Though the key Christian intellectuals of the day and their fellow travelers — Mannheim and Adler, Eliot and Oldham, W. H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dorothy Sayers, and many others — did not oppose their social order, they were far more critical than their predecessors had been during World War I. The Christian intellectuals of World War II found their society shaking at its foundations. They were deeply concerned that even if the Allies won, it would be because of technological and economic, not moral and spiritual, superiority; and if technocrats were deemed responsible for winning the war, then those technocrats would control the postwar world. (It is hard to deny that those Christian intellectuals were, on this point at least, truly prophetic.)
Contrast this with the high moral purpose we imbue WWII with today.
When we read the great Christian intellectuals of even the recent past we notice how rarely they distance themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both. They seem to have accepted affiliation with such unpleasant people as a price one had to pay for Christian belonging.
If we cannot imagine [Marilynne] Robinson being invited to preach at a big-box Bible church somewhere in suburbia, that may say less about her than about the anti-intellectual and artistically indifferent culture of much of today’s evangelicalism; but then, those developments may have been exacerbated by Christian intellectuals’ neglect of their responsibilities to the life of their churches. At some point in the past sixty years or so a perverse and destructive feedback loop engaged, and I cannot see how to disengage it.
Still, it is noteworthy how consistently inward and solitary the faith of the characters in Robinson’s novels is, including that of her most compelling creation, the elderly pastor John Ames in Gilead. The community of church is not a strong element in these people’s lives; they tend not to speak for anyone or anything more than themselves, and the conversations that they have about faith are mostly internal. I can’t help wishing that someone, someone of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts, would tell readers of The New York Review of Books that such church communities need not be scorned or feared, and then tell those church communities the same about the readers of The New York Review of Books. That would require a patience, a kindness, a courage that it seems scarcely possible to ask for in our current climate.