Balm in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Gilead takes us into the consciousness of a humble provincial minister preparing to die. It seems at first a peaceful, slow-moving book, but it contains a terrible wisdom.

The Reverend John Ames’s thoughts are precise yet spacious. Regarding the practice of watching baseball on TV, he notes that it “seems quite two-dimensional beside radio.” Of religious rhetoric – “the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next.” A thought that might serve as his epitaph — “It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.”

A big part of what makes the Reverend John Ames sympathetic is his integrity — this thought struck me as surprising at first, but now I wonder if this isn’t actually a crucial quality in all characters we find sympathetic…

Once I got sucked in, Gilead turned out to have plenty of plot. Robinson traces the history of three generations of Midwestern preachers from the buildup to the Civil War, through the First World War and the Great Depression, all the way up to 1950s anti-miscegenation laws. Ames’s grandfather was a fiery abolitionist, a vision-prone militant Christian soldier of the stamp of John Brown. Ames’s father became a pacifist and finally abandoned his preacher’s vocation. Ames in the 1950s is still preaching in Gilead, Iowa, but doubts his young son will want to stay or take up the family trade. Gilead takes the form of a one-sided epistolary novel, the whole book being presented as a journal Ames intends his son to read when he grows up. Marilynne Robinson told Powells.com, “I’ve never loved epistolary novels; I was surprised to find myself writing one.”

In her “Paris Review” interview, she explained why she thinks of religion as a framing mechanism, and why she gets nervous giving sermons — “You’re talking within a congregation. They know the genre. There are many things that the sermon has to resonate with besides the specific text that is the subject of the sermon. In my tradition, there’s a certain posture of graciousness you have to answer to no matter what the main subject matter of the sermon is.” Gilead is likewise resonant and gracious, and apparently one of Barack Obama’s favorite books.

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