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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