Sunday 1 July 2007

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

Prompted by recommendations from both Kim Fabricius and Stanley Hauerwas, I finally got around to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (New York: Farrar, 2004), an exquisite portrayal of three (or four) generations of preachers in a decrepit little town in Iowa. (In a lecture, Hauerwas describes this as “the first Barthian novel” – a fine description, except that John Updike has been writing “Barthian novels” for decades!)

The novel is extraordinary in every way. It’s a narrative of fragile beauties, luminous insights, mysterious silences – all related in a prose as spare and understated as the dustbowl town itself. And there is plenty here for theologians to think about as well. You wouldn’t be far wrong if you said that the whole novel is an account of the power and beauty of blessing.

Our narrator, John Ames, tells us that he became a minister not for any of the usual reasons, but because it gave him the opportunity to confer blessing. When he baptised a family of kittens as a young boy, he discovered that “there is a reality in blessing”: “Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing…. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” Ames describes this as one of the “advantages” of being a minister: “Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you” (p. 23).

To confer blessing – that is the purpose of existence, that is how we honour all those “precious things [that] have been put into our hands” (p. 246). More than that: to confer blessing is required of us; it’s an obligation placed on us as soon as we really encounter another person. Ames remarks: “there is nothing more astonishing than a human face…. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it” (p. 66).

It’s fitting, then, that John Ames’ own life should culminate in a simple moment of blessing. Sitting at a dusty old bus stop, he places his hand on Jack Boughton’s brow and blesses him. And he tells us: “I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment” (p. 242).

Gilead is itself just such a moment – the novel is a gentle intrusion of grace, a warm hand on your brow, a moment when the world stands still and blessing is conferred.


Alex said...


I'm glad you got around to reading this fantastic novel. I read it about 6 months ago for the first time. Since then I haven't been able to find a novel that has been able to pack so much into such a small amount of space and yet keep the story incredibly simple. I can't explain too well why I liked it so much except to say that it warmed my heart. I put down the book and felt content with my life. I only wish Robinson wrote more. She is apparently working on her third novel now.

You might be interested in a very thorough review of it from a writers perspective over at

::aaron g:: said...

Thanks for this review, Ben. It reminded me of what a great book Gilead is. I've reposted my review of the book.

Anonymous said...

Lovely review, Ben. Even your prose style pays fitting homage to this fine, fine novel. We've just spent two sessions on it in my church's "Exploration Group"; appreciation of it increased exponentially as we talked it through.

Many describe it as a novel of ideas, but at heart it is a beautiful love story, not only about John Ames and his young wife, but about God and the world, creation and grace (which "has a grand laughter in it," "an ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials"). (It is not surprising that Robinson writes under the spell of Donne and Herbert, who are both mentioned in the novel.) It is also about fathers and (prodigal) sons (a perennial theme in American literature), and "the way," as one reviewer put it, "that children inexorably disappear into their own futures." The way Robinson so acutely observes men is astonishing, and the novel is a perfect counterpoint to her first novel Housekeeping (1980), which is about women.

There is indeed a balm in Gilead (cf. Jeremiah 8:22).

I would add that the book is also extremely timely - it was written during the ascendancy of the Religious Right - in its recovery of America's "liberal" theological traditions. And I would highly recommend Robinson's collection of essays The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998).

Finally, you mention the episode in Gilead of Ames' baptism of a litter of cats. My Thelma sits before my PC even as I type. Nor is it merely incidental that, for Ames: "And there was baseball."

The maiden said...

Very nice review. It took me weeks to get through Gilead. I found it so intense that I'd become exhausted after just a few pages, and sometimes actually found it difficult to return to it, even though, paradoxically, I wanted to. I've never had an experience like that with a novel before.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Ben. This is a mandate powerful enough to temper all our interactions. I remember the comment of a new deacon, after he first baptised someone, he said, "SOMETHING REALLY HAPPENS - it's not just a ceremony."

Unknown said...

A great book, which did much for my theology of the body. Your winsome review rang bells with a new collection of poems I’ve been reading called “The Resurrection of the Body” by Michael Schmidt, a professor of literature at Glasgow University. His title piece imagines the Gospel episode in which Christ raises Jairus’ daughter:

[…] He holds her
And out of his chest where she is pressed against him
Flows that unusual grace which is rooted in muscle,
Which comes from the marrow and lymph, which is divine,
The grace of a man whom love has turned into God,
The love of incarnate God whose flesh knows the name of his creature.

In John Ames is a minister of the incarnation, in that he gives place to “that unusual grace which is rooted in muscle…marrow, and lymph.” His view of the body as a vessel - if not a locus - of grace recalls the physicality of Christ’s ministry and something of what Marilynne Robinson herself claims of the religious impulse of American literature:

“The insistent valuing of the living world in the face of its mortality is an assertion of the imagination to know more than can be known” (Poetry, May 2007).

A wonderful blog. my first post ☺

- Nicole Meline

Alex said...

By the way Ben, since you mentioned Updike, can you perhaps offer a recommendation or two of his books that is best/most representative of him? I want to add him to my reading list, but don't know where to start.

a. steward said...

Ben - thanks for this review. I wish every Christian, and for that matter, every American to read this book. It is one of the most pungent and beautiful depictions of grace I've ever read. This book is full of ghosts - John Calvin, John Brown, William Faulkner, above all it is haunted by that "old fierce pull of blood." The way that John Ames Sr.'s passion for justice and John Ames Jr.'s passion for peace finally come to the climax of their dialectical tension in John Ames III's dealing with John Ames Boughton's return. Should he forgive, or should he protect?
"Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me."
That's a problem worth writing a book about.
And Kim - ditto on The Death of Adam. That book seems to me to explain both why Robinson writes so sparsely, and why what she writes is so good, namely that she does some serious homework before she starts talking. The essay on Weber misreading of Calvin is tops.

Ben Myers said...

Nicole: thanks for your lovely comment.

Kim and A.S. -- thanks for recommending The Death of Adam. I haven't read this yet, but I'll certainly try to get a copy. And I'll also be reading her first novel soon (Housekeeping).

Alex: I'm glad to hear you're interested in John Updike -- he's one of my favourite novelists, and he's perhaps the most theological of all novelists. His most popular work is the Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest). So Rabbit, Run (1960) would be a natural place to start.

My own favourites, though, are Roger's Version (1986) and In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) -- these are both wonderful novels and profound theological meditations.

Anonymous said...

Hi A. Steward,

There is also that great essay in The Death of Adam that critiques Darwinism in a sophisticated way that doesn't fall into the inanities of the fundamentalists.

Unknown said...

It's a wonderful book - yes, a blessing!

Interestingly, Barack Obama cites it as one of his favourite reads.

Robinson wrote one of the best crtiques of Dawkins's God Delusion. I think you can still find it on the Harper's website.

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