Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gilead, Marilynn Robinson

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Although a work of literary fiction, this is probably the best book about God and the Christian Faith that I've ever read. It achieves what "The experience of God" by David Bentley Hart does, and then it surpasses it, by acknowledging the presumptuousness of anyone who tries to judge anyone else's faith.

Gilead (winner of 2005 Pulitzer for fiction) is written as a letter from a 76-year-old Congregationalist Preacher, John Ames, to his seven-year-old son. The pastor has been given only a few weeks to live by his doctor, and he writes down his thoughts in the hope that his son will read them in the future. This is really a fictional vehicle for the author to offer a splendid meditation on life and death and faith.

This rare thing happened to me while reading Gilead: at first, I couldn't stand it. Once I was about half way through, I started to flat out love it, and by the end I loved it even more, as it's a book that resonates with me in an almost perfect way. I heard that other readers also took some 50-70 pages before warming up to it. 

Initially I couldn't stand the main character, his "I made myself so happy by having you, my 7 year old son, but I'm so sorry I'm not leaving you any money at all, because I am 77, dying and broke". While on one hand he was complaining that he didn't have any money to pass on to his son, on the other he was idolizing his grandpa, who used to bully his wife into giving away all their money and possessions to anyone who asked. Typical human conflict, and typical struggle with money of every idealistic man, who doesn't want to get his hands dirty with the "dung of the Devil", except for when he needs it (can't live with it, can't live without it). In a fictional character, this doesn't make him particularly likable. But the truth is, I was too quick to judge John Ames.

Gilead is a book so full of depth, wisdom and poetry that by the end of it I was in awe. It also contains a lot of Christian theology and explicit and implicit references to the Bible - in particular, to the parable of the prodigal son - but none of that is presented in a preachy or academic tone. And certainly this is not a "book for Christians", as the tone is very open to a universal spirituality (for example: John Ames never mentions Jesus, only God).

In his balanced, slow-paced letter-style monologue, the main character also addresses atheism, and the thoughts of Feuerbach, Hegel, Calvin and other fine minds. His voice feels genuine, coming from the heart, and I'm sure the author often speaks her own mind through John Ames. You can tell that not only Marilynn Robinson means what her main character is saying, she also has clearly given these matters a lot of thought and study, and yes, I admit that, selfishly, seeing her thoughts on religion align perfectly well with mine helped me enjoy the book even more (I am catholic and the author comes from a Congregational church, but that makes zero difference to me).

Above all, it's so rare to find great depth and great positivity mixed together in the same book (or in the same artist / writer / person). It's much more common to find depth and desperation, or a happy superficiality. That's what makes Gilead such a treasure, its profound and optimistic wisdom.

Some reviewers found Gilead boring because there is "no plot". That's not exactly the case, but I can understand that if you are looking for a plot-driven book, this is not a title for you.

Gilead is much larger than its characters and much larger than the events that are being narrated.
As I mentioned above, Robinson used the vehicle of fiction to express some very deep and heartfelt points about faith and religion. In my opinion, her greatest achievement in Gilead is that she succeeds in painting Christianity at its best. Christianity as a living, real thing, as opposed to a bunch of mindless dogmas. Christianity as a way of living, with all its messiness, contradictions, failures and struggles. But also, Christianity as seen from a very wise, positive and self-aware point of view. In fact, I found many thoughts and ideas in this book that seemed to come straight from St Augustin (whom I consider "Christianity at its best" when it comes to thinking).

Here is John Ames, the old pastor, writing about religious self-righteousness:

"People of any degree of religious sensitivity are always vulnerable to the accusation that their consciousness or their understanding does not attain to the highest standards of the faith, because that is always true of everyone. St Paul is eloquent on this subject. But if the awkwardness and falseness and failure of religion are interpreted to mean there is no core of truth in it, then people are disabled from trusting their thoughts, their expression of belief, and their understanding, and even from believing in the essential dignity of their and their neighbors' endlessly flawed experience of belief. It seems to me there is less meanness in atheism [than in religious self-righteousness], by a good measure."

And here's an excerpt from an interview with the author:

Interviewer: "Is GILEAD on some level a novel about “being Christian,” about what it might mean to live a Christian life?"

Robinson: "I think I can guardedly say yes. The fact is, being who I am, my definition of human life is perhaps not readily universalized. But I hope that it is not a narrow view of human life itself. I don’t have the feeling that people need to be Christian in order to understand what the novel is and what it means and so on, to recognize it’s about father-son relations, or parent-child relations. In the New Testament, of course, that’s the major metaphor for the situation of a human being in the world relative to God. I think that, in using that metaphor, the New Testament is appealing to something that people profoundly and universally know: what it is to love a child and what it is to love a parent. So that’s a big subject in the book."

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