The news of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel could hardly have come at a better time for me because I learned about it just as I was beginning my third reading of Gilead, her wonderful second novel, and the first of her novels that I read. I’ve already written about Gilead, so instead of duplicating that work, I’m going to repost my review from almost five years ago and then share a few reflections from this most recent rereading.
From August 2008
I read Gilead for the first time right when it was still fairly new and decided to listen to the audiobook to refresh my memory because I want to read Marilynne Robinson’s new companion novel, Home. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Gilead is an old minister’s letter to his 7-year-old son. The minister, John Ames, is dying, and in his letter he shares his family history, his thoughts on God and theology, and his reflections about the people of his family and community. There’s no action to speak of; this is a story about people—who they are and how they think and feel.
Gilead is one of those books that I love almost too much to know what to say about it. The writing feels authentic, and Ames’s reflections are both moving and thought-provoking. I don’t think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m working (very, very slowly) on a master’s degree in theology, and this book makes a better case than I ever could for how our theology and philosophy influence the way we think about and relate to one another—and how our relationships and our circumstances shape our theology.
I’m not much of a fan of novels that are labeled Christian fiction (and despite its subject matter, Gilead is not marketed as Christian fiction). Most books I’ve read that are marketed as Christian books are too interested in promoting a particular reading of scripture or a particular understanding of God. That is absolutely not the case with Gilead. Ames himself is a Calvinist, but he seems to acknowledge the difficulties within the Calvinist position and has taken the time to thoughtfully consider other points of view, including those of atheists like Feuerbach. This is a book that recognizes that God is a mystery, and any attempts we make to tie God down to our definitions will be lacking. In discussing predestination, Ames says, “I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” Amen and amen.
Some of you may be wondering whether non-Christians would get as much out of this book as I did. I’m afraid I can’t really speak to that, since my reaction is so deeply wound up in my faith. However, this book did win the Pulitzer Prize, so there must be some universal appeal there.
My affection for this book is just as strong as ever, if not stronger. On this reread, I was particularly struck by how Robinson draws on so many different aspects of the human experience. She pulls back and looks at U.S. history and the way it touches this man and his family. And she moves in close to depict small moments like watching a young mother teach her baby what a leaf is. Ames’s reflections are generally serious, but the book doesn’t lack humor. The story of the abolitionist town that got too zealous in building escape tunnels is hilarious, and Ames himself often recognizes his own foibles and laughs at them. And as he does so, he unfolds the secrets within him and acknowledges his own inability to understand others:
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
Ames may be right that we are all mysteries to each other, but by telling his story, he’s creating a path. And when he hears another’s story, another path is built. That tension between understanding and incomprehension runs throughout the book. Every being, including God, may be a mystery that can’t be solved, but the search for understanding still has value.
As Ames seeks to understand himself and those around us, he explores the whole range of human emotion. And I think that range makes this book accessible to anyone who can appreciate fine, careful, contemplative writing. This isn’t a book filled with action, but the movements of the heart are active enough.