So my advice is this - don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. "Let your works so shine before men," etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion at any particular moment.
Hardcover: Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on November 19, 2004, 256 pages (ISBN: 0374153892)
Softcover: Published by Picador on January 10, 2006, 256 pages (ISBN: 031242440X)
2005 Pulitzer Prize winner - Fiction
When I read that passage, which occurs on page 179 of the hardback edition, I sat on my bed for a long time, staring at the page before me, before I turned off the light and laid myself down to sleep. In that one paragraph, Marilynne Robinson has summed up the inherent difficulties in being a thinking Christian today: we feel this inherent burden of proof that often pulls us away from our faith, and this burden seems to others to be a sign of foolishness.
Days went by before I touched the book again, except to re-read that paragraph, which comes up as the novel is transitioning into its final act. It spoke to such a fundamental truth inside of me, and spoke so elegantly to that truth, that it almost hurt to read it. It was one of those rare moments that sticks in your experience forever; a moment when letters on a piece of paper can reach out and grab hold of your mortal soul, changing you forever in the process.
The novels that have stood out in my heart and mind are the ones that made me think, the ones that addressed some fundamental aspect of the human experience, even if surrounded by situations and issues that I didn't clearly or fully understand. There are too many of them to enumerate here, but they stand out in my mind among the literary works I've read much as stars in the sky, speaking to me across some great chasm of distance and time and circumstance that separates me from the author.
I am a huge fan of modern literature, and you'll find me at the local bookstore on a regular basis digging through the newest releases. Some are good, some are bad, and a very small number have that power to reach out and grab ahold of you, and it is that inherent power that will make a novel last many lifetimes. I think Marilynne Robinson has done it here, and this will be one that I believe my great grandchildren will read.
* * * * *
This is a novel about humanity and Christianity, but it would do this novel a terrible injustice to merely call it a Christian novel. It's as much a Christian novel as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a Zen buddhist novel, meaning merely that the novel speaks to the greater human condition through the religion rather than speaking to the religion via elements of the human condition. Rather than Christianity being the picture here, it is merely one of the many brushes used to construct a much more complex picture.
Gilead takes the form of a journal authored by John Ames, an old preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames has lived in the small town of Gilead his entire life. He has a wife a few decades younger than himself and a son of age seven, and this journal is written with the intention that his son will read it someday. John Ames is dying, and this journal is meant to tell the boy all of the things that Ames wishes he had the time on this earth to tell his son.
In that framework, Ames uses the journal to meditate on his life, both its past and its present. So often throughout Gilead, Ames uses his Christianity as a way of trying to tackle and understand the things going around him, and he seems to fail as often as he succeeds with it. It is this honesty about it, that Christianity can fail someone whose entire life has revolved around the faith, that gives the faith itself much more gravity. Ames does not believe that his faith gives him any great insight, but it is a fundamental part of who he is. He has shaped Christianity inside himself, but the faith has also shaped him.
In terms of plot progression, the book seems almost split into three acts that flow into each other deceptively well.
The first act is mostly that of reminiscence, in which Ames tells the story of his father and of his grandfather, both preachers before him. His grandfather is mostly described as a leathery, almost frightening old man, but it is in the retelling of stories that this old man is painted as a person who literally fought for abolition of slavery in Kansas in the 1850s. Ames' father, being a pacifist, has a very hard time coming to grips with this legacy, and that led to a great deal of tension between Ames' father and his grandfather. To a degree, the two almost come off as two sides to a colossal fight that envelops the soul of any thinking Christian: is it acceptable to sin, to do what in your heart is wrong, for the greater good of humanity? The father and the grandfather here are on opposite sides of the issue, and although they are scarcely mentioned throughout the book, you can see the pull of both the father and the grandfather on John Ames as things progress.
While the first act sets up the background and character of the central figure, the second act puts into place many of the peripheral figures in his life. Central in this is his old friend Boughton, a fellow preacher, and Boughton's son Jack. There is a deep estrangement between the two; Jack is the proverbial "prodigal son" and seems to continually fail in the eyes of many, yet his father and the rest of his family at the same time continue to support and stand by and often stand up for Jack. The main conflict begins to emerge when Jack returns home, which occurs around the midway point of the novel, and there is a deep tension between Jack and Ames.
The third act really ties the first two acts together, ending in a few extremely powerful scenes that finish off things, yet at the same time leave them also unfinished, in a strange and yet beautiful way that we all somehow understand as human beings. No ending is complete or perfect, the story continues.
* * * * *
The novel's plot progresses slowly, without much question. Pages will go by without any plot progression, and entire sections are taken up not with twists and turns, but with introspection and careful consideration.
That does not mean that in any way the book is boring. Marilynne Robinson has an immense gift and that is to give a powerful voice to a fictional character. She breathes such immense life into John Ames that in those moments when the old man is waxing philosophical or theological, you find yourself almost transported to a whitewashed front porch in the middle of Iowa, listening to a wise old man speak in the way that only an old man filled with the wisdom and voice of many long years and the gift to put it forth into words can speak.
Simply, John Ames reminds me in many ways of my grandfather, with an extra dose of eloquence. Some old men sit there quietly and never make a sound; others rage and rave and spout such nonsense that you are driven to turn your head. Ames, like my grandfather, was neither. He was unafraid to speak his mind, yet he chose the words he used carefully. A thought rarely escaped his head that did not have the weight of years of introspection behind it, yet he could somehow hold you transfixed by all of it without feeling as though he were speaking down to you. In fact, you often felt that he was speaking up to you, offering forth what he felt was the little thoughts inside his head, not knowing that they were grand, powerful things.
Some are intelligent and some are wise, but those that are both are the ones to be listened to.
* * * * *
At one point in the novel, Jack Boughton asks Ames a subtly profound question: Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere? This question comes in the middle of a discussion between himself and old Ames, and in some ways it seems like a slight to the old preacher, almost accusing him of being empty of thought.
The question, though, addresses something much wider, and it is a fundamental one: why do Americans often seem not to think about their faith? One is often given the sense that much of the theology from the United States is generated by those without faith. From personal experience, I can state that some of the best speakers on religious issues that I have seen today are atheists.
I often think back to the World War II speeches of FDR, in which he would lead the nation in a Christian prayer, and none thought him a weak man for it, yet in the ensuing years, that changed. Today, it is tantamount to political suicide to offer up such a prayer.
This question asks so much. Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere? So often, those who stand in defense of the Christian faith are those who have not thought deeply about it, and about what they are presenting. It is hard to accept someone's faith if they are fundamentally wrong on issues outside of that faith.
I guess I am nostalgic for the America of John Ames and of FDR, in which the faith of a man was always a credit to his character rather than a point of contention.
* * * * *
Gilead speaks to some fundamental truth beyond our everyday life and everyday beliefs. Every page, word, and letter is full of a deep beauty, one that transcends your faith (or lack thereof) and speaks to your humanity.
This is a novel that I want to lend to both my atheist friends and to my friends of the cloth.
It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a lifetime. And then it sinks back into itself again and no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light.