Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Obama's interview of 'Gilead' author provided forum for discussion on faith

Associated Press

It's a bit of a man-bites-dog story.

Presidents tend to be the subjects of media interviews, not the interviewers.

But recently, President Obama decided to turn the microphone around, to, in his words, "have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I'm interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in."

His first choice: talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of the contemporary classic Gilead, among other acclaimed books.

In September, Obama traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to interview her.

Part one of their conversation appears in the Nov. 5 issue of The New York Review of Books and is posted on the Review's website. An audio recording is available at

When you imagine all the potential interviewees at a president's disposal, Robinson is an intriguing choice.

She's a rarity: a novelist who writes serious, literary fiction exploring Christian theological themes yet has been widely and even wildly embraced by the irreligious publishing intelligentsia.

For his part, Obama explained that he first picked up a copy of Gilead years ago while campaigning in Iowa; Gilead is set in that state.

He called the novel's Pastor John Ames "one of my favorite characters in fiction ... gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through."

There's something else about Robinson's fiction that I'd add: Hers is a cosmos permeated with hope. Her God is loving, and her people are worth that love. That's a difference between Robinson and some other accomplished fiction writers who were Christians, notably the late Flannery O'Connor.

Robinson seems ultimately a divine optimist, whereas O'Connor was more of a pessimist.

In a New York Times Magazine profile last year, Robinson described O'Connor's vision this way: "Her prose is beautiful; her imagination appalls me. ... There's a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart."

Speaking with the president, Robinson said her reading of Christianity shapes her understanding of democracy as well as of literature. For instance, a democratic state must include and respect all types of people.

"I believe that people are images of God," she said. "There's no alternative that is theologically respectable ... What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it (applies) to everyone. It's ... being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it."

Why is it, then, Obama asked, that the people most adamant about their Christian faith sometimes tend to be the most suspicious of anyone who's not just like them?

"Well, I don't know how seriously they do take their Christianity," Robinson said, "because if you take something seriously, you're ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they're not taking their Christianity seriously."

Christianity is intentionally counterintuitive, Robinson said. Consider its commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself.

"Which I think, properly understood, means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you're actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you're supposed to run against the grain. It's supposed to be difficult."

Robinson and Obama also discussed the disconnect between the warm compassion that people in small towns exhibit daily in Little League games and emergency rooms — the kinds of people Robinson writes about — and their widespread despair toward our larger shared life.

That is, people champion their kids' ball teams and their local hospitals and their towns' public schools, yet seem convinced that our common bond, our health care and our education system are doomed.

Our education system, for example, is "really a triumph of the civilization," Robinson said. "I don't think there's anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say."

There's more to this unusual conversation. I suggest you read it in full. Apparently there's also a second part yet to be published.

What I enjoyed most about the New York Review piece, though, was seeing a thoughtful, measured, accomplished Christian thinker offered a public forum in which to discuss her faith. There was no pulpit-banging on her part or jeering by her interviewer.

To think that interviewer happened to be president of the United States made the experience all the more gratifying.

Thanks, Obama.