilead" looks back, you know, it looks -- in "Gilead," Reverend Ames, the main character, talks a lot about his grandfather, who was an abolitionist and who worked with John Brown and was very involved in that period leading up to the Civil War. And in this case, we see Jack being very concerned, really forward in the nation. He's the one who's concerned about the Civil Rights demonstrations that are then going on in the South and no one else in town seems clued into that...
REHMWell, and that's where he truly divides from his father. They are watching the same Civil Rights demonstration on television and the father says, "I think those black people are making trouble for themselves."
MILLERYeah, but I think there's -- it's looking at it in terms of how it unfolds. The first racial hint is when Jack is reading to Du Bois. Now, if you look at it in this book, there are many titles that are mentioned in terms of books. The Du Bois title is not mentioned, so we don't know if he's reading "Souls of Black Folk," you know, but he's reading Du Bois.
MILLERHis sister responds, like, oh, yes, I know who Du Bois is. Du Bois is a communist. Not that Du Bois is black, Du Bois' a communist, right? Then what's happened, they go outside of the home and they're in the town and they're looking at the store window and the Civil Rights movement on the television. Okay. The Civil Rights Movement comes through the television first, then they buy a television and bring the television into their home. Now, the Civil Rights Movement is in their home, you know, and I think for many of us as Americans, the Civil Rights Movement came through our lives by television, the same way the Vietnam War did.
REHMWere you surprised, Jane, by the father, Reverend Boughton's, comments about the race riots, about race in general? Coming from a Presbyterian minister?
DIXONNot really because it was, what, 1956, 1957.
DIXONAnd as Ethelbert was just saying, television were new coming into homes in these country towns in those days and people were ignoring that. They just didn't look at it and certainly, the churches that I grew -- the church I grew up in the '50s in Mississippi, I can assure you it was not being talked about, so it made me sad that he was not talking about it, but it didn't surprise me.
REHMYou know, it's interesting that Jack, the son who is so central to this book, has come back a sad man, somehow not fully himself yet. He comes back yearning for something. His father thinks that all these years, Jack has not paid any attention to his religious upbringing and yet, here is Jack quoting all these passages from the Bible.
PAGEAnd it's one of the many examples where people don't hear each other. Fathers don't hear sons, sons don't hear fathers. There is such missed opportunities here. There's a moment when Jack wants to go Reverend Ames and explore whether all the troubles of his life were predestined or could he have done something about it.
PAGEAnd the Reverend Ames thinks he's mocking him, his father doesn't take the question seriously. We know from reading the book that Jack is in anguish over this and he can't get anyone to listen to him.
REHMIt is in part because the Reverend Ames has lost a wife and daughter, it is in part because Jack had an illegitimate child or a child out of wedlock and then that child died and we have all these conflicting underlying currents going on and you're so right, Susan, they're talking past each other. And what a shame that they cannot understand and comfort one another instead.
MILLEREven though they're talking past each other, what I like about this book, there's a certain degree of intimacy. There's actual -- the touching of each other. There's the ritual of food and then also, it's the thing and maybe this is Calvinistic, but it's this whole thing in terms, I've got to fix the garden or I have to fix the Desoto, which was a symbolic car during that time, everybody had the Desoto, it was in all the commercials. So you had this whole thing, but I like this whole thing of carrying one's father up to the bed. You know...
MILLER...I think this is very, very important in terms of households.
REHMHe's a sick man, he's an elderly man and as we said earlier, he knows he's going to die. He doesn't know when, but he wants to take care of his son. We want to take care of our listeners. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Our "Readers' Review" for this month is Marilynne Robinson's novel "Home." It is, as we say, a companion novel to her earlier one, "Gilead," which we used for last month's "Readers' Review." However, you do not, as our guests this morning have said, have to read them in tandem or even have to read both, though they do inform each other.
REHMSusan Page is here, she's Washington bureau chief for U.S.A. Today. Also E. Ethelbert Miller of Howard University, he's Board Chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. And the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon, not only the retired Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Pro-tempore, but one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world. Here's an...
DIXONAs you are mine.
REHMAh, thank you. And here is an email from Carol who says, "I do not agree with some of the reviewers I've read that Jack is a ne'er-do-well," and it does say that in many of the reviews. "In my mind," she says, "he is kind, thoughtful and probably would've benefited by going to a psychologist or counsel when he was very young and exhibiting unusual behaviors. The book brought tears to my eyes. It was beautifully written." What about that ne'er-do-well?
PAGEYou know, Jack, we find out in this book, has spent time in prison.
PAGEHe can't find or hold a job and he has a great sin in his past in that he got a local girl pregnant and left -- left her and her -- and their daughter. And their daughter, who grows up in squallier, dies at an early age from an infection, so I think he lives up to the ne'er-do-well description, but he's not unlikeable. I mean, in fact, by the end of the book, you care quite a bit about him and you feel how torn he is about the things he's done that are wrong that he regrets that he wishes he could redo. And his desire to determine if he could really be a good person, could you change.
MILLERI think we're also looking at alcoholism and we're not looking at alcoholism in 2011, we're looking at alcoholism in the 1950s, which is major. So I was taken by that. I was also taken in terms of how the attempted suicide is handled, you know. His sister's very protective of that. And so, you know, to see him being driven to that says something. And perhaps the reader isn't even involved in terms, okay, what's motivating this character.
REHMWhy is he driven to suicide, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, I think that if we have -- we look at how religion shapes this whole book and the whole thing of perdition, you know, whether these people are cursed. You know, well, you know, if you buy into that, then you will commit suicide and that will say, well, I'm cursed. You know, and not having maybe, you know, the religion to explain things.
MILLERI look at the fact that here is a person who's very secular. I'm looking at what -- I -- mainly by he's reading angles for leisure reading, (laugh) you know -- you know, I put a circle around. And maybe he doesn't have that spiritual center with -- like other members of his family. I think a key thing in this book is that all the women have these biblical names, you know, spiritual names, you know. And, you know, Glory, Grace, Faith and Hope. You know, if your name is Jack, I think you're going to have a problem. Like my name is Ethelbert, (laugh) you know, I'm wrestling with who I am (laugh).
DIXONWell, they tell the story in there about his birth and that it was a difficult birth. And maybe, you know, speculating, did something happen there?
REHMAnd the wife, the mother, almost died...
REHM...in the birth.
DIXONRight. And he -- the thing that I -- really drew me -- 'cause I did, I came to like him very much. He wrestled, he wrestled and, as you say, he was brought up in a home with such strong -- when you grow up in a home where predestination is at the center of what you were taught, that it's all worked out and you really can't change it, that's a hard -- that's a hard thing to hear.
REHMAnd that's exactly where the Reverend Boughton and the Reverend Ames divide on their friendship. They've had this argument about predestination the whole, I don't know, 50 years that they've known each other. I wonder what you and I have been fighting about all these years?
DIXONIt's not predestination.
REHMNo, it's not predestination.
DIXONBut he says, Diane, he -- there's a thing in there that I really liked a lot. When he's talking to Glory, he says, I think there's a difference between being a hypocrite and a liar. And he said -- because they wanted him, Glory and the Reverend Ames really wanted him to tell his father that he believed some of these things that the father'd been trying to teach him and he couldn't do it. And he said, I have to lie, but I cannot be a hypocrite. And that was an interesting distinction to me and what he was wrestling with.
PAGEAlso the fact that he took race relations seriously...
PAGE...the way that no one else will. And I do think that it makes you -- I mean, it's -- I realize, Jane -- as Jane said, it was a reflection of the times, but it makes you think less, I think, of the father that...
PAGE...that he talks about our obligation to one another and all of the...
REHMCharity and mercy.
PAGE...charity and yet he cannot see before (word?) this great injustice for the nation.
REHMYeah. All right. Let's open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Monroe, Wis. and to Margo. Good morning.
REHMGood morning, Margo. I can barely hear you.
MARGOOh, good -- to be able to join this conversation.
REHMWell, hi. I certainly hope we can continue to hear you. You sound as though you're on a cell phone and breaking up on us.
REHMBut go ahead.
MARGOI'm sorry. I'm in the Hinterlands of Northern Illinois, Southern Wisconsin.
MARGOI'm a Lutheran pastor and I'm using these books in Bible study right now. And not only were we informed by the prodigal's story about the Gospel, but also the Book of Job and the whole question of, am I stuck with what I perceive God to be handing me or do I have choices? The whole question of predestination is huge in this book.
REHMHuge. I agree, I agree. Do I have choices?
PAGEAnd I think by the conclusion of the book, you believe you do, especially if you take the two books together. 'Cause again, on several points, you gain information from the other book that you don't have in the one book. But I think by the end of the story, which is really very sad at the end...
PAGE...I mean, I think it's hard to -- if you're not weeping by the end of this book (laugh), you're not really reading it carefully. But I think you do feel in an exchange that's in "Gilead," which Jane had mentioned off the air a moment ago, that there is finally a resolution where Jack feels forgiven, really, able to go on, perhaps lead a changed life.
REHMBecause the Reverend Ames says to him, you are a good man. Something his father cannot say to him, Jane.
DIXONNo. He's not capable of doing that and that's one of the real tragedies in the relationship. It's interesting also the father couldn't, but they're sitting around the table, the Ames family has come to have dinner and they're talking about predestination. And it's Lila, the young wife of the Reverend Ames who said, there can be change. She's very clear about that.
DIXONAnd she and Jack have this sort of appreciation of one another. She's the one person, when he comes home, that has the appreciation. Glory lives into it, but this woman does, so you wonder what her life has been like. And clearly, you get -- it's easy to infer that she has changed as well.
REHMDo you think the Reverend Ames initially is not only suspicious of, but jealous of Jack and his attention to Lila, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, I think there's jealousy. I think -- you know, keep in mind, this is who he's named after, you know, this thing...
MILLERthis relationship there. I think it's a person that he probably wants to have a relationship with, but it's difficult, okay. The same way I go back to this intimacy that's in the house. Once Jack steps out of the house, he doesn't have that type of intimacy. I think this is where we see attempting playing with Ames' son and this is where baseball becomes a key bonding effect and sharing.
MILLERBut I think it's difficult. I want to mention the thing about change. It is also -- Glory makes a statement where she says a person can change, everything can change, okay. But I'll also go back to a conversation between Jack and Ames, which I think is very important, where Jack raises his questions to Ames where he says, are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives and then go to hell? That's a question mark after that.
REHM...what does Reverend Ames have to say? Don't leave us hanging.
MILLERI'm leaving us hanging (laugh), that's why we have radio.
PAGEYou know, not only do I think the Reverend Ames is a little jealous of Jack and his youth and his connection to his wife and his ability to play ball with his son and he's suspicious of what his intentions are, but we know from this book that Jack is really using this relationship to try to talk to Reverend Ames.
PAGEIt's really -- it's not that he wants to defy him or give him trouble, he's trying to figure out, how can I sit down and talk to this man about these big questions that I'm trying to explore?
REHMBut the Reverend Ames doesn't see it that way. He...
PAGEDoesn't understand that.
REHM...because Lila is, as you said, so much younger, she's from a totally different background, generation, everything from himself. Now, let's go to Desmet, Idaho. Good morning, Mildred. You're on the air.
MILDREDFirst of all, I'm so astounded. I've been trying to call you for years and on the first ring, I connected (unintelligible).
REHMI'm so glad.
MILDREDSo this is predestination.
REHMOh, good, that's wonderful.
MILDREDI jumped into my mind a book I read maybe 50 years ago and hadn't thought of very much, but listen to this. The author is Ben Ames Williams and the name of the book is "A House Divided." One Anthony Carain (sp?) has an unmarriage relationship which produces a daughter who later -- and then later he marries and produces a family so that the children of that family are going to be the grand family. And the other little --the child goes ahead and produces one Abraham Lincoln.
MILDREDNow, I'll have to go back because the -- Anthony Carain is a country southern gentleman and his family is slave owners and all that. And they -- the Civil War comes and they hate Lincoln. And then they find out that they're related to him. They are the grand -- the children of the family -- of Anthony Carain and Lincoln is the grandson of Anthony Carain.
REHMWell, that sounds like a book I'd like to read. Thank you so much for calling, Mildred. I think yours is the first call we've had from Idaho and I'm delighted to hear from you. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Greensboro, N.C. Good morning, Alan.
ALANGood morning. How are you, Diane?
ALANGood, good. I want to preface my comments. I haven't read these particular novels, but I listen to your show all the time. I've been following the discussion and I wanted to know if your panel could speak to what I found to be a really entrenched historical and cultural bias. This is -- my comment is based off of one of your callers. I don't know his name, but he was talking about the Biblical names of most of the women in the book and the fact that Jack did not have that and so there was a little bit of trouble and he might be lost.
ALANI'm wondering, why is it that we continue to exemplify such a bias against people who have either lost their faith or have decided that faith is not something that's desirable at all for them? And it's as though we believe and have believed for centuries and continue to that people who are atheists or just reject the authority of the Bible other than as a historical document, that they're somehow lost? I can't quite understand why this continues.
DIXONWell, I think it continues because it's preached from the pulpit. Different faith traditions have different understandings of salvation and what that means and it's the job of the preacher -- I've been in the pulpit myself to preach about what I believe about salvation. I wanted to bring up this -- I'm not quite sure how to pronounce his name, Boughton , the Reverend -- how do you pronounce it, Boughton?
REHMI said Boughton.
DIXON...even though he is a Presbyterian, he believes in predestination. He has one sentence in there that really struck me that maybe is a little helpful to what you're talking about. He says, "Yes, I worried a long time about the mystery of predestination, how it could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation," meaning, if you know, if you believe that you are predestined one way or the other, but then God is out there working salvation.
DIXONAnd the -- someone says back to him, "No conclusion about this?" And he says, "None that I can recall just now. It seems as though the conclusions are never as interesting as the questions. I mean, it's not what you remember." So I think that the question of faith, one's belief, one's not belief, the questions do seem so important. And for me, as an ordained person, I'm so grateful that people like you continue to ask the questions because it's very hard for us who are human to believe that we have all the knowledge about God and what he...
DIXON...and what he says here, which makes me like him. He says, there is mystery.
REHMWell, and the very fact that this is known as a Christian nation puts someone who raises the question of why is faith important, why are those of us who are outside faith considered somehow to be demonized? And that still goes on.
DIXONWell, just look at politics. Can you think of a single political leader who says that he or she is an atheist or even an agnostic? It is politically unacceptable to admit any doubt. I mean, you can be various religions. You can be in different religious traditions, but to be elected in this country, you pretty much need to portray yourself as a believer.
REHMWhat do you think, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, I think that one of the things that even if you're not a believer, and we use Jack for example, we know that when we saw he is brought into the church through the music, you know. And that's a certain salvation there and you see him even bringing that skill back home where he's playing for his father.
REHMAnd playing hymns.
MILLERHymns, right. And I think what happens, if you're talking about conversion, that's a very important thing in terms, okay, people open up, the music does something to them, it leads you somewhere. And so I'm very happy with that how, you know, he meets this woman and is pulled into the faith.
REHMAll right. Short break and more of your calls, your emails when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. And we are talking about Marilynne Robinson's novel, "Home." I hope you'll join us. Questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Here's an email from Ellen and it says, "A pivotal event in the book, it seems to me, was the scene in which Jack exclaimed, 'Jesus Christ.' As he was watching the Civil Rights demonstrations on television and his father gave attention to the words exclaimed rather than to the events that elicited the exclamation. Jack's faith is grounded in experience, very hard experience, the father is focused on dogma."
REHMDogma. Dogma which, I think, going back to the earlier question about those who are outside faith feel very strongly. Susan, during the break, you were talking about an interview you read in Paris Review.
PAGEYou know, one of the things that I wondered about after I read these two books was whether Marilynne Robinson has started the project thinking, I'm going to go do two books about this very small world and they're going to be different and enhance one another and so that she knew what she was going to do from the start.
PAGEAnd she did an interview with Paris Review in which she said this, "After I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters. I feel sort of bereaved. So I braced for the experience after 'Gilead' and then I thought, if these characters are so strongly in my mind, why not write them? With Jack and old Boughton especially and with Glory also, I felt like they were whole characters that had not been fully realized Ames' story and I couldn't really see the point in abandoning them."
REHMThat's lovely. Let's go back to the phones and to Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Kate, you're on the air.
KATEGood morning, Diane. I always love talking to you.
KATEI haven't read "Gilead" or "Home," but I love "Housekeeping" and what's...
REHMUh-oh, lost that call. So sorry, Kate, please try to call us back again. Let's go to John in Hamlin, N.Y. Good morning, you're on the air.
JOHNThanks for taking my call, Diane.
JOHNI came into this conversation late, but you were talking about those it's unlikely if somebody was an atheist or whatever, you know, running for, you know, political office and I just, as a Roman Catholic, I would rather work with an atheist that's in favor of social justice than working with some of my fellow Christians who sit on their butts in the pew and don't do anything to try and change the world.
JOHNSo I don't know the rest of the conversation, but...
REHMJohn, I think you've raised a magnificent point. Ethelbert, do you want to comment?
MILLEROh, I'm just -- is he running for something?
REHMWe'll vote for him, right?
JOHNYou're breaking up. I can't...
MILLERWell, we're voting for you (laugh).
REHMWe're going to vote for you, John. Thanks for calling. Let's go to Wenatchee, Wash. Good morning, Marlena.
MARLENAHi. I just love your show, Diane. I listen to it almost every day.
MARLENAI just wanted to make the comment that you were speaking about -- earlier about people outside of Christianity and I'm one of them and I just wish that the people that you have there as guests today and other people in the country would realize how stifling the discrimination is from very conservative and fundamentalist-type Christians against anybody who doesn't believe as they do.
MARLENAAnd it's really -- if you're from a small town like I am, that's very conservative in the United States, it's -- the -- it's out and out discrimination and it's really -- it's really hurtful and...
REHMMarlena, tell me how you perceive that discrimination.
MARLENAWell, there are people that get targeted, they get ostracized socially, they can get hate mail, hate calls. I mean, it can get really severe. And, you know, I -- they say there's religious freedom in this country, but people have to realize in this Christian minority what is really going on and it makes it so that people like myself, we're not -- we don't experience religious freedom. We have to stifle.
MARLENAI can't stand up just anywhere and proudly assert my faith, talk about it. I can't, because if I do, I would really be jeopardizing myself. And it's just it's such a pervasive discrimination because it touches almost every area of your life.
REHMI'm so sorry. Ethelbert, you wanted to comment.
MILLERWell, you know, I think what we're talking about, whether you're atheist, whether you're Muslim, I mean, you know, we're a country in which, you know, all our faiths are supposed to protected. You know, we're not -- I remember it was when the elections when Pat Buchanan said, we're a Christian -- we're not a Christian nation, we're a nation, you know, that believes in various faiths and some people don't believe in God.
MILLERRight, and that needs to be protected in terms of by our Constitution.
REHMExactly. But I wonder, Marlena, what Jane Dixon might say to you.
DIXONWell, my heart aches for you, to begin with, because I'm one of the Christians and I don't have that stigma against me. I know that the Church, the Christian Church, does exactly what you say and it is one of the things that we do that it's not right. It's not right at all and I wonder if you live in a small town -- Marlena, I lived in a small town in Mississippi growing up and one of the things that was important to me, not so much about my religion, but about my view on the world that I needed to move away.
DIXONI needed to have more diversity within my life and I hope for you that you find some compatriots there where you are, people who can understand who you are and where your own value systems are to give you the support that you need. It must be difficult. And as I say, my heart aches for you.
REHMAnd that you can be authentic, Marlena, within yourself. Let's go to Groton, Mass. Good morning, Melanie.
MELANIEGood morning. This theme has been touched on already several times, but I think the thing that struck me about this book, and it's been about a year or two since I've read it, was just Jack's being raised in a family where there's -- the gift of faith was given to pretty much everyone but him and his struggle. And I think as an adult, what I was waiting for through this book was just the conversion where he would be given that gift of faith and he never was.
REHMWell, I'm not sure. I'm not sure he didn't have it deep within him.
PAGEIt's totally true that he seems uncomfortable in his skin...
PAGE...from the first time we meet him. When he's a young kid...
PAGE...he's engaging in petty thefts, he does things and gets punished for them. Whenever there's an active wrongdoing, I think people suspect that Jack might well be behind it. So he's someone who's -- who clearly is struggling from the start, but maybe in the struggle is the gift. You know, maybe if you never think about your faith, then you don't have as full a gift of faith as if you worry about it and wrestle with it the way Jack does, seemingly, through his whole life.
MILLERI think his faith is probably documented by the fact that he married Della. I mean, one would assume he took some vows there, you know. And keep in mind that Della's father was a minister. I mean, there had to be some conversion there and not like -- you know, because he didn't marry Annie Wheelie (sp?), you know, the young girl, but he -- if he reached this point where this is a certain salvation there, he had to go through a transition.
REHMSure, but Della's father and family would not accept him.
MILLERSure, but this -- is you know...
MILLER...I don't know whether that's faith, there's also race there.
REHMHere's a tweet. "There is one self-professed atheist in the Congress, Congressman Pete Stark of San Francisco." And our tweeter goes on to say, "He is a hero of mine." I can neither confirm or deny the truth of that, I'm simply reading the tweet.
PAGEYou know, it's -- that may be true, and if so, I stand corrected, but, you know, we just recently did a USA Today Gallup poll that asked people who they'd be willing to support for president and more than nine of 10 Americans would support an African-American and a woman. About three out of four would support a Mormon. We find, to our surprise, a big change, two out of three Americans would vote for a gay person. The only thing we ask about where a majority of Americans would be unwilling to vote for a candidate for president was an atheist.
REHMInteresting. You know, we've gotten so much into the religiosity underlying this novel, but it's family, it's family and the workings of family that are so important here, the delicate balance, the delicacy with which each person has to treat the other.
PAGEAnd the meaning of home and the pull of home, but also the fact that all the other children, the brothers and sisters, leave home and I love the way this book started. It starts with this, the very beginning. "'Home to stay, Glory.' 'Yes,' her father said and her heart sank."
REHMYep. Yep. All right. Let's go to Martinsburg, W.Va. Good morning, Amy.
AMYGood morning. I'm so glad to actually get a chance to talk to you.
AMYI've never called before and I'm actually calling because I agree, that family -- and I have not read the novel, I'd love to, but the family is important. I actually called because when they were talking about religion, another caller mentioned how religion -- religious freedom isn't there. My family's we call ourselves Humanists and free-thinkers and when my seven-year-old daughter in first grade expressed that, we our free-thinkers and Humanists and don't really do the God thing, as she says it, she was pounced on, basically.
AMYAnd not literally, but by Christian children who told her she was going to burn and all kinds of horrible things and it broke my heart that my baby, in America, cannot express her beliefs, coming from, you know, people who don't deny, that don't embrace it and it saddened me and I just wanted to make that comment and I'll take any reactions off the air. Thank you.
REHMI'm sorry your child experienced that. I mean, I didn't think that this discussion of this program would come to the kinds of experiences we're hearing from our listeners about feeling on the outside as far as religious experience is concerned.
MILLERWell, I think what we're hearing is what's going on in people's homes.
MILLERYou know, and keep in mind, look at what happens when Jack goes out in the community, you know, how he feels. You know, are people going to look at him as a thief or this or being different and I think what you're hearing from your listeners are people are concerned about how their children are going to be raised. You know, they'd have to buy into a certain mindset and belief.
REHMI remember Jenny Rehm sitting in church in the pews at our Episcopal church, Jane. Her father gave her a coloring book to keep herself occupied and, of course, I wanted her to sit and listen to the service. Of course, her father was right, what can I say. Let's go to Grand Rapids, Mich. and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Good morning, George, you're on the air.
GEORGEYeah, thank you. I had a -- I have a bit of a background in Calvinist theology, which of course is the predestination of all predestination theology and I think it's as quite simple. I mean, one thing that you have to realize is simply because God sort of calls the way you're going to live your life and what you're going to do, it doesn't mean that non-deity entities, such as humans, don't have free will or control over that.
GEORGEI mean, it's not a good example, but if you have -- if a professor trains a rat to run a maze, that rat is still making those choices, even though it has been somewhat predestined. That's not a very good example, but it's -- (laugh) it makes a point. The other point is, as far as Christian morality as opposed to government action, I think that's one of the most misunderstood issues about saying, well, you know, we have an obligation to take care of the poor and all of that.
GEORGEYes. We have a independent moral and obligation to do that, but no morality from a conservative Christian standpoint, or Calvinist standpoint or -- comes from force. So if I force -- Diane, if I force you to give somebody money who has less money than you, I haven't done anything moral, you haven't done anything moral. Just like when the government forces redistribution, nobody in that is doing a moral act from a Christian or from a conservative Christian point of view. Liberal Christians will disagree, but it doesn't make either one better or worse.
PAGEHere's a remarkable thing about this book. This is a book that totally readable, completely engaging and it is, in fact, struggling with the issues of Calvinism and it is -- what an achievement. We know that from other things Marilynne Robinson has written that this is an issue that really engages her. But to produce a piece of literature that makes that so real and alive and interesting is quite an achievement.
DIXONThere's no question about that. It really is -- as you say, it is quite remarkable to take that. I grew up, as I keep saying, but -- in this rural town in Mississippi and the Presbyterian church I grew up in was -- took the Bible literally and so the way I was taught predestination was the way I had said earlier. I respect the gentleman who was just on the phone. There was really no choice and the struggle, the struggle of my early life was, was I one of the elect or was I not?
DIXONAnd it was not until I went away to college and took a course in religion that I began to have other understandings, but I can understand how this book brings that out. And as Susan says, to talk about religion practically from page one to the end in such a way that is engaging to people, I think, is really quite extraordinary.
REHMAnd of course, the last words of the book, "The Lord is wonderful." Really quite and ending. Thank you all so much for being here.
REHMI love this book, strongly recommend it and I know you'll enjoy reading it. Now, for next month's "Readers' Review," a book I have not read, but Sarah Ashworth, one of our staff, has who loved it. I've never even heard of it. It's titled "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" -- "Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It's a celebration of the written word even during dark periods of our history, so I hope you'll join us in August for that one and we'll post it on our website. Thanks for listening, all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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