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What We're Reading--Gilead

I have been re-reading Marilynne Robinson's luminous novel Gilead recently preparatory both to teaching it to my daughter and, hopefully, to writing a review of it for The Christendom Review. I shall not try to write that review here and now. I highly recommend the book. (And I wish publicly to thank W4 reader Jeff Singer for the original recommendation.)

A comment by our reader The Masked Chicken below brought to mind something in Gilead. Here's Masked Chicken:

In cases where there is a demented relative, God is not asking the demented person a question, he is asking the care-giver a question: do you love this person enough to care for them for the rest of their life, regardless of the inconvenience to you? The demented person is a living question of love. Christ was pierced with a sword so that the thoughts of many might be revealed. The demented person is Christ pierced with a sword among us. How we treat them reveals the thought of so many in the modern world.

Here is Robinson, the words coming in the book from her character John Ames:

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.

While the two quotations are about different specific circumstances, the overarching point is very much the same.

If you're looking for a book to read this weekend, you could do much worse than to check out Gilead at the library, take up, and read.

Comments (5)

Thank you, Lydia. Good words and true.

I read Gilead a little while ago. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. I thought the book was fine in general, but that it's meditative quality would probably bore most readers and not do them the good that the book would like to.

I guess it's that the book seemed liked going over old conclusions and experiences of my own and didn't address my present interests or concerns. Thus, I got the book but it wasn't as edifying as I wanted. But it is down to earth and has a fine manner and style.

I read it because Obama listed it as one of his favorites. I'd never heard of it before.

Frankly, I can't imagine what a fraud like Obama could have possibly gotten out of the book except to say he admired it to impress others.

Still, who knows, the book is certainly feminine writing with a certain soft focus, fuzzy feeling strain.

When do we get a book about a Christian man confronting a lost and sinful world that wants to do great harm to the innocent, and rob others of their liberty? What does a Christian man do about confronting evil? Does he pick up a gun and not become ruined by violence, or can a man fight and remain pure, in a sense?

Like that scene quoted above about encountering another person. What if he is not only insulting, but also dangerous to others. How do you reach for grace and sweetness if someone is about to do great harm?

In the book, in fact, Ames has something great to fear from a son of his friend, but he's impotent for the most part. He just keeps babbling about faith. I won't say how they're resolved.

Mark, I think you're being ideological. Yes, there is actual, even explicit, pacifism in the book. The grandfather was most decidedly not a pacifist, and the father became a pacifist, and the old man writing the book (who is the grandson) is a pacifist as well. So Robinson has pacifist characters and probably is one herself. But there is nothing propagandistic about the pacifism. It's well-integrated into the book.

Ames's hesitation to tell his family about Jack Boughton's past is in no small measure a result of his strong sense of pastoral discretion, the idea that a pastor, of all people, should not tell things to others' discredit twenty years after the events in question. This is a matter of honor to him. I think you have to understand the character in order to see that this hesitation is admirable.


You mistake me. My response is not ideological in the least, or a criticism of pacificism. I wasn't thinking about that at all. Ames discretion is merited because his friend's son is not a violent threat to him.

For me, Ames personifies the author's femininity and spirituality which is perfectly fine for a woman in most circumstances but not for a man entirely.

For instance, would Ames ever kick a man in the backside and tell him to grow up? Many a priest (and Mother Superior) has done so. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Does Jesus want us to kick our child or neighbor in the backside? Is that ignoring grace or something?

Ames has made soulful passivity a saving grace. I think that's fine at some times, but not at others. That's not being ideological.

I took your advice and read Gilead about a week ago. I am looking forward to your forthcoming review. I liked the book and I was happy to be able to obtain a copy from my local library. After your post about A Descent into Hell, I was unable to find it or any books by Charles Williams within my local library system (which consists of 22 libraries with more than 2.5 million items in circulation).

I do enjoy your posts on literature.

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