The Christian Essence

Novels give readers glimpses into lives and experiences different from their own; that is why reading fiction should be an integral part of pastoral ministry. Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Gilead, however, accomplishes something of even greater value: it captures the life and heart of a minister so adroitly that in the end, any pastor who reads this book will discover (or better said, will recover) the essence of the pastoral life itself. Robinson has pulled off that wondrous literary feat of not only speaking authentically in the voice of a male narrator but also of sounding the depths of a true pastor’s heart. Gilead And Gilead is a beautifully written book too, its arresting prose combining a nononsense, common-sense narrative voice with turns of phrase and depths of insight that are bracingly fresh. Over and again I found myself marveling that Robinson knows so very well what it is like to preach, to counsel with people in pain, and above all what it means simply to be a Christian.

Robinson has written just one other novel, Housekeeping (1981). In the nearly quarter century since then, she also produced a book of essays on the teachings of John Calvin and the American Puritan heritage. I cannot profess familiarity with either work (though Housekeeping is now at the top of my “Must Read” list), but Gilead confirms Robinson’s knowledge of Calvin as well as her firm grasp on the nature of ministry and the pastoral life. Indeed, at the risk of hyperbole, I will dare to say that the narrator of this memoir-like novel is the most Christ-like figure I have ever encountered in literature.

The narrator in question is the Reverend John Ames, a 76-year-old pastor who has spent his entire ministry in Gilead, Iowa. The book is set in the year 1956, not long after Rev. Ames is told by his doctor that sooner rather than later he will die of his recently diagnosed heart condition of angina pectoris. Earlier in his life Ames had married a woman who later died in childbirth along with the child. He then spent his years as a bachelor pastor until one rainy Pentecost Sunday when Lila, a soft- and plainspoken woman, wandered into his church. Although now 67 years old, Rev. Ames ends up marrying the much younger Lila, who gives birth to a son a couple of years later.

As the novel opens, this son is now seven years old, and so Rev. Ames, sensing the nearness of his own death, writes this boy a letter to tell him all about the father he will never get to know. Gilead is that letter turned memoir. The book has a diarylike quality to it, interspersing short observations and reminiscences with much longer sections that detail the family history of especially Ames’s father and grandfather, both of whom were also pastors. Ames’s grandfather provides many of Gilead‘s more colorful passages. The grandfather, also named John Ames, was a startling figure who came to Kansas before the Civil War as an abolitionist and eventually joined the Union Army. In the course of the war, Ames lost an eye in battle, but the ferocity of the gaze he was able to generate with just that one remaining eye became a sign of the wild heart that beat within the man’s breast. His grandfather seemed “like a man everlastingly struck by lightening . . . the most unreposeful human being I ever knew” (p. 49). Ames said that every time his grandfather fixed him with his one-eyed stare, he felt like he had been poked with a stick.

The Ames family history provides much of Gilead‘s delight and intrigue. But the book’s true sweetness and its startling insights into faith come when Rev. Ames addresses his son directly, making observations on life and ministry. Naturally enough, Ames’s growing sense of mortality causes him to ponder heaven on a regular basis, but he muses even more on what a gift life on this very earth is–and hence how loathe he is to leave it behind. In a typical passage Ames reminisces: “I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world” (p. 9).

In these musings there is not even the faintest whiff of saccharine piety. Ames’s voice is that of a straightforward man of faith who embodies that line from the old hymn: “As I breathe, I pray.” Ames regularly affirms both the goodness of God’s creation as we have it and the reality of things yet unseen, believing that ultimately those two realities will get bound up with one another in the renewal of all that we know now. Tokens of that affirmation–the depth of affection Rev. Ames feels for his boy and the soul-wrenching sorrow he feels over soon having to leave this precious child–sound so authentic and so ineffably dear as to make tears leap to your eyes over and again.

Equally stirring is the love this pastor has for the people of Gilead. He has baptized so many of them and believes he has been himself blessed and changed for the better through each sacramental benediction he has given. “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feel its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time . . . I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature” (p. 23).

The conferring of blessing becomes a leitmotif throughout Gilead‘s pages and defines the novel’s single most lyric scene. Shortly after Ames begins to write, the prodigal son of his lifelong friend (also a retired pastor) returns to Gilead after a prolonged absence. John Ames Boughton (clearly the narrator’s namesake, but known as “Jack” around town) has a checkered past and has come back just in time enough to visit his dying father. Ames’s reflections on this prodigal provide a prolonged vignette of grace in action, summarized in one of the book’s typically brief, yet remarkably poignant, lines. Jack Boughton prepares to leave Gilead, having decided not to wait for his father’s impending death. Ames observes, “It was a truly dreadful thing he was doing, leaving his father to die without him. It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for” (p. 240).

More than once this memoir brings up Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Originally given to Ames by his older brother, Edward (who had gone to study in Europe only to lose his faith there and return an atheist), Ames passes the book along to Jack. Ames’s brother had given it to him to shake up his strong faith; Ames gives it to Jack to shore up a wobbly faith. But in a real way, Gilead itself provides the essence of what it means to be a Christian, and specifically to be a Christian pastor. In these fractious days of fretting over red state values versus blue state values, when even Christians ca
n’t seem to agree with each other as to what counts and what doesn’t when applying faith to the wider society, Gilead is that much-needed breath of fresh air to help bring us all back to our senses. Or maybe it is not so much that Gilead‘s air is so fresh as that it reveals how stale our own atmosphere has become and hence how much we need to return to the basics of Christ-likeness, reveling in the simple, gracious sweetness of a Lord who loved all he met and was just so a blessing wherever he went.

Early in his reflections, Ames pauses to explain to his boy a bit more why he is writing this for him at all. “I’d never believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. 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 town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you” (p. 52). With deep gratitude in my own heart, I can tell you that somehow, in its own kind of literary miracle, Marilynne Robinson has found the words, and they will be a grace to all who read her remarkable book.

Scott Hoezee is Minister of Preaching and Administration at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Book Review Editor of Perspectives.