Friday, September 3, 2010


By Marilynne Robinson

New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Week 36     Spiritual

When the Rev. John Ames was in his late 60s, he was given a second chance at life. He married a much younger woman and became a parent. At 76, he receives a diagnosis that his heart is failing, and he realizes that he will not live long enough to see his son, now 6, grow up. The book Gilead is his rambling musings on his life, his ancestry, and the lessons he wants his son to learn. He says to his son, “How I wish that you could have known me in my strength.”

John Ames grew up in Gilead, Iowa and remained there to pastor the church that his father pastored. That does not make him a country bumpkin by any means; he is educated and cultured and finds beauty and truth in the Iowa countryside. His best friend is Broughton, a Presbyterian minister, who grew up with John and spent his entire career in Gilead, as well. They spend many hours ruminating on faith and on life, but Broughton has the discouragement of knowing that his son, John (named after his friend) is a prodigal. John Ames Broughton returns home for a visit and his presence is a vexation to the protagonist, John, as he is writing down his thoughts.

And that is about the sum of the plot of the book. Like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this book is not about plot. As a matter of fact, it is very similar to The Elegance of the Hedgehog in that explores the inner workings of the human mind with all its foibles. John’s son would know these foibles and these thoughts if he would be able to know his father long enough to ask the questions, but John is sure that he will not live that long. Consequently, John tries to imbue his theology into his son through small sermons, like the following. “So my advice is this—don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them.”

Marilynne Robinson has truly written a masterpiece. In fact, it won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Imbued with scriptural parallels, the book portrays a man at peace with his life, still enthralled with the tasks of the ministry, hopeful for the future, and comfortable with the thought of his own mortality. Robinson is very comfortable with scripture herself, and none of the references –scriptural or theological—seemed forced or contrived. Because she wrote the book in short burst-like journal entries, the reader is able to read a section and ponder it a bit. I found myself underlining whole passages because of their truth or their beauty. In that way, although it is fiction, it is a spiritual book in the purest sense of the term. Robinson affirms the power of the sacred in the small details of the book as well as in the grander expository passages. One knows the very soul of the Rev. John Ames, loves him, and affirms the faith he espouses. Yet, as the reviewer in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution comments, “Readers with no interest in religion will find pleasure in this hymn to existence. It is a story that captures the splendors and pitfalls of being alive, viewed through the prism of how soon it all ends.”

My grandfather, the Rev. Edward Stodghill, began his career as a Methodist minister in rural Iowa and throughout the book I saw my grandfather, tall, thin, white-haired, with the mellifluous voice of an actor, speaking poetry from the pulpit. He took the visual place for the Rev. John Ames in my mind. My grandfather had the same educated, gentle spirit as John Ames, and the same grace-filled attitude toward people and religion. The book had a double impact for me because it brought my grandfather back to me.

I do not know why I had not read this book before, but I would highly recommend it. It will fill your soul with the goodness of a very human but very spirit-filled man.

A brilliant review of Gilead and interview with the author in 2004:

Audio interview with Terry Gross on PBS about Gilead:

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