Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead explores the beauty of small-town life and the complexity of religious experience within an American family over three generations. The book is a series of letters written by John Ames, a 76-year-old Congregational minister in Gilead, Iowa, to his 7-year-old son. There is urgency: Ames has a heart affliction and death is near. His remarkable letters carry the history of the Ames family (his father and grandfather were also Congregational ministers) with such emotional acuity that readers won’t readily notice how deftly Robinson weaves in the larger history—slavery and the abolitionist movement, three catastrophic wars, the evolution of American Protestantism, the Depression, and more. In the end it is Ames’ quiet, miraculous voice that haunts readers, a voice so full of the “sad wonder” that predominates his life that readers can’t help but rediscover lost, essential pieces of their own lives in his.
Although Robinson is a scholar who teaches in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she is as at home in the public square as in the ivory tower. She often teaches in the basement of her Iowa City church. I attended a class one Sunday night and listened to an enthralling talk about Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. That night I heard a resonant and challenging theme I have found in much of Robinson’s work—a theme that is perhaps best revealed in one of Ames’ final letters to his son: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” Robinson suggests that for both the minister and the artist/writer, the essential part of faith is the creative courage it takes see the holy in the everyday world, and then to respond.