I started reading it when it came out a couple of years ago, and I would like to say it is the kind of book you can't put down but, distracted by something or the other, I did put it aside until the trip to Poland a couple of weeks ago. Gilead, like the town by that name, is fictional, or so says its author, Marilynne Robinson. But I expect many of the readers (read John Gray's review here) who have made the book a bestseller think they know the place well.
It's where they came from, or where their parents or grandparents came from, or maybe just where they think the real America must have lived once--out there on the rough edge of the frontier where elders reminisced about abolition and sheltering runaways, and about the great drought that drove the young people to distant places like Chicago and St. Louis.
The Rev. John Ames, whose journal this novel is, was writing in the late 1940s, only a half century or so ago, but it feels like once upon a time. There was in Gilead a Congregational church and a Presbyterian church and a Baptist church and a small Lutheran church, but mainly there were the Congregational and Presbyterian churches. There are Catholics in those distant cities but not even the rumor of their existence impinges upon the life of Gilead.
Rev. Ames, now in his seventies and with medical problems reinforcing his awareness of mortality, is writing the journal for his seven-year-old son, late born to his much younger wife. He wants his son to know how it was and how much his father cared for him. In the wake of the pioneering excitements of earlier generations, things were quiet now in Gilead. Beneath and through the quiet, however, dramas of betrayal and reconciliation, unbelief and belief, sin and redemption, were playing themselves out.
Gilead is a theological reflection. Rev. Ames knows about other ways of thinking about life--he is ever conscious of what his atheist brother Edward might say--but the other ways are not his way. He prays a lot and devotes hours on end to being astonished by man and the nature of which he is part, and always he is thinking about his sermon for the next Sunday. Sunday after Sunday, decade after decade, he has been writing out his sermons, until there are now boxes upon boxes of them stored in the parsonage attic.
He calculates that he has written about as much as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. His wife has snatched a few from the burning that she thinks worth saving for their son. Ames hopes that all of them, or at least most of them, served a purpose in the teaching, directing, and consoling of his small congregation. Not that he got much response to his preaching, although he remembers with gratification the Sunday an elderly lady asked him who was this Ludwig Feuerbach he was talking about.
Ames is a learned, even a bookish, man in his way, given to invoking Karl Barth on the really hard questions. What with his boyhood friend Rev. Jack Boughton, the Presbyterian minister just up the street, Gilead was not lacking for theological expertise of a life-hewn sort. John Ames is a conscientious, kind, and wise pastor, patient with the wayward and never doubting the Lord's call to be a blessing and to bless. In a non-sacramental church, he has a sacramental sense of what he is called to do. If you lived in or near Gilead and you had a problem, he would be a good man to go see.
Ministry in Gilead was not ruffled, never mind roiled, by the denominational disputes and agitations that were waiting in the decades to come. In Gilead, the religious mainline is so serenely and self-evidently the mainline that there is no occasion to call it the mainline. And so it was in large parts of America in the once upon a time of fifty or sixty years ago. No doubt there are places like Gilead still today. Now, however, clergy like Rev. Ames and Rev. Boughton--and there must still be such clergy--have to make a resolute decision to remain apart from the excitements and counter-excitements that keep their denominations in perpetual commotion in their continuing decline.
Gilead succeeds in capturing a moment of relative tranquility between the high adventure of the frontier and the rancorous dissolution of a Protestant establishment that could not survive its having arrived. As the story told by Marilynne Robinson makes luminously evident, it was a moment not without honor. There was faith, patience, intelligence, courage, and ordinary life intermittently touched by the glory of God. In the longer story of America's social and religious experience, there was a balm in Gilead, but that was once upon a time not so very long ago. Gilead, like one of those sermons retrieved from the attic, is the poetry of life deeply lived and recollected in tranquility. If, as Rev. Ames sometimes hoped, his son followed him into the ministry, one wonders what he makes of the journal his father kept for him.
In addition to which:
Robert Louis Wilken's remembrance of his friend Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) includes this: "In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought. . . to suggest . . . that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history are the dissidents, the heretics, whose insights were suppressed. . . . Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation." Elsewhere in the same August/September First Things, Avery Cardinal Dulles gives reasons for valuing the traditional teaching of the Church in his article, "The Orthodox Imperative." Educate yourself this summer with a subscription to First Things.