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Grace Abounding

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
Grace Abounding

By Drew Trotter

Some may triply wonder why I would use this space to review first, a novel rather than a non-fiction book, secondly, a novel by liberal Presbyterian Marilynne Robinson, and thirdly a novel published ten years ago.

First, I have noted novels before, and I will again, because I think it is important to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the well-told stories of our world. After all, God entered our story—no, more than that He created our story, then entered it in a fully human way—submitting to its hardships, its afflictions and its tragedy in order to re-order it and restore its beauty, its goodness and its truth. Gilead, for all its faults, is a well-told story, and perhaps we should read it for this reason alone.

The story of Gilead is told through a “letter”, really more of a journal, written by a 76-year-old pastor to his young son in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, when the old man feels he is close to death. John Ames relates his own past, that of his preacher grandfather and that of his father, also a preacher, but that history is set within rambling reminiscences of Ames’s work in the church, his sermons, his discussions with people of the town and a thousand other common, everyday experiences Ames has had. Much of the narrative centers around Ames’s wife, Lila, his friend, Boughton, and Boughton’s son, Jack. Lila is a much younger woman than Ames, and she is the love of his life. She drifted into town from a terribly hard, nomadic existence, wandered into church quite by “accident”, and found in Ames the stability and love she had always sought. Boughton is a Presbyterian minister in town (Ames is a Congregationalist), who is dying, too, and alongside whom Ames has grown up in Gilead. Jack is the favorite son, the trouble-maker, who has won his father’s heart and with whom Ames has a love-hate relationship that informs many of the most interesting parts of the book.

That’s it for the “story” of Gilead, but the way Robinson constructs Ames’s recollections, the insights she provides into this gentle, but weak, man, builds as the novel goes on until a novel that began as demanding and slow grows into a page-turner one cannot put down. Few characters in modern literature are as rich and as frustrating as John Ames, and that is one of the things that makes this account so attractive. Francis Schaeffer once said, “There are no little people”, but too many characters in contemporary fiction are so flat or undeveloped they are unrecognizable in real people. John Ames is anything but unrecognizable, though he is by any worldly measure a small and ordinary man.

Robinson’s second novel, published over twenty years later than her first, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, stands in the midst of the story of humanity, but not as that story is usually told today with no acknowledgement of, or even reference to the possibility of, God. Robinson is a mainline Presbyterian, who has written a book of essays (The Death of Adam) defending John Calvin and American Puritanism and who has in numerous articles and books proclaimed herself clearly as “speaking from the perspective of American liberal Protestantism” (“Onward Christian liberals”, Keep Media, March 22, 2006). She certainly intends to place God squarely at the center of Gilead.

Whether Robinson’s God corresponds to the God of Christianity is another question. Robinson’s romantic view of liberal theology is apparent in Ames on every page of the novel. He is kind, tolerant, gentle with everyone he meets, no matter what he thinks of them. He appreciates beauty in the simple things of life and in the dignity of every human; some of the best passages in the book are his descriptions of light—sifting through the windows of the church when he goes there in the early morning to sit and meditate, forming a blessing on his son’s head, in the setting of the sun after a particularly hard day. Robinson’s prose soars. It never misses, from the humorous accounts in the book, relating the story of a hole caused in the middle of the street in Gilead because of a tunnel gone bad, to the profoundly sad, telling of the longing Ames has for being a father, a status of which he will soon be deprived.

So far, so good. Christians need the sort of writing that confronts them with the hard, sad truth of a fallen world, and we need reminding of the beauty that is found even there and especially in the commonplace and the ordinary in the world. But Ames’s view of life is so despondent that it is hard to find the God, who wipes the tears from our eyes, in it. Ames simply has no joy. Even his thoughts about heaven—straightforward and real as heaven appears to be to Ames—nevertheless seem laced with doubt in his telling of them, so that this reader did not find in them a hope, so much as another reason to feel sad.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is a very rich and variegated novel, and my ambivalence toward it is strong. Gilead is a mountain that has so many beautiful views on the way to the top, so many small hollows to investigate, so many fresh streams at which to rest and cool one’s feet, the climb to the top is well worth it.

It’s just that the liberal theology Robinson seems to espouse doesn’t ultimately satisfy and leaves us simply exhausted at the top, rather than invigorated. Near the end of the book Ames writes about Gilead, “This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town.” Is this a hope that brings comfort or expectation? Or is it a hope that is a last desperate breath? As Ames concludes his memoir, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep” (p. 247).

Oh, yes, the third problem: why read a book that’s ten years old? Not only because sometimes the older books are the best ones, but also because Gilead is the first in a trilogy of books about the Iowa town that are populated by the same characters, and the third in that trilogy, Lila, has just been released. Home, the second volume, was published in 2006. You should read and discuss all three.


Read the Discussion Guide for Gilead here.

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