The Common Good
March 2005

A Preacher's Last Rites

by Jesse Holcomb | March 2005

A review of Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson

I confess I grew prickly imagining what lay behind the grim austerity of Marilynne Robinson'

I confess I grew prickly imagining what lay behind the grim austerity of Marilynne Robinson’s new title, Gilead. Her amalgam of fathers, sons, religion, and war - conjured in one extended breath - does not immediately bespeak notions of tenderness.

But Gilead, the name of Robinson’s fictional Iowa village, also connotes healing and wholeness (remember the old spiritual "There Is a Balm..."). And therein lies the power of this long-awaited second novel by one of America’s great contemporary writers. Its narrative weaves redemption from the bitter flax of generational and ideological wounds.

In a series of diary entries, the terminally ill Rev. John Ames writes to his 7-year-old son as a way of passing on his genealogy and a bit of wisdom before he dies. What unfolds is a rich history, starting with Ames’ grandfather - a preacher who, possessed by his abolitionist convictions, fights for the Union side in a Kansas regiment. Inspired by a vision he once received of Christ bound in chains, he occupies the pulpit with a pistol strapped to his belt, "preaching men into the Civil War."

Ames’ father grew up in the shadow of this freedom fighter, and, like his own father, becomes a preacher - only to devastate him by turning pacifist and joining the Quakers. Ames’ father is betrayed in turn by his son, John’s brother Edward, who forsakes his piety after receiving a European and thoroughly modern university education. Edward returns home one day to disgrace his father by belittling the humble spirituality of his youth, having traded it for a sophisticated irreverence. It is a moment the young John Ames would never forget, later influencing his decision to remain in Gilead and shepherd his father’s congregation - a decision made out of loyalty as much as calling.

Ames’ record of his lineage - his "begats" - is laced with observations on life viewed through the bittersweet lens of borrowed time. And there a second narrative unfolds, the contentious relationship Ames shares with John Boughton, the wayward son of his best friend, who has earned the affection of the wife and child Ames is soon to leave behind. Ultimately the two must face the formidable challenge of reconciliation.

AMES’ EXTENDED LETTER shows him wrestling through the theologies of Calvin, Feuerbach, and Barth as he strains to understand existence on this side of the grave and beyond. But Robinson avoids drowning her story in abstractions by instead grounding it in the physical realm. Ames takes utter delight in the details he observes and records - the flora and fauna, the simplicity of his church, the playful vitality of his son, the iridescent miracle even of water itself. That "this life has its own mortal loveliness" is a fact of which readers might be convinced anew after seeing through this preacher’s eyes.

The deliberate cadence of Robinson’s prose adds to this sense of beauty and wonder. She is a masterful writer who invites the reader to find and follow her pace, a slow, meditative one that is ultimately an extension of the soul of Ames, Gilead, and a mournful Midwest. It is in such an uncluttered space that one finds a disarming kinship with Ames’ lineage of well-intentioned betrayers and the betrayed.

Whether fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, the religious and political convictions we chisel into our identities often crash upon each other’s ramparts. We offend and injure those closest to us, it seems, creating rifts beyond repair, and in turn are ourselves offended. In the shame of discord, some of us skip town or otherwise check out. What John Ames is softly trying to tell us is that we cannot expect our prideful constructions to transform each other or heal breaches so much as the witness of grace and forgiveness made manifest in our fragile forms.

It’s a message that’s good for the soul in a time when divisions mark the terrain of our families, churches, and cultures like so many cracks in a shattered windshield - indeed, it’s a message that offers healing.

Jesse Holcomb, a former Sojourners intern, is a writing associate at the National Association of State PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) in Boston.

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