Monday, April 17, 2017


If you're into fiction-- or even if you're not so much, but would pick up a non-fiction-like work of fiction-- I can commend Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Gilead to you. (This is the third book I've read by Robinson. Here are some great quotes from When I Was a Child, I Read Books and from Absence of Mind.)

I like James Wood's summary of it in the NY Times: "Gilead is set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and is narrated by a 76-year-old pastor named John Ames, who has recently been told he has angina pectoris and believes he is facing imminent death. In this terminal spirit, he decides to write a long letter to his 7-year-old son, the fruit of a recent marriage to a much younger woman. This novel is that letter, set down in the easy, discontinuous form of a diary, mixing long and short entries, reminiscences, moral advice and so on."

In a word, the story is of an elderly pastor who is preparing to die and works to write/communicate something of lasting value to his young son. It is a beautiful, well-crafted, thoughtful and provocative work. In its style, the author encourages us to slow down and read-- and to slow down and enjoy life.

In broad terms, the main character wrestles with the impact of the generations before him (with some vivid and memorable depictions of his father and grandfather); his tentative sense of the meaning and value of his own legacy; what it means to forgive himself and others; how to handle difficult people (esp. his best friend's son) and challenging moments-- deciding when to act and when to leave things alone (125, 148); and the simple enjoyment of life (which is mundane and extraordinary at the same time), particularly marriage, fatherhood, career, and vocation.  

In addressing the immense difficulty in making the book seem nearly as interesting as it is, I like what this blogger Heidi wrote: "It is a testament to Robinson’s considerable talent that the novel (which, admittedly, might sound boring from the description above) is so compelling. The plot, such as it is, arises entirely out of Ames’ characterization, but he is so fully realized that the novel never feels tedious."

Little Things I Enjoyed 

Robinson uses the main character to speculate on cause/effect with the Spanish Influenza at the onset of World War I-- as if God might have sent the plague as a warning and a sign. The pastor loses courage to make the claim in his sermon, since "the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be." (41-42) Later, he notes the big celebrations all over Europe and America when each got involved (86)-- something similar to what we still see today, with people's seeming eagerness to bomb foreigners. But the pastor believes that the plague was a sign that "we refused to see" and observes that "since then we have had war continuously" (43).

On Gen 22, "Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and...the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment." (129) 

On Gen 4 and a theme that continues throughout Genesis and the OT: "It is not Adam but the Lord who rebukes Cain. Eli never rebukes his sons, or Samuel his. David never rebukes Absolom. At the very end, Jacob rebukes his sons as he blesses them." (136)

Robinson uses the pastor to share terrific stories on: a.) how the 6th C. can lead to the 8th C. by ripping the social fabric (82); and b.) how the 7th C. can be a version of the 8th C. (156-157).

And there's this, on the 5th C (139): "Every day is holy but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a difficult commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object."

A recurring theological theme in the book is the extent to which there is free will vs. predestination (see: Eph 1:4-5). At times, it comes up explicitly-- and Robinson gives the pastor some nice lines on pre-destination as a tough topic (149-150). And I like this related turn-of-a-phrase as she closes the book: "Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave-- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear..." (246)

I'll add that quote to DC, along with this one-- on the breadth and richness of the Greek word sozo, often translated "saved" and reduced to a very narrow understanding of that term: "The conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations...grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways." (239-240)  

Some other cool quotes: 

On critics against the church, scribes vs. pharisees: "He seems to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet...? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do." (142)

"There was no question of need, there was only habit." (154)

"I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst." (154)

On the limited usefulness of apologetics, especially when many people just want to play games and play defense: "I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility to it...I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things." (177-178) The "good news" is that both sides in an argument face this conundrum!

"His family was so well respected that he got away with it all. That is to say, he was allowed to go right on disgracing his family." (183)

A version of this one cracks me up-- especially how people come to you for counsel, receive it, and then still walk away...since it doesn't line up with what they already wanted: "I really didn't understand what it was that made people who came to me so indifferent to good judgment, to common sense, or why they would say 'I know, I know' when I urged a little reasonableness on them, and why it meant 'It doesn't matter, I just don't care'." (204)

Of his wife: "How soft her voice is. That there should be such a voice in the whole world, and that I should be the one to hear it, seemed to me then and seems to me now an unfathomable grace." (209)

"There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance, it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. . So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?" (238)


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