Book of the Month: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

When I first started reading Gilead, I honestly didn’t think it would be the book of the month or that I would even talk about it (for various reasons, some discussed below), but gradually, page after page, it moved me beyond words. And here we are. The book of this month is an old book titled, Gilead, and written by Marilynne Robinson.

Gilead documents the memories and legacy of Reverend John Ames (who narrates the entire book) as he comes to term with the end of his life in the form of a letter to his young son. Throughout the course of the letter (and by extension, the book), he writes about his father and his father’s father (both of whom were also preachers) and the tension that constantly simmered between them. While his father was a pacifist, his grandfather was a man who lost his eye in battle and whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, are possibly artifacts from the fight between the abolitionists and settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. In addition to parsing out that dynamic, John Ames also writes about the son of his best friend and namesake, Jack Ames Boughton, and the complicated relationship Jack seems to have with everyone.

This book worn a Pulitzer among other amazing awards, but that’s not why you should read it. You should read it because it causes you to think. It is quiet, gradual, and extremely contemplative. But most of all, it is moving. As a philosophical novel, the thoughtfulness is subtle, and it doesn’t try hard to be complex. If it is complex, it is because human nature is complex. I have a few favorite fictional characters and John Ames is somewhere at the top. 

I think about how hard it is to separate John Ames from the soul of the novel, which makes sense since the entire novel is John Ames writing about his life, his faith, grace, and everything in between. So let me tell you what I love about John Ames. I love his humility. We don’t live in a world that celebrates humility and if you don’t scream loudly enough in this world, no one would listen to you. But somehow, it’s what I first look for everywhere. His humility is what allows him to be so honest; particularly as he struggles with reconciling his faith with all the ordeal people around him are enduring. Most Christians can certainly identify with this so it’s not just that he (and by extension, the author) does it, it’s HOW he does it. With a book written completely in first person, it can be hard to discern the protagonist’s character since we never get any other person’s point of view. It’s why what Ames talks about matters even more. He once described something he learned from his father, who in turn learned from his own father: when you encounter another person or have dealings with anyone, it is as if a question is being put to you, “what is God asking of you in this moment, in this situation?” So live as you are an actor on a stage and God is your audience. Now, this is hard to do, of course, as Ames himself acknowledges. Yet, in so many ways, we see Ames do exactly that.

Beyond the strength of John Ames’ character, it’s his ability to understand human beings that shines through the book. At some point, John Ames writes about another preacher who condemned Christians as just not being Christian enough,

“…But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards. 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 he clearly makes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.” – John Ames

I know the beginning of this book may seem tedious but I promise you it’s worth sticking with it because this is a FANTASTIC book. It gets even better the further along you go as John Ames reveals so much about his family, his friends, and his town (fictional Gilead, Iowa) and its people. Have I mentioned that there are depths this book reaches that are nothing short of just genius. One of the important tenets John Ames addresses is the issue of defending God as so many people have taken to in recent years. There is so much futility in it. When people ask for “proofs” or ask you questions to deliberately provoke you, and it becomes tempting to launch into a litany of all these wonderful reasons for God and for religion, John Ames reminds us that there is no length you can go (especially from a posture of defense) in such a conversation that wouldn’t just further confirm their skepticism. So don’t bother with them at all.

I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.” – John Ames

Of all the lessons in this book, the biggest one for me—as well as what drew me into the book—came from a line in the book: it seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. No matter what decade these words are uttered, they are true. They also remind me of the premise of cynicism and pessimism. Not necessarily cowardice per se, but simply looking to have your faith unsettled. And you will most likely find what you’re looking for.

Beyond faith and grace and the confounding mysteries of both, this book touches on love too. Especially difficult love; the kind of love that is unworthy and how sometimes that’s the only kind we run toward. 

I have said too much about John Ames. So let’s talk about the author. Robinson is a writer’s writer. Her prose is clear, concise, and completely lyrical even as she tackles difficult subject matters. One thing, you have to be attentive to read this book. It may at first come across as slow, maybe even didactic (though I doubt this), and it jumps across plots and themes and a wide range of experiences, but I promise, it is worth it. 

There is not much more to say other than, this book is a masterpiece.



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