Gilead: A Book Report

These are the bullet points of content I shared at a gathering of pastors at Calvin Seminary last summer. The material is not original and probably was culled from too many online sources. I apologize for any inconsistencies.

Of those things I am sure of is that I did and do love the book. I have been especially taken with a connection with what Alan Jacobs notes about the unique genre of essay (the quote at the end) and how Robinson has portrayed the thought life of her letter writer and narrator, John Ames. Jacobs writes of the essay that it follows, “the vagaries of the mind, with its habit of following its own pathways in serene disregard of what we would have it do.” I think that captures John Ames quite well.

Marilynne Robinson Bio
  • She has earned her PhD in English and most recently has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City
  • Housekeeping (1980)
  • Gilead (2004)
  • Home (2009)
  • On the Daily Show last summer discussing her book: Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self 
Gilead Plot
Gilead is a letter written by a Congregationalist minister named John Ames III to his 7 year old son in 1956. His purpose in writing is: “to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things which I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you….” The story is epistolary, and in his memoir, John Ames relates the stories of his family and friends as well as his experience in the world.
Pastoral Humor
  • p. 39 “I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.”
  • p.41 “I still wake up at night, thinking, That’s what I should have said! or That’s what he meant! remembering conversations I had with people years ago, some of them long gone from the world, past any thought of my putting things right with them.
  • p.42 “It was quite a sermon, I believe….But my courage failed, because I knew 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 and no more approving of the war than I was….
  • p.115 “So I decided a little waltzing would be very good, and it was. I plan to do all my waltzing here in the study. I have thought I might have a book ready at hand to clutch if I began to experience unusual pain, so that it would have an especial recommendation from being found in my hands. That seemed theatrical, on consideration, and it might have the perverse effect of burdening the book with unpleasant associations. the ones I considered by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s Institutes. Which is by no means to slight Volume I.”
  • p.132 “A woman in my flock called just after breakfast and asked me to come to her house. She is elderly…O the clerical life! I think this lady has suspected me of a certain doctrinal sloughing off, and now she will be sure of it. The story made your mother laugh, though, so my labors are repaid.”
  • p.232 “…Now it’s Sunday again. When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night. You just finish preparing for one week and it’s already the next week.”
Fathers and Sons
Along with John Ames III’s tender relationship with his son, father-son relationships play significantly in the accounting and reflection of John himself. Rev Ames tells his son about  his great-grandfather, John Ames Sr. and his son’s tumultuous relationship which is pacified by a tremulous detent. John Ames Jr and his son Edward have their own falling out over Edward’s apostasy. And also significantly we read about Robert Boughton’s troubled relationship with his son, Jack who himself is a deeply troubled father.
  • The Prodigal Son
  • The story of Abraham
  • Jephthah’s father was Gilead who was a father who treated his child abominably. See page 129 and Judges 11ff.
In Addition
  • Death, disintegration, and relational breakdown hover and held in tension by gratitude and joy in life, the hope and experience of forgiveness and redemption.
  • Forgiveness, Anger, Resentment, Healing, Grief, Soundness, Redemption, Surprise
  • Issues of Grace, Forgiveness, Belief, Reprobation, Predestination all figure in the story.
  • The Balm of Gilead.  Jeremiah 8:22  22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.
Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
Refrain
If you can’t preach like Peter,
If you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.

Wandering
Of the books we read, Gilead was the most contemplative. The representation which is being pictured is a representation of the “vagaries of the mind, with its habit of following its own pathways in serene disregard of what we would have it do.”
  • The John Ames narration wanders.
  • John Ames III is going home. His sojourn is nearly over though he feels more at home than ever.
  • Jack Boughton has lost his house in St Louis, alienation, sin, circumstance. He is a home-wrecker, abandoner, forsaker…
  • Edward and John Ames Jr wander away from faith.
  • John Ames Sr wanders Kansas (and Missouri?) in a guerilla war with John Brown. He wanders the South with the Union Army, He wanders back to Kansas to die.
  • John Ames III and his father wander Kansas looking for his father’s grave and almost starve to death.
  • The abolitionist settlement wanders even as it was built to be a harbor for wanders.
  • In 1956 America is wandering. Interstate Hwy Act was in-acted. The Birmingham Bus Boycott was in full-swing. 
From Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, by Alan Jacobs
Charles Lamb’s, “Poor Relations” (1823) is an essay which begins by humorously telling a story of the awkward circumstances that occur when poor relations visit at supper time. Lamb goes on to tell of another poor relation with whom he went to school but had to withdraw because of his poverty. His only option was to join the army. In his first engagement, he was killed. Lamb goes on to write,

“‘I do not know how, upon a subject which I began treating half seriously, I should have fallen upon a recital so eminently painful; but this theme of poor relationship is replete with so much matter for tragic as well as comic associations, that it is difficult to keep the account distinct without blending.’

Of all the many virtues of the essay…. It is what I have elsewhere called a humble mutability of tone, a willingness to acknowledge and accept the vagaries of the mind, with its habit of following its own pathways in serene disregard of what we would have it do. Lamb may meant to write a comic bagatelle; his mind, it turned out, contained a store of memories that would not confine themselves to the mood in which he began.”

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