Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: A Merciful Mind for Our Contentious Time

Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prizewinning Gilead is a book for our contentious time. I’d picked up a copy when it first became a best seller, but this year when I went through my shelves looking for books I’d bought but hadn’t yet read, its weathered green spine beckoned. When I broke the book open, Gilead began the gentle work of breaking me open. This seamless inter-generational novel returned the feet of my wandering soul to the solid ground of humility, mercy and peace.

Gilead’s voice is from another era, but I know that voice is authentic. It’s the voice of a soft-spoken gentleman from a past generation, man of books and prayer, a lover of children and nature, a lover of the scriptures. My grandfather (1902-1996) was a gentle preacher not unlike John Ames, Gilead’s narrator.  I’m grateful to have known such a man, a sincere and innocent soul, a lover of sport, of the woods, of the Bible.  A model of mercy and civility.  A quiet, authentic man.

John Ames is a more intellectual preacher than Grandpa Walter (whose fundamentalist conversion from Lutheran roots made him wary of placing head knowledge over heart knowledge of the Lord), but he is just as kind and accepting of others.  Ames, a minister like his father and grandfather before him, reads Feuerbach with appreciation for the joy in the atheist’s musings, though the King James Bible bubbles up in his thoughts far more frequently.

It’s a blessing to tarry in the old preacher’s mind, to ponder with him the beauty of nature and the mystery of human relationships.  And to ponder the scriptures along with him in moments like these:

When the Lord says you must ‘become as one of these little ones,’ I take Him to mean you must be stripped of all the accretions of smugness and pretense and triviality.

A humble manGilead delights in simple things: a “toasted cheese sandwich,” the game of baseball, the beauty of water (“the sprinkler is a magnificent invention because of the way it exposes water to sunshine).” After a page or two of Gilead, I enjoy my hot coffee, the sparkling morning grass and a ladybug’s crimson shell with deeper wonder.

So what’s Ames doing reading Feuerbach? The German philosopher is one of many entry-points for exploring inter-generational conflict and the need for forgiveness. He reads to understand his estranged brother Edward, a prodigy the whole community expected to become a great preacher.

Edward had been so intelligent and pious that his father’s congregation raised funds to have him educated abroad.  He returned from Germany an atheist with a handlebar mustache.  After refusing to say grace simply to respect his father’s home, Edward leaves the family, leaving a disappointed father and a brother with a copy of Feuerbach to ponder surreptitiously.

Edward is a perfect example of each thread in this tale, illuminating the ways sons disappoint their fathers and the way they inevitably disappoint even themselves. 

John Ames never was convinced by Feuerbach’s atheism.  We meet Ames as an elderly pastor writing to his young son, born late in his life after his marriage to a woman a generation younger than he.  The child is a blessing in the old man’s final years (blessings and baptisms abound in Gilead).  He tells his own story while meandering about the lives of and conflict between his father, a pacifist, and grandfather, who took the Union side in the Civil War.

Ames was single for many years after the death of his first wife and baby daughter. Because he seemed unlikely to have children of his own, his lifelong friend, Boughton, named his first son after him, on the day Ames baptized the child.

But John Ames “Jack” Boughton  becomes another example of father-son conflict and disappointment, one Ames wrestles with throughout the book.

As the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of ministers, I felt a deep affinity for this narrative, with its simple joys and biblical references.  Gilead helped me see more deeply the ways I couldn’t help but disappoint my own father when I joyfully embraced Catholicism in mid-life, an event which surprised me as much as it did him. This book also helped me seek understanding of the choices my sons have made and to continue to pursue more fully the expansive love of God, who gave me my existence and loves me, as Ames would say, “to the marrow of my bones,” no matter how bad I am.

And that brings us to the weathervane on the steeple of Ames’ church.

It was brought from Maine by his grandfather who moved to Kansas in support of the abolitionist cause. He gave it to his son (Ames’ father) on the day of his ordination.

The people in Maine used to put those roosters on steeples, Ames’ grandfather had said, to remind themselves of Peter’s betrayal, “to help them repent.”  Gilead plays a similar role for the reader.  In reminding us that no generation is perfect, that we are no different from Peter in our defections from God and from each other, this novel is an occasion for grace.  Gilead can help us repent.

 Gilead is a book to internalize.  Its revelations are slow, like the gradual gift of understanding any human being, including ourselves.  Absorb Gilead’s message and you’ll long to fully forgive those who’ve hurt you.  You’ll see why judgement belongs to God alone. 

And you won’t look at a weathervane the same way again.


Reads & Other Seeds

A beautiful essay further illuminating Gilead, see:  “Gilead: Acts of Devotion” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I would love to hear from you!  Let me know by leaving a  comment what books have “broken you open” the way Gilead did me.  We’re on this breadcrumb trail together. I’m grateful to be sharing it with you.



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4 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: A Merciful Mind for Our Contentious Time

  1. So that’s what those roosters are there for.

    The point about appreciating the simple things resonated for me: and it’s nice to know about a book that’s reasonably hopeful.

    1. And a best seller that’s so deeply Christian, theological caveats aside. Very encouraging. Yes, I always thought those roosters were some countrified art object. I like the truth better!

  2. I loved your essay and I loved the book (I also like “Housekeeping” and “Home”). I would like to recommend Brian Doyle’s, “Mink River” (and a follow-up novel, “The Plover”). Doyle is who I call a “Catholic Mystic”. His Magical Realism novels are written beautifully; the settings are gorgeous and wild, the characters are heroic, memorable, and lovable, and there is a deep spiritual underpinning throughout. His books are on my top-twenty of all time list.

    1. Mark–thank you! I’m glad to know which other books of hers you liked. I’d heard that Lila is about the Boughton family and was tempted to try that one, though one person said it doesn’t resemble Gilead much. I’ve read essays by Doyle but not a book. You’ve sold me on trying him. Had you heard that he passed away very recently? I read a tribute to him by one of his students. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

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