“What is a soul?”
He looked up, smiled, studied her face. “Why ask me?”
“It just seems to me that you would know.”
He shrugged. “On the basis of my vast learning and experience, I would say – it is what you can’t get rid of.”
You’re going to have to bear with me for a moment, while we talk about the doctrine of election. If you are familiar with Calvinism, then you probably know what the doctrine of election is (you might know it by it’s somewhat oversimplified name, predestination). For those of you who don’t, however, an explanation: the doctrine of election refers to the Calvinist idea that God has pre-selected his followers. The idea is that we do not choose God, he chooses us, that in fact he chose us before we were born, and that – this is the sticking point – he only chose some of us.
The doctrine of election is also the reason that I left the church. But more on that later.
Marilynne Robinson’s two most recent works, Gilead and Home, are companionate pieces about the same town – the titular Gilead – set in the same time, with a very small and consistent cast of characters. Because of the limited setting of her books, she can afford to ask a lot of her readers, and she does: without some foreknowledge of the tenets of Christianity listed above, as well as a some contextual knowledge of the racial and cultural history of Iowa, you are likely going to get a little lost at times, reading these books (Gilead in particular). Indeed, the narrowness of the content should speak to the absolute power of Robinson’s prose and insight – the fact that a novel about a small-town Congregationalist preacher that focuses on doctrine that is unfamiliar to most won both a Pulitzer and widespread popularity is nothing short of amazing. Which works out, because the novel – both novels – are no short of amazing, either.
Gilead is the more compact of the two novels. It is set entirely in the head of the aforementioned Congregationalist preacher. He’s in his seventies, having re-married late in life after losing a wife and daughter in childbirth. The book is written as a letter to his seven-year-old son, meant to be read posthumously, because the writer – Reverend John Ames – has learned that his heart is failing him and his time is running short. The book is, in a word, absolutely beautiful. It reads as a meditation on not only the life of John Ames, but of life in general. It is also in large part about the soul, and how we recognize bits of our own soul in some, and grievously misjudge others. Ames sifts through his life experiences at random, returning to some over and over as common themes begin to emerge. As he writes, his peaceful home life is interrupted by the resurfacing of his namesake, John Ames Boughton (or Jack Boughton), son of his best friend and perpetual source of trouble, after twenty years. Jack is a peripheral character in Ames’ story, but in Home (the second and more conventional of the two novels) he takes center stage, as the novel delves further his life and family. It is narrated by Glory Boughton, his youngest sister, who has come home for her own reasons only to reconnect with her brother after a twenty-year absence and find she has more in common with him than she thought. The relationship between Glory and Jack is fantastically written, full of authentic moments, both funny and emotional, between siblings. But it’s the intersection of John Ames and John Ames Boughton that is the real crux of the two novels, the pivot point around which the story turns, and from which its themes emerge.
There are two themes which permeate both books, and those are race and religion. Both terms seem reductive in context, but the term religion in particular minimizes what these books are really exploring: namely, the soul, and how God chooses to reveal himself to some and not others, and about how that differently revelation manifests itself in people’s lives. What ties the themes of race and religion together is the idea of the accident of birth, and how it can determine, without your knowledge or consent, so many things about your life. And with that we find ourselves again, at the doctrine of election.
It should surprise no one that John Ames narrates from the position of a chosen one, while Jack Boughton seems to sit well outside the confines of God’s grace. They intersect in strange and uncomfortable ways, misunderstanding each other with a consistency that is both tragic and completely familiar to those of us with families. “In every important way we are such secrets from each other,” John Ames says, and it’s true. Both novels hinge upon the revelation of one such secret and it is this revelation that causes these souls to finally recognize each other in one glorious moment that provides the ending to the first book. The ending of Gilead is redemptive in a way the best American novels always are. Which makes it all the more devastating when that redemption is questioned in the second. The first novel had me a little teary at the end, but I was left mostly with the well-fed sense of having read something fulfilling. The second novel, however, absolutely trampled me. I was in messy, ugly tears over its suggestion of lives unlived and unfulfilled, its implication of fathers inadvertently passing on their sins to their children, its questioning of the whole idea of redemption, and whether it can happen as neatly as we’d like to believe. While I felt heartened by the first book, I was completely heartbroken by the second.
Part of the reason for this is that the heartbreak of that second book hit very close to home for me. I grew up in the church, by which I don’t mean the laissez-faire Easter/Christmas double feature common to many families, but the more rigorous Christian schools, church-at-least-twice-a-week variety. Despite the fact that I had never felt at home there, leaving the church still took a very long time. I was brought up to expect so much of it – I thought, because I was told, that the church was meant to redeem the world, to serve the poor, to bring hope to the afflicted. What it did, instead, was demonize the gays, hush up the abuse of children, ignore the poor and suffering, and consistently make it clear, despite many empty words, that grace was only for those who were good enough for it. More than that, the church gave me impossibly high expectations of God and his capacity to answer and intervene in the prayers of those who believed in him. The trouble with this was that God never seemed to answer my calls. If grace was only for a chosen few, it seemed obvious that I wasn’t one of them.
It’s five years later, and I have a much more realistic and forgiving view of the human failings of the church than I used to. But even so, I could never return to it. Having felt the sting of unbelonging, I would never feel comfortable pledging faith to an institution that believes in the arbitrary exclusion of others. This is why both books hit me so hard. Gilead painted a portrait of the incredible peace that comes with deep faith, and Home reminded me what it is to not feel a part of it. Gilead filled me with the satisfaction of a good redemption, and Home reminded me of what happens when that redemption doesn’t come: “a hope deferred makes the heart sick,” as the Bible says.
I don’t know if these books can be read the same way if you haven’t grown up in some sort of faith community. I wouldn’t know, because the faith of my parents – that accident of birth, or doctrine of election, whichever way you look at it – has defined whole chunks of my personality, including the aspect of it that read this book and reacted to it so strongly. But regardless of your religious history, what both Gilead and Home have, and what the church seems to so conspicuously lack these days, is a blatant and unabashed love for the humanity of the people that inhabit it. That alone would make it well worth the read.
Recommended for: Recovering Christians. Or current ones, I suppose.
Read During: Lent. It’s Ash Wednesday today, so you better get on it.
Listen With: Old Crow Medicine Show is what I listened to while reading this book and writing this review. I would specifically recommend “Take ‘Em Away,” since it’s pretty relevant to the subject matter.