Is this the best theological book ever written?

Oliver Harrison writes: What’s the best theological book you have ever read? Something by Barth or Bonhoeffer? Aquinas or Calvin? Luther or Spurgeon? Rowan Williams or C S Lewis? Mine is a novel published 15 years ago, written by a middle-aged American woman and called simply Gilead.

Gilead is a single, relatively short and deceptively simple book writer and academic Marilynne Robinson. It was published in 2004 and is her second novel, following on from ‘Housekeeping’ in 1980. I don’t know whether it took her all of those 24 intervening years to write but if it did it was quick work and time well spent.

The novel takes the form of an extended letter, written in the first person singular by an elderly and ill church minister, The Rev John Ames, to his young son. The narrator, cognisant of his failing health, wants to leave the boy some advice, some autobiography, some aperçus – a kind of legacy in letters. Three key numbers are established early on. The first is the date. The book is set in 1956. The Cold War, nuclear weapons, race relations and television are all hot topics in America. The second is John Ames’s age. He was born in 1880, so he’s 76 years old. He looks back on the First World War and the Depression with first-hand experience and delves deeper into his family history with stories of his father and grandfather from the Civil War and the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement of the nineteenth century. The third number is the age of his son: the unnamed boy is seven years. He remains anonymous despite (or perhaps because) he is the recipient of the work, the intended reader.

Other characters appear in passing and are filled-out in a gradual way that reveals their relationship with Ames and their personalities as perceived by him. Ames is subjective but also self-reflexive, a reliably unreliable narrator or perhaps an unreliably reliable one. Chief among the cast are his wife (and the boy’s mother) Lila, much younger than Ames of course. Then there’s Boughton, Ames’ oldest and best friend, and a fellow pastor at another church across town. The two old ministers have a kind of friendly feud, a theolomgical duel that has been going on for decades, but the love and affection them is undeniable. Finally, there is Jack, properly called John Ames Boughton. He is Boughton’s wayward son, named for his father’s best friend, our narrator, after Ames’ own wife and daughter died, leaving him widowed and childless – at least until Lila entered his life a decade or so ago.

The last piece of information needed is the setting. Gilead is a remote town in the southwest corner of Iowa and is almost as much a character as any of the people. The place is nondescript: smalltown middle America. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter and a long drive from anywhere interesting. And in the 1950s it is a backwater of friendship and fallings-out between families and gossipy neighbours. A place where unseasonable weather or a small fire is big local news.

Enough with the synopsis already! Sounds dull, right? My wife thought so. I lent it to her and she described it as a ‘yawn-fest’ and ‘the most boring book I have ever read.’ Well, OK. I can see that that might be the case. Certainly nothing that could be described as ‘exciting’ happens. No sex, no scandal, no violence or drama, no plot twists; nothing sudden or unexpected occurs. These are the musings, some might say the ramblings, of an old clergyman in the middle of nowhere looking back on an uneventful life.

But that would be to miss the beauty of the book. And the strange, unsettling, slightly sinister undercurrent of danger and malice that surrounds Boughton’s prodigal son, Jack, our narrator’s namesake and nemesis. What is his interest in Ames’ son? Why is he sniffing around Lila, who is about the same age as him and surely about to be widowed? What are his intentions? And what, if anything, can Ames’ do about it other than observe and record and warn and hope and fear?

‘But’ you might say ‘what can this book tell me or teach me? How can it help me, here and now? I’m not a 76 year old church minister nearing the end of my life. This isn’t middle America. And even if, somewhat against the odds, you are an old pastor in Iowa this isn’t 1956.’ Ah, but this is a book of universal truths. Perhaps it speaks best to Christians or to parents or to preachers in particular (and here a confession: I am all three) but it has a lot to say about people, God and the world in general. It’s a book that will certainly be better understood by those familiar with the Bible; many tropes and themes from both Testaments recur throughout ‘Gilead’ in ways both obvious and subtle. But it can also be read (I would imagine) without any faith in, or familiarity with, Christian scripture.

And it’s frankly hard to overlook the stunning insights afforded by Robinson through her narrator. It’s as if St Augustine’s Confessions had been set in the Midwest and written by Hemingway or Steinbeck. It’s Bruce Springsteen channelling Thomas A Kempis. It’s a miniature modern masterpiece of contemplative theology.

Ames is a type of Biblical patriarch in a clapboard chapel, a man steeped in the stories of scripture. And, unsurprisingly, he finds himself identifying with Abraham or Zechariah, men like him who were unexpectedly and wonderfully the fathers of a son in old age:

The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes—we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind. […] I began my remarks by pointing out the similarity between the stories of Hagar and Ishmael sent off into the wilderness and Abraham going off with Isaac to sacrifice him, as he believes. My point was that Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and that the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment to save the child. Abraham’s extreme old age is an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious, but also, I think, because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness. I noted that Abraham himself had been sent into the wilderness, told to leave his father’s house also, that this was the narrative of all generations, and that it is only by the grace of God that we are made instruments of His providence and participants in a fatherhood that is always ultimately His.

As well as reflections on fatherhood late in life there is also some wry, self-deprecating humour about the role of a minister who, is after all, only human: ‘I had a dream once that I was preaching to Jesus Himself, saying any foolish thing I could think of, and He was sitting there in His white, white robe looking patient and sad and amazed.’ And similarly funny observations about his flock: ‘So often people tell me about some wickedness they’ve been up to, or they’ve suffered from, and I think, Oh, that again! I’ve heard of churches in the South that oblige people to make a public confession of their graver sins to the whole congregation. I think sometimes there might be an advantage in making people aware how worn and stale these old transgressions are. It might take some of the shine off them.’

Perhaps most striking are the comments on what used to be called (and still might be, for all I know) ‘the human condition’. Ames notes: ‘An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly.’ Indeed. Try it some time, with a leather apron and a welder’s mask and asbestos gloves.

This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it. I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own great failure to live up to it recently. Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine is a Middle Westerner of New England extraction. Well, we all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.

At times Ames is an old but clear-sighted seer with a swing seat on his porch: ‘I have always worried that when I say the insulted or the downtrodden are within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing, to insult or oppress. The whole teaching of the Bible is explicitly contrary to that idea. So I quoted the words of the Lord: “If anyone offend these little ones, it would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he were cast into the sea.” That is strong language, but there it is.’

Although if Ames is a prophet, he is one without rancour or rough edges; as he himself reflects: ‘How do you tell a scribe from a prophet? The prophets love the people they chastise.’ But that doesn’t mean he downplays God’s justice and judgment: ‘the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God.’

There is also much about the hidden, secret joys of ministry:

When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned. A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.

In another passage Ames goes through a box of those same sermons and revisits an old one:

One of the sermons is on forgiveness. It is dated June 1947. I don’t know what the occasion was. I might have been thinking of the Marshall Plan, I suppose. I don’t find much in it to regret. It interprets ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ in light of the Law of Moses on that subject. That is, the forgiveness of literal debt and the freeing of slaves every seventh year, and then the great restoration of the people to their land, and to themselves if they were in bondage, every fiftieth year. And it makes the point that, in Scripture, the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of debt is simply the existence of debt. And it goes on to compare this to divine grace, and to the Prodigal Son and his restoration to his place in his father’s house, though he neither asks to be restored as son nor even repents of the grief he has caused his father. I believe it concludes quite effectively. It says Jesus puts His hearer in the role of the father, of the one who forgives. Because if we are, so to speak, the debtor (and of course we are that, too), that suggests no graciousness in us. And grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves. That still seems right to me. I think it is a sound reading of the text.

Finally, the book is also excellent on what might be called the existential question of innate individual identity or fundamental, irreducible ontology, fusing Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein in a beautifully poetic passage that is typical of the whole:

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 what is 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.

It’s very hard to either argue against that or to put it better.

Oliver Harrison keeps wicket for the Quakers in his Joy Division oven gloves. He’s also the Vicar of Holy Trinity Wilnecote near Tamworth in Staffordshire. He sings out of tune but loudly, which is a kind metaphor for his whole life.

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36 thoughts on “Is this the best theological book ever written?”

  1. This is an excellent piece.

    While I am fairly certain the authors (of both this article and of the book) are aware, I think there is great significance in the name of the town and the title of the book that speaks to the message it’s conveying. Gilead is a recurring theme in literature, albeit not a common one.

    The Prophet Hosea tells us;

    “Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    tracked with blood.”

    And a quick search of my bible dictionary and concordance tells me that Gilead is also a specific geographical area of rocky, mountainous and uninhabitable land.. I’ve seen it used in literature to express the idea of being in a place of uncertainty, or a place of unknowns. A metaphor familiar to us, as it pervades a lot of worship music. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is a good example of it, where Gilead is the place (‘a’ place?) beyond the veil that he cannot know, or enter.

    “Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

    So I think the very title of the book hints at it’s content; finding purpose and meaning in the trials. We live within, inhabit even, those trials. The Christian life is about travelling through it, not avoiding it.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, or more likely still, stating what everyone already knows.

    I would certainly like to read more content like this.

  2. I thought it was a sweet book. The last 10 or 15 pages – as his compassion for young Jack Broughton was aroused – were very moving. As I read the book, a lot of the time, I found myself connecting with the author herself, even though the old pastor was meant to be the narrator. I found it a very gentle, peaceful read – in the way it expressed grace in little things. It left me with a lot of thoughts and in many ways I’m not sure why the book touched me, or quite what I was drawing from it. It was more a kind of immersion.

    I wouldn’t say it is a book that totally blew me away (though the last pages did), maybe in part because I didn’t really connect or empathise with the whole fuddy-duddy pastor and his endless sermons and so on. I kind of got bored with him at times. But I didn’t get bored with the setting, the simplicity and domesticity, which for several days left me with a strange peacefulness as I went about my work.

  3. Thank you so much for showing these excerpts – enough to get me to go and read the book! I’ll tell you what I think when I’ve read it

  4. What a superb review. The setting, space and pace took some getting used to. The beauty of the spare but profound writing is remarkable.
    Something I didn’t pick up at the time, but have from the review, and probably now I am older with bits falling off as it were is how extraordinary the ordinary is.
    Many will know that the follow up book fills in blanks, in life stories of family.
    As an aside, and no I’ m not related nor have any connection with, the book I have read described as the best theological book in the last 40 years is…. The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson.

  5. That’s so funny. This is my husband’s favourite book ever, but despite my best efforts, I’m on your wife’s team here. Cannot get into it!

  6. Outstanding review! 🙂 (Dagnammit, I’ll have to read this now.)

    Since stories are so accessible, it’s unsurprising that theology’s so often best communicated in narrative form. He may’ve been an amateur, but C.S. Lewis must be in the running for most widely-read theologian out there.

    • I totally crushed on the Narnia series as a child. Total immersion in other worlds. And at the age of 10, of course, I had little awareness of Christian theology. Yet something connected. I was lost in those books (in the best possible sense).

      Genesis works in a similar way.

      Tales round the campfire. Walkabout. Entering dream times. It’s amazing how narrative and the natural world can connect, below the surface cerebral control: connect at a deeper level of reception.

      I think God can be like that: numinous, beyond our mental control, and yet there! wonderfully, mysteriously there!

      Going back to ‘Gilead’, it did manage to immerse me, and I found an interesting interface between the surface narrative of the old minister, and the background voice and observation of the author. For a book about an elderly male minister, there was a lot of feminine in the mood and domesticity of the book, and its attention to small detail and ordinary things. It worked a kind of magic on me, because I was filled with inexplicable peace for days after reading it. It was my daughter who first recommended it to me.

  7. One of my former Readers in my last parish – who had been Head of English in a girls’ school and was one of those teachers every child would remember – thought Gilead was the best novel written in the past 50 years. I was profoundly moved by it and have read it three times. Increasingly I turn to literature to explore Scripture rather than commentaries.

  8. I enjoyed this review more than I enjoyed the book reviewed

    Everyone around me raved about the novel so I duly bought n read it – it was good but not great – didnt think it was one to lend, recommend or return to. sorry

  9. Oh, I love this book! And almost more the two others Home and Lila. You have maybe read them already. I find them extraordinary accounts of what faith looks like from the outside, from the perspective of the characters Jack Broughton and Lila (Ames’ wife). I found Home especially deeply moving: it describes the gulf between Jack’s experience and perspective and the experience of Ames, the heart-breaking longing of the prodigal son for home, the opportunity for Ames to offer hope and redemption. How Marilynn Robinson is able to enter so profoundly into the character of an old minister and outsiders like Jack and Lila, both strangers to faith is incredible. I read both books as warnings to us as Christians always to see the potential for redemption in the people we meet.

    • Completely agree. The fact that ‘Home’ was written almost makes ‘Gilead’ even more remarkable- that Robinson is able to squeeze even more empathy, insight and theology from the same quite mundane set of events is brilliant. Haven’t read ‘Lila’ yet, the only thing with these novels is you do have to put the effort in!

      • I think one of the things about Marilynn Robinson is how she presents grace, not just as a one-off event… say, the point of Christian conversion, or say, the welcoming home of the Prodigal Son… but as something that needs to be received and lived out day by day, in simple things, little things, practical things, the way we treat each other.

        There is always a danger in Christian life and culture that we major on the ‘big event’ – such as conversion experience – but fail to fully realise how the actual substance of that conversion is in everything that follows from that.

        The story of the Prodigal Son doesn’t really end with his homecoming. In a sense, that is just the gateway.

        The waters flow deep in Marilynn Robinson’s writing, and I think we all need to try to embed routine and habit of prayer and relationship with God, so that we may be receptive to God’s endless stream of grace – difficult I know – and also God’s sometimes painful healing.

        The peace I found reading her was, I suspect, a result of that journey with the narrative’s living out of day-to-day grace in little things.

  10. I haven’t read Gilead although I’ve been meaning to for some years, ever since I read Home. I’m a hardened old literature graduate who has been around books and words for decades, and very little moves me to tears, but the end of Home did. I was also struck by the way the father blames himself continually throughout the book for Jack’s behaviour, and in such a subtle way Robinson shows how this is false humility, which puts an extra burden on his children.
    Anyway. So I just ordered Gilead. At last.

  11. I also love “Gilead”. No one so far has mentioned the theme of civil rights and racism throughout American history, perhaps because we are all British?

  12. Thank you opening a refreshingly different angle on thinking faith – fiction as a vehicle for profound theological reflection – and for a beautifully crafted review of a brilliant novel.
    One comment from the introduction. When the gender and age of the writers on Oliver’s initial short list of ‘best of’ ‘theologians/authors is not thought relevant – they are just named – why is Marilynne Robinson introduced as ‘a middle aged, American woman’?

    • Oh David – what are you trying to imply here?

      Oliver is not reviewing the other named theologians & authors but he is reviewing Marilynne, therefore it is appropriate to offer a little more information and introduction. Also, the others are part of the Christian theological canon and well known and need no further introduction.

      • ^^^ this. Also all the others are men, all but one (Williams) are dead and most (I think all but Lewis) were ordained / clergy / monks and none was American. So it’s to point out that Robinson is a living, lay American woman in a pantheon of bearded classical “gods”.

    • What’s wrong with her being introduced as ‘a middle aged, American woman’? Its just a factual statement is it not?

  13. Although, for my sensibility, he could have added that Luther was demonically anti-semitic, murderous towards his own people, foul tempered and utterly vile – lest we think him worthy of veneration.

    • Well, Barth lived in a threesome, Bonhoeffer tried to kill someone (admittedly, that Someone was Hitler), Calvin DID kill someone (Michael Servetus) and Rowan Williams once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

      One of these may not be true.

      • ah
        -Calvin didn’t invent Geneva law on heresy, but he did visit Servetus and beg him to recant
        -Barth asked his wife for a divorce – she repeatedly refused – so he moved his mistress – ummm – secretary in next to the study.
        -Bonhoeffer was right and just and what a pity the attempt failed

        Williams – Only wounds to heal

        • Ha! Which Simon are you by the way? (And does Jesus call you Peter? And what watch are you wearing at the moment? A Smiths by the sound of it.)

          • Ah! Ponsonby! That makes sense. Yes the new TF ones are great. In terms of original, vintage “Made In England” Smiths, the W10 is a good 38mm and wears large but it’s hard to pick one up for much less than about £700 these days. Seiko are excellent, probably the best vfm out there (unlike a new Rolex; probably the worst vfm although the residuals are good.) The new TF “De Luxe” will be out soon. I’m testing the pre-production prototype and loving it: sapphire crystal, Japanese Miyota 24j automatic movement, 100m WR stainless steel case, superluminova arabic numerals and heat-blued hands.

          • That new TF sounds right up my street
            RLX definitely for those without sons at uni
            enjoyed your piece a lot
            look forward to more
            cheers Oliver

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