The ongoing debate and discussion about Christian fiction versus fiction ebbs and flows. It calms down, only to erupt as writers argue and debate whether there should be a distinction or not (and this seems to be an issue only for Christian writers). It’s interesting, and thought-provoking, but it can lean to the tiresome with repetition. Then a writer like Eric Wilson will publish an open letter, asking it if it’s time for Christian fiction to die, and blow the lid off all over again.
Then there’s Marilynne Robinson, who, I think, makes Wilson’s point in spades.
Robinson is a writer of what could only be called serious, literary fiction. Her fist novel, Housekeeping (1980), had the good fortune of being noticed and reviewed by Anatole Broyard in The New York Times Book Review (he was afraid it would go unnoticed so he reviewed it himself). She went on to write non-fiction and essays, and published her second novel, Gilead, in 2004. Home, a kind of companion to Gilead but not a sequel or “prequel,” was published in 2008.
I first “met” Robinson through the movie version of Housekeeping. It’s the story of an irregular, more-than-slightly offbeat aunt who comes home to care for her two young nieces, whose mother has committed suicide. Actress Christine Lahti played the aunt, and she played the character perfectly. I read the book after seeing the movie. As much as I liked the movie, I forgot it as I read Robinson’s prose.
Housekeeping was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Gilead won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. As good as Housekeeping is, I find Gilead even better.
In the story, it’s early 1950s Iowa. Minister John Ames, 77, is dying, and he’s writing a journal of his thoughts and history for his son, who is 7. How a 77-year-old minister came to have a 7-year-old son is part of the history. Ames’ father and grandfather were ministers, and his grandfather was a sympathizer of abolitionist John Brown and often packed a revolver during his sermons. Ames’ father embraced the Quakers; Ames himself is ministering to a Congregationalist church.
There are three things one sees about this story from the start.
First, the writing is extraordinary, almost a “poetic prose.” It is absolutely beautiful and often breathtaking.
Second, the structure of the story is unusual. It’s in the form of a long letter or extended journal. It is a first-person account of an elderly man who is honest enough with himself to tell a story without making himself the hero.
Third, the story is about relationships, and particularly the relationships of fathers and sons, those “rocky places” which is what Gilead means. (Historically, Gilead is a region in northern Palestine, east of the Jordan River; it was known for both its rockiness and its balm, a resin collected from its evergreen trees and used as an ointment).
The relationships include one character outside the Ames family, John Ames Boughton, who’s the son of Ames’ best friend but thinks of Ames so much like a second father that he calls him “Papa.” And these father-son relationships don’t follow a conventional story line; they twist and turn and surprise. The story that Ames tells is the story that history and ancestry matter, because the past shapes the present and the future in ways both obvious and subtle. That Ames’ grandfather was a John Brown supporter will matter a great deal a century later.
Gilead, to me, is one way to look at the Christian fiction versus fiction argument. It stands outside the genre of Christian fiction; it sits firmly within mainstream publishing. And yet it is a profoundly Christian novel, written by a Christian (who teaches at the Iowa Workshop for Writers), with Christian themes and concepts and language and characters often juxtaposed against non-believers or those who have rejected the faith of their youth. And like so much of what we experience as Christians, there is a moment of forgiveness and blessing that is so quiet that it’s almost missed. When you’re startled into realizing what has happened, you go back and reread it. I did that, several times.
In fact, I found myself stopping and rereading passages of Gilead several times. The language alone is that excellent. The story, of recognizable people in recognizable relationships, is that good. In an interview with the Paris Review, Robinson wasn’t speaking of herself but she could have been when she said, “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”
That’s exactly what happens in Gilead.
This article was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but the site was redesigned and the archive (with all of my posts) disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting some of the articles I wrote for the publication.