Tag Archives: Gilead


gliead.jpgA few days ago, I promised a review of Gilead. I realize now that this is not a review. Let me get this out of the way — Gilead is a fabulous book. In so many ways, it’s a fabulous book. Marilynne Robinson is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living American novelists.

The main character and narrator of the story is John Ames, a semi-retired, aging pastor in Gilead, a small town in Iowa. The story takes the form of a series of letters or journal entries that an aging father writes to his young son as a kind of recorded guidance for the son when the father is gone. The father has married a much younger woman late in life. John Ames believes that he will not live much longer and desperately hopes to provide materially for his wife and young son, and also to provide guidance for his son’s journey from childhood into adulthood.

In the course of these letters, he reflects far and wide — on the life of a pastor, on life in a small town, on the fragility of life, often coming back to his desperate wish that he could provide better for his wife and child and his concern about how they will get along after he dies. Much of the early part of the story recounts his own roots; both his father and his grandfather were a preacher. His grandfather had been a violent activist in cahoots with John Brown, and who embraced the use of guns and violence in the Lord’s name. By contrast, his father was an ardent pacifist who condemned his own father’s involvement in the Civil War violence in Missouri and Kansas. Late in the novel, the son of Ames’s best friend — a fellow minister in town — for whom he has become namesake returns home. He is a troubled young man who has nearly always been in trouble. The depth of his brokenness is revealed gradually and comes to a climax at a point where there will be judgment or grace.

The story resonates so deeply with me in part because of my own family history. My grandfather was a pastor, first in the wilds of northern Saskatchewan and then in the plains of Kansas. He had four sons, all of whom, as I understand felt some pressure to go into church work. The youngest son did for a time, and then left the pastoral ministry for a long and productive life work as a therapist. My own father went to junior college, then the army, then a brief stint delivering mail, and eventually returning to college to complete a degree to become a teacher in Lutheran schools. I have no strong evidence, but Dad always talked about the glory days when he was delivering mail. I don’t think he was ever very happy as a teacher, and he certainly had a roller coaster experience as a church worker.

I went away to college. To become a musician. An environmental engineer. Anything but churchwork. And in an explicable sense of calling (or was it guilt?), I completely changed direction and decided to pursue training to become a pastor.

I’m at that age when the years are catching up. I’ve now been a pastor longer than I was not a pastor. In a sense, I went into the family business. And now I also have a son who went into the family business. I felt some mild pressure toward a church vocation, but I don’t think that was what led me. I don’t think our son felt that pressure; if anything, we tried to talk him out of it, knowing that it’s a vocation with a high reward, but also can exact a high human cost. Reading this story always pushes me not only to reflect on my own family history and how it has shaped me, but more to the point, how I can continue to be a good father to my own sons. My relationship with them is not over now that they have left home, and I still have both the opportunity and calling to continue to shape them for good or not.
Gilead is a lot of things. It is simply a good story, beautifully written and artfully told.  It is a story about friendship; it is a story about the simple joy of love and family and about how that love is complicated and incomplete; it is a story about judgment and grace and how difficult the grace part can be.  And it is a story about generations and the way we want to or don’t want to be like our parents and how we inevitably are shaped by them regardless of our intentions.

The Testimony of Marilynne Robinson

MRobinson.jpgWhen I first read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead shortly after it came out in 2004, I remember being deeply moved. I read it once and then I turned right around and read it again, something I rarely do. So touched was I at the exquisite portrayal of the aging father writing to his young son, not to mention how the narrator talks about his relationship with his own father and grandfather, that I bought a copy of the novel for each of my sons for Christmas and included in the gift a letter trying to express my hopes, dreams, and love for them.

Good literature and good writers do that for us. They are not just stories that we live into for a short time, but they touch us in the places we live, how we relate to the people around us, how we face the complexities, the joys, and the struggles of our own lives.

Over the past few months, I’ve reread Gilead (for the fourth time, I think) and then went on to read her next two novels, Home, and Lila. They’re not sequels exactly, but the same characters populate all three stories in roughly the same time in the same place.

Robinson’s creates characters of such depth and nuance that we can identify with them as if they were real, regardless of the fact that the reader has almost nothing in common with the characters’ context. For  instance, in Lila, the title character is a woman whose grew up in the most difficult of circumstances; her life was bare existence. Yet in the midst of the abuse and violence and scarcity, she knew the deep love of the woman who cared for her. At the depth of her humanness, we relate; we know her loneliness; we know her drive for acceptance; we know her doubts about easy answers.  With what seems like perfect timing, the author gradually reveals the characters as the story progresses; the more we read, the more we learn about them and the more we want to care about them.

Robinson has such command of the language, masterfully putting words together to form descriptive and evocative sentences. Her writing is beautiful and elegant, yet with a simple economy of language. For instance here’s a passage where the narrator of Gilead reflects on an afternoon when his wife and son brought him a bouquet of honeysuckles.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light — pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. 

In her stories, Robinson deals with the bones of life, the things that lie deeply embedded, what makes life the wonderful and sometimes terrible thing that it is: judgment and grace and forgiveness or the struggle to forgive; the constant recognition of the shortness of life, the passing of the generations and the complications of progeny. Neither does she shy away from the harshness and meanness with which the human sometimes treat the other.

I recently learned that as an adult Robinson has passionately pursued a study of theology. No surprise to me. While it’s clear from her popular success that one doesn’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate her writing and her stories, I consistently find that her writing informs, deepens, and challenges my own life of faith. She puts the flesh of character and story on some of the most gnarly theological problems. Lila, who by virtue of her marriage to John Ames has become connected to the church — “saved” in the language of the church members —  struggles to understand the eternal destiny of the woman who brought her up, cared for her, and loved her deeply. Theological questions are always human questions.

Back in October, an excellent biographical article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/magazine/the-revelations-of-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

Come back on Thursday to read my review of Gilead, and next week, reviews of Home and Lila. I look forward to hearing what you think and joining the conversation.