As I was moving into my first apartment this week, I stopped by the public library. In the gap before classes begin, I’ve had time to do some reading. I read Wild, by Cheryl Strayer, but I also picked up a book for my #20before20 reading.
I’ve tried to read Gilead once before, and I flipped through a few passages during the months that it sat on our bathroom shelf at home. Good writing, I thought, but there’s no story there. I was wrong.
Gilead holds the reflections of John Ames, an Iowan preacher near the end of his life, as he writes a letter to his young son. Ames recalls the stories of his grandfather, a firebrand minister who rode into Kansas with John Brown, and his father, who rejected war. Ames’s conception of family history and legend becomes mixed up when his prodigal godson, Jack, stumbles back into town.
It’s a simple plot, and really rather plotless. But Ames’s stories about the bonds between father and son, and about wisdom and grief and honor, don’t need a plot. Like Faulkner, the stories and reflections loop back upon themselves and create a deep and resounding vision of the beauty of God’s creation.
Robinson is a Calvinist, like myself, but she dodges any stereotypes of the harsh, judgmental Protestant. Her writing is infused with a theologic sensibility, but she recognizes the limits of doctrine — Ames comments that “doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief”. Robinson strongly believes in her faith, but she presents that faith to us not as a set of categorical, unfeeling propositions, but as an enwrapping worldview with a deep assurance of grace.
I read Gilead as I was returning to a college campus, and it struck me so strongly because Robinson’s method of delivery and conviction is how I have wanted to speak about my faith, without ever having the words to do so. Ames muses about the Greek word sozo, (σοζω), which is often narrowly defined as salvation. This definition condemns Jack Boughton, the prodigal, and creates, Ames thinks, a false expectation for the sinner. But Ames thinks about the other meanings of sozo, healing and restoration, and knows that Jack has access, perhaps, to a wider hope than traditional belief.
It is those balancings of smart doctrine and hope that make me like Robinson so much. I have always wanted to picture Christianity and Calvinism not as a condemnation but as an offering of grace, as a worldview that enables someone to see the beauty of a red dress, a well-laid table, a field, a child. Ames is overcome with the beauty and the glory. I also admire writers like David Foster Wallace who, even if they rejected the belief system of Christianity, still talked about the world in a symbolic and transcendent manner. Maybe if people had more conversations about beautiful things, rather than dogma, we would get somewhere in the world.
I should stop now, or I’ll cease making any sense. Have you read Gilead, or any of Robinson’s excellent essays or other books? Any thoughts or experiences on Calvinism or Christianity in art and writing?