Gilead

by Martin Turner.

My friend the late Rev’d Geoff Cornell was a great reader of fiction, using modern narratives to enhance and apply to his always interesting preaching. For reasons that were never totally clear to either of us we had been invited to join a black minister’s group on a trip to Ghana, it was a long plane journey but I noticed Geoff was totally wrapped up in a book so I asked him what it was. He told me he was reading it for the second time and that it was one of the most thought provoking works of fiction he had ever read – so I thought that if it was that special for Geoff it must be outstanding and when I returned to the UK ordered a copy.

The Book was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson,  I want to focus this week’s reflection upon this most remarkable book and it’s two sequels, “Home” and “Lila”.  It may well be that you feel that this slot is for theological reflection and not a book review, but this is a book which can offer far more theological insight than any poor thoughts of mine!

Marilynne Robinson is an American author who has written just four novels, however her output in non-fiction, essays and reviews is prolific and she has won numerous awards and honorary doctorates.  Robinson was 37 when her first book, Housekeeping, was published in 1980, it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize two years later.  There was then a twenty four year wait for Gilead to be published and this won the Pulitzer a year later.  Four years later Home, which won the Orange prize,  was published, then after six years Lila. The fascinating thing about these last three being that they tell the same story with the same characters, but each with the narration from a different character’s point of view.

The books are profoundly Christian; Robinson is a Congregationalist, she sometimes preaches and theologically she has been greatly influenced by John Calvin. She is also profoundly American, capturing all that rural mid American life is about from her home in Iowa.

I remember Donald English speaking about the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch and saying that there were more theological truths in them than in many specifically Christian books, but that unlike Christian books people – mostly non Christians – read them!  Gilead, my main focus, is such a book – I was especially struck by a review where the author ended with the comment that he almost wished he was a believer.

Gilead is the story of an elderly Congregational minister called John Ames who has spend all his life serving the small community of Gilead. Ames’ young wife died in childbirth, as did the child, thus for many years he has led a solitary existence, sustained by a deep friendship with the local Presbyterian minister Boughton. Boughton has a son, Jack, who Ames distrusts deeply – Jack’s return home is a tragic version of the prodigal son, told in the second book Home. Then into Ames’ life there come a most unlikely character, Lila, an illiterate drifter very much younger than him with who he falls in love, marries and has a child – her version of events is told in the third novel, Lila. Thus Ames has a small son, but is elderly with a failing heart.  Gilead is the journal he writes so that when his son grows older he will know something of the life, history and thoughts of his father long gone.  So these are books where not a lot happens, the pace is slow, the events largely ordinary, but in them very deepest issues of life are explored and touched – never before have I burst into tears whilst reading a book, but I did in reading Gilead!

So why should you read Gilead?  For ministers the reflection upon what he has achieved across the years is sobering – I was especially moved as he wonders what to do with his sermons – I have several hundred neatly boxed and filed and wonder what my own children will do with them one day! There is also deep theological reflection, where he wrestles with his Calvinist theology, a challenge for we Arminians. This theological debate comes especially into focus in the third book where Lila wonders how God will deal with the woman who has mothered her and yet is clearly not a believer.

This is a book about friendship, about how difficult family life can be, about faith, about facing death. No review of mine (or the many other reviews on line, especially Rowan Williams’) can do it justice. It is a marmite book, it will either bore you or stir you as none other – try reading it!

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