Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

#17 in my 2007 book challenge was Gilead, my second reading of Robinson’s luminous work. How can I possibly contain my admiration for this book in a brief review? I discussed it with two groups of people. Few liked it; many found it dull. Several wondered why it was good enough to win the Pulitzer. I admit that I admire it more than I enjoyed it. But the experience of it and the aftermath as I ruminate on it, are deeply pleasurable and satisfying.

It’s a letter by an elderly minister written to his young son, to be read long after his death. There is story, plot, mystery, and romance; all are part of the narrator’s ruminations on his life. This is not a fast-paced thriller. It is, though, a deep examination of human relationships, especially between parents and children. It is also a thoughtful theological examination of a microcosm of suffering and redemption, etched onto a small town.

On this reading, I found a parallel between the generations of the narrator’s family, and the ages of Christianity. His grandfather was a soldier and warrior, who had visions of God and lived by simplistic rules of right and wrong, like the God of the Old Testament. He also has only one eye, like Odin, the Norse god of thunder and war. The narrator’s father read widely, and valued peace above all. He had a contentious relationship with his father, much as Jesus did. The narrator, John Ames, is a thinker. He has books on theology and his own thoughts on those. He is an analog for the age of the Holy Spirit, in which there isn’t an immanent God. The question I still ponder is, what age of Christianity does the narrator’s son represent?

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