Getting the Gist of Gilead
Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 17 to 39 of Gilead.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943), is a richly textured exploration of family life and pastoral ministry in small town America. Here are a few basic facts about the book:
Publication date: 2004
Genres/categories: fictional autobiography, epistolary novel, small town fiction, farewell address, sermon, fatherly instruction, diary or journal
Setting: Gilead, Iowa, in the summer of 1956; most of the action occurs in the manse of the town's Congregational church
Main characters: John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister who has stayed in his hometown for virtually his entire life; Ames's young wife, Lila, whom he married in later years, and their 6-year old son, Robby; Ames's best friend, Robert Boughton, who is the pastor of Gilead's Presbyterian church; Boughton's beloved son and Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton, the antihero whose failings and spiritual struggles occasion most of the book's central conflicts
Companion novel: in 2008 Marilynne Robinson published Home, which tells about many of the same events from the perspective of John Ames Boughton's sister, Glory
At age 76, the Reverend John Ames III knows his heart is failing. Anxious to pass on a legacy of faith to his only son—a legacy his son is too young to receive—Ames begins to "write his begats" and to recount lessons learned from a life in ministry. His genealogy includes a fiery, visionary abolitionist preacher (Ames's grandfather), a pacifist minister who rebelled against his father's militant Christianity (Ames's father), and a brilliant scholar whose theology was liberalized by graduate studies in Germany (Ames's brother Edward).
The family history is overtaken by the unexpected arrival of John Ames Boughton, age 43, who has been away from Gilead for 20 years. Jack, as he is called, is the proverbial prodigal son (also Ames's godson). Though loved beyond anything he deserves, Jack has humiliated his family in the past by (among other things) fathering the child of a local farm girl.
Jack Boughton returns to Gilead with another secret, which he discloses only to Ames: a common-law wife and son ("colored") in Mississippi. Ames wrestles with his aggravation over Jack's misconduct and with his own sense of guilt for not loving his godson or giving him the pastoral direction he needs and almost seems to desire. Does God still have grace for this wayward son?
Ways of Reading Gilead
As mentioned before, this series takes a thematic approach to Gilead. Rather than working sequentially and systematically through the book, future installments will briefly explore some of its central themes.
At this early stage, it may be helpful to suggest several different ways of reading Gilead. The novel is partly the story of a November/May romance between an aging minister and a much younger woman who wanders into his church and then into his heart. It is also the story of a father's love for his only son, who is still too young to understand everything he needs to know about life. Then, too, it is a story about growing old and dying, leaving family behind for the glory beyond.
At a broader level, Robinson's book can also be read as an imaginative retelling of the history of Protestant Christianity in the United States, with members of the Ames family standing in for major traditions and character types of American religion after the Puritans. The blazing, one-eyed, gun-toting abolitionist John Ames is a visionary prophet in the tradition of John Brown, preaching the sons of his church off to fight for the Union, and then after the Civil War proclaiming the righteous purity of their sacrifice. His namesake becomes a pacifist, claiming that fighting such wars has "nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing."
The oldest son of the next generation is named "Edwards," after America's greatest theologian (Jonathan Edwards). But he drops the terminal "s" in college, a small but telling indication that he is moving farther away from Puritan theology. Edward goes to study theology in Gottingen, where he falls under the sway of liberalism and abandons Christian orthodoxy. As a matter of conscience, Edward cannot even say grace at the family dinner table when he returns home for vacation.
The son who remains at home all his life—at home both in the humble town of Gilead and in the practice of old-time Protestant religion—is the Reverend John Ames, III. Though he is well aware of various intellectual attacks against Christianity, he steadfastly perseveres to the end of his ministry, leaving behind a legacy of faith. Writing with a constant awareness of his own mortality, in Gilead Ames says farewell to the life, the family, and the ministry he loves.