No easy answers in the miracle of life

Marilynne Robinson (Wikimedia Commons)

02122016p18pha.jpgTHE GIVENNESS OF THINGS: ESSAYS
By Marilynne Robinson
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $26

What is humankind? What is God? What's the relationship between the two? These are difficult questions, and as Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things sees it, there are no easy answers to them.

Author of four books of nonfiction and several novels, Robinson is a professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Besides having a lifelong interest in biblical texts, Robinson has a doctorate in Shakespeare studies from the University of Washington. She credits her graduate studies with teaching her to do research and to be skeptical.

Her knowledge of Shakespeare and Scripture are evident in this book of 17 essays as she frequently alludes to both.

She believes that Shakespeare's plays are essentially about grace and forgiveness. His characters "question the reality of the whole world of experience, but not of their own souls."

Robinson says that Shakespeare confirms her sense that "everything is much more than itself," and that earth is "the haunt of real souls, sacred as they will ever be, though now we hardly know what this means."

If there is any one driving force behind the essays in The Givenness of Things, it's skepticism. Robinson is skeptical about much that people say is a given -- hence the book's title, which, as she suggests, is ironic.

She disputes some church teachings, like those concerning the virgin birth, which she believes miss the point. She questions that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and finds this inconsistent with God's love for humankind.

She doesn't believe that Christ died as a punishment for humankind's sins. She thinks he died as proof of God's love for people.

Robinson calls John Calvin her particular saint and agrees with his belief that we are created by God whose life dwells within us. Divine Being is the source of our sacredness, and "in descending into ourselves we find God," she says. Calvin believed that our brilliance, inventiveness, imagination and need to understand "are unmistakable proofs of the existence of the soul," she says.

Her major frustration is with neuroscientists and Neo-Darwinists who teach that the mind (if there is one) is the brain and is, therefore, no more than a piece of meat that can be studied in the lab.

"Human beings are sacred things whom it is indeed blasphemy to wrong," she argues. "Only think what we are, then why God might have a fondness for us." People have seen startlingly beautiful images from the Hubble. They know that there is a real possibility that life exists on other planets -- that there are other (perhaps alternate) universes, and they never acknowledge the implication.

Robinson hammers churches, which, she insists, are poor at imparting Christ's message because they prefer elite theologies to sacred Scripture and seldom practice what Christ preached.

Robinson doesn't discuss the specifics of same-sex marriage and allowing the divorced to receive the Eucharist. But she implies that those issues should be resolved in light of Scripture and its teachings concerning God's mercy and love toward humankind.

Christians, as Robinson sees it, don't really live according to the Gospels. They make Christianity a system of prohibitions rather than a source of grace.

Plus, she says, American Christians tend to be too fearful. Some become embroiled in right-wing teachings espousing militarism and Second Amendment rights, which, Robinson says, are anti-Christian and based on a misreading of the Bill of Rights.

She's Protestant and doesn't say anything specific about Pope Francis' policies, but one has the feeling that she would approve of his papacy.

She discusses themes like grace, forgiveness, belief, ethics, morality and the humanities, which she touches on in her prize-winning novels and covers in essay collections like When I Was a Child, I Read Books and Absence of Mind. She bases her thinking partly on her close reading of the Bible, as well as the works of Jonathan Edwards, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William James and Calvin.

Ultimately, Robinson tries to find words for metaphysical states of being and for intuitions that she has concerning the Divine. She discusses concepts that are difficult to think about -- let alone put into words.

Robinson doesn't write down to her readers. Her language is sometimes dense. Some sentences may need to be reread. A few sentences seem hurried.

But that's a quibble in a game-changing book that will make readers question their assumptions about reality.

02122016p18phc.jpgGIRL IN GLASS: HOW MY "DISTRESSED BABY" DEFIED THE ODDS, SHAMED A CEO, AND TAUGHT ME THE ESSENCE OF LOVE, HEARTBREAK, AND MIRACLES
By Deanna Fei
Published by Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $26

Born on Oct. 9, 2012, at 25 weeks gestation, Deanna Fei's baby weighed 705 grams, or 1 pound, 9 ounces. She could not cry, nurse or even breathe. Her head was too large and her ears barely formed. One doctor described the baby's birth as catastrophic; another said she looked gelatinous.

Then someone else said she was a miracle baby -- a term that Fei, who comes from a nonreligious family, disdained at first, but later came to embrace.

Girl in Glass offers the dramatic details of Mila's birth story in its first three sections. In a final section, it recounts the firestorm that occurred when in 2014 AOL announced a cutback in retirement benefits because, its CEO said, the company had to pay $1 million for two distressed babies -- with Mila being one of them.

Fei's husband (who was employed by Huffington Post, which had merged with AOL) was affected by the loss of benefits but was also deeply troubled by the invasion of privacy.

The revelation so disturbed Deanna Fei that she decided to write this book as a way to show the world that her daughter was more than merely a distressed baby.

The final section also argues for stricter privacy laws. Although Fei, the author of a well-received first novel, tries to combine both stories, and manages to do so fairly well, the transition isn't seamless. Babies trump money and privacy issues every time.

Putting Mila's situation in context, as Fei does throughout the story, 11.54 percent of infants were born preterm in 2012. And 1.93 percent were "very preterm" (less than 32 weeks' gestation). Mila, then, was not just born premature; she was born pre-premature. And her chances of survival were 50 percent -- anything but promising.

Mila, Fei writes, looked like a decrepit old woman, with shriveled skin sagging over her tiny bones. The widest part of her arm was about the size of Fei's pinkie finger. Her legs looked like frog legs; her skin was somewhat reptilian. She was covered with abrasions and so much tubing that Fei could barely see her through the glass-walled Isolette in which she lay with her arms "flopped out, palms up in the manner of a victim surrendering."

Fei admits she wanted to let the baby go. She didn't want her to suffer and to face possible complications like cerebral palsy, mental retardation, blindness and early death.

Yet, despite the odds, Mila was fighting for her life. As the neonatal intensive care doctors explained, medicine could only do so much. It's up to the baby to "declare." By "declare," they meant exhibit a will to live as in engaging in a life-or-death battle.

Fei finds it astonishing -- perhaps miraculous -- that a premature baby could have such a strong will to live. The medical term, "extremely premature," didn't begin to express it for Fei, whose descriptions, if nothing else, argue eloquently against corporate greed and the bottom line of profit and loss.

[Diane Scharper is the author of several books including Radiant, Prayer Poems. She teaches English at Towson University.]

This story appeared in the Feb 12-25, 2016 print issue under the headline: No easy answers in the miracle of life .

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