Marilynne Summers Robinson is an American writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her 2004 novel, Gilead. The story is told through the voice of a man named John Ames who has been a preacher in Gilead, Iowa all of his life just like his father and grandfather before him. He is a man who processes thoughts by writing and he writes letters to his young son so that his son will know something about him. Throughout the book John Ames is dying of a heart condition and knows he will leave behind his much younger wife and the son who is only seven years old.
As he wrestles with questions of theology and practice, trust and conviction, joy and discipline, among other things, we are drawn into his internal arguments and find his questions to be our questions. He wonders how his young wife and son will survive after he is gone, even as he fears some of the solutions that present themselves. He struggles with forgiving a man he knows he should and we feel his angst as he tries to figure out how to do this without resorting to cheap grace.
One of the most interesting aspects of the story relates to how John Ames watches faith come and go in the lives of others. We watch faith gently grow in the woman he eventually marries. We see faith fade in his father and faith completely rejected in his brother. Through it all, John Ames is a man who keeps on searching, keeps on asking questions, and keeps on learning. He reads widely reading both theological books and books which challenge orthodox theological thinking. Ames reads the writings of a famous atheist as one way in which he processes his own understanding of faith. He sees both flaws and merit in the words of the atheist, Feurbach. He has this to say about him.
Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions.
Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feurbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.*
We could learn much from the fictional John Ames. It seems he has learned the skill of opening up his mind to the arguments of others, considering them critically, and coming to conclusions that still allow room for faith. He suggests that those whose faith gets unsettled by the atheists of the day are not all that solid in their faith to start with. Truly, we can seek to ignore the writings and arguments of those with whom we disagree and hope that our faith will stay intact; or we can choose to carefully read and weigh the arguments of our detractors while holding on to our faith in God. Gilead is a good read for those who wish to uncover some of their own deepest, most cherished understandings of life. It may help us hold these understandings up to the light of day and find that they still have substance and life beyond the subconscious places where they normally dwell.
*Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. Harper Perennial, 2004, p. 24.