In Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, 76 year old John Ames knows that he is dying and wants to leave behind for his seven year old son the things that he would have told him along the way as he grew up.
Part of his writing conveys family history. John’s grandfather was a fiery one-eyed Elijah of a Congregationalist preacher, active in the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and in raids, encouraging his congregation to go and do likewise. John’s father was also a preacher, but was a pacifist with a very different personality. Thus, though they cared for each other, there was inevitable conflict between his father and grandfather, some of it mild and some drastic. One thing he said of his grandfather, and his tendency to believe his way in anything was the only way, was, “He may, so to speak, have been too dazzled by the great light of his experience to realize that an impressiveness sun shines on us all” (p. 91). Later he says of them, “They loved each other’s company when they weren’t at each other’s throats, which meant when they were silent (p. 192). And in another place, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
Part of his writing tells of his own history, the loss of his first wife and daughter, years of personal loneliness while preaching and ministering, then the unexpected treasure of a second marriage to a much younger woman, and then the birth of his son.
Part of it details his theological musings and conundrums.
When you encounter another person…it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it…I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own great failure to live up to it recently…(p. 124)
(Re a secular article about religion) It says 95% of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do (p. 142, emphasis mine). It seems to me that the spirit of religious self-righteousness this article deplores is precisely the spirit in which is is written. Of course he is right about many things, one of them being the destructive potency of religious self-righteousness (p. 146).
I am thinking about that passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself. So it is a rejection of the reality of grace to hold our enemy at fault…People tend to forget that we are to love our enemies…because God their Father loves them (p. 189).
Part of it relates the miseries of aging.
You probably don’t remember much about old Boughton. He is a little cross now from time to time, which is understandable considering his discomfort. It would be a pity if that is what you remembered of him (p. 18).
To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear (p. 49).
(When someone jumped in to help him) I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to myself by acting helpless. But he meant well (p. 218).
I feel as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me.
Part of it captures the magic of everyday moments, and I think this is where Robinson’s writing shines brightest.
It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap (p. 51).
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence…(p. 57).
His lovely wife tends her zinnias in the mild morning light and his find young man comes fondly mishandling that perpetually lost sheep of a cat, Soapy, once more back from perdition for the time being, to what would have been general rejoicing” (p. 93, one of my favorite sentences).
Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.
Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.
I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.
Part of it goes into great detail about his best friend, a fellow preacher who is known by his last name, Boughton, and his prodigal son and John’s namesake and godson, Jack. Boughton is also dying, and is delighted that Jack is back, but there is a shadow over his visit. John alludes to a major wrong Jack had done, and tells us about it later on as well as the more minor indiscretions of his youth that went beyond mischievousness into pure meanness. John finds it hard to forgive Jack and suspects that the time he’s spending at his home interacting with his wife and son means that Jack is setting himself up to take John’s place in their lives after he dies. Much of John’s theological wrestling is over his attitude toward Jack, not only as a fellow man, but also as a Christian, a pastor, and the friend of his father. After one such session with various thoughts relating to Jack, he writes, “This is not doing me any good at all. I’d better pray” (p. 185). I have said similar things to myself.
Part of it conveys his thoughts about his coming death.
Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye (p. 55).
Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes (p. 104).
I have decided the two choices open to me are (1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord. There is no earthly solution to the problems that confront me. But I can add to my problems, as I believe I have done, by dwelling on them. So, no more of that (p. 126).
I admit I had a hard time getting into this book at first. I think part of that is that I had heard it praised so highly that my expectations were so raised that nothing could have met them. It’s written in the form of letters to his son, though it’s not letters so much as a diary, where he jotted down thoughts here and there as they came to him. Neither epistolary nor stream-of-consciousness narratives are my favorite. And it seemed to set off extremely slowly. Somewhere I read that it “forces us to slow down to the pace of a 76 year old man.” But one of my motivations in persevering with it was that I didn’t want to be the only person in the country not to “get” it. 🙂 And I am glad I continued on. Though it will never be my favorite book, there is a richness and a depth that makes it much worth it.
One of the themes is fathers and sons – John’s grandfather and his son; John’s father and himself; John and his son, Boughton and his son, the prodigal son and his father, and God the Father and his children. Race relations are a prominent factor throughout the book. The contemplation of ordinary moments, of coming to terms with our mortality, of what it means to live as a Christian, especially when it’s not easy, are all intertwining themes as well.
There were numerous places I disagreed with parts of Ames’ theology (e.g., water being “the vehicle of the Holy Spirit” in baptism [p. 24], infant baptism, the taking as figurative some Scriptures that many would take as literal, and various other places), or his logic, such as his thought that the people’s lack of taking meaning from the plague was why they’d had continuous war since (p. 43). But, while not setting aside those issues, I can still see and appreciate much of truth conveyed in these pages.
I’ve marveled that a book that is so clearly religious has been so widely loved. This review in the New York Times is a nicely done example. I think perhaps a large part of it is Ames’ personality – humble, struggling, yet sure of truth but not in a belligerent way.
I’ll close with this quote from John to his son, something I think most parents could echo:
I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)