A novel way to belief this summer
I’ve had the last quarter of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead, waiting patiently for me on the bedside table for a year or so, hoping to be granted the honour of completion (I often struggle with the reading endgame).
Now, transported away from the bedside table on holidays, I’ve at last reached the end of this exquisitely poised depiction of a dying preacher recording a memoir for his young son.
The book is replete with theological and anthropological gems, the fruit of the author’s deep knowledge of the Bible, of ministry life, and of the significance of the shape of our close relationships on our sense of life’s meaning.
The American Reverend John Ames faces his own covetousness, anxiety and limitations, as well as his joys and his enduring (but admirably honest and non-triumphalistic) Christian faith as he pens his memoirs in the still of each Iowa night.
He worries that his sermons have made little impact and told only half-truths; he feels an awkward disconnect between the things that matter to him (friendships, the sunrise, the excitement of romantic love) and the things he does week by week. And yet, he is at heart a Christian who is on the side of love over justice, Gospel over Law, grace over all.
This is a novel for Bible students, clergy and trainee ministers to read and ponder—which is where I must express my surprise. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was heralded as a masterpiece by reviewers everywhere.
And yet, without a decent knowledge of the issues involved in Calvin’s theology, let alone the modern variations of Karl Barth, Ludwig Feuerbach and others, the story makes only superficial sense.
Did all the reviewers have theology degrees or Calvins’ Institutes on their shelves? I doubt it. So why was it praised far and wide?
From the comments made by the reviewers, I suspect they detected in the slow-pulsed, contemplative, spiritual reflections of Reverend Ames something approaching real soul-searching. In its quietness, in its honest self-examination, this novel deals with something that really matters: your beliefs.
Although the details of the Reverend’s discussions over predestination or prevenient grace may not have carried meaning for every reader, the deep realities behind these doctrines—things like whether we are held responsible for our thoughts and deeds, or whether love for another overrules tradition, or whether a remorseful person who has committed great wrongs can in fact be more acceptable to God than a ‘Good Son’—connect deeply with us all. No theology degree required.
What this may mean is that the questions to which Christian faith provides answers are already in the minds and hearts of many a reader. They need the time and mental space that a novel such as Gilead affords in order to come to the surface and into full view. Beliefs this important deserve nothing less.
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