Soul balm (Gilead-1)

How would you like to read a book with me? What do you say we read a bit in a novel each week and then meet here on Fridays to discuss what we’ve read? Doesn’t that sound like a great idea?

Okay, I confess. I got this great idea from Tim Challies, who has been using his blog for “Reading Classics Together.” He’s been working his way through The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges. His post yesterday on preaching to oneself is spot on.

But I’m thinking that discussing fiction would be fun. And I’d like to begin with Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The title of the book calls to mind the phrase, balm of Gilead, and this book is balm for the soul.

Robinson is one of the permanent faculty for the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I’ve led book club meetings on Gilead, and I’d like to think of this online discussion as our blog book club.

My copy of Gilead is the 247-page hardcover published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2004. It is signed by Marilynne Robinson. I once heard her read from Gilead in a gentle voice that wafted through the auditorium like a soft summer breeze. 

Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which is not surprising since the writing is luminous. But I am amazed that the Pulitzer was awarded to a popular novel that portrays a Christian minister so positively. In the novel, Robinson perfectly captures the voice of Pastor John Ames as he confronts death and communicates life.

When I describe Robinson’s writing as luminous, I mean exactly that. The novel glows with joy at witnessing life’s light, clearly linking beauty with the Christian faith. Pastor Ames has learned to see God’s beauty in the most mundane things. He even sees beauty in young garage mechanics, wearing grease-blackened overalls, laughing and smoking on their break. A recurring motif is the imagery of water, frequently associated with baptism or regeneration.

This awareness of God’s beauty, complemented by a profound humility, permeates the novel. Pastor Ames’ consciousness of beauty and genuine humility have grown from his increasing awareness of God’s greatness and his own weaknesses.

This epistolary novel is written in the form of one long letter, very much like journal entries, from an elderly pastor to his young son. Because Pastor Ames has a life-threatening heart condition, he knows his time on earth is very limited. He grieves the impeding loss to his much younger wife and their six-year-old son. He writes these letters as a way for his son to get to know him (when he is older and can read them as a young man), but the writing process becomes an avenue for Pastor Ames to work through some crucial issues. Many themes flow through the novel, set in the 1950s, including racial tensions, loneliness, acceptance, grace and redemption, but especially relationships between fathers and sons.

While you may not agree with everything Pastor Ames writes, I believe you will be refreshed by Robinson’s positive portrayal of him as a humble Christian minister. We can all learn from Pastor Ames about seeing God’s beauty in the common occurrences of life.

If you’d like to join the conversation, you can follow or subscribe to this blog. Or simply stop in and comment whenever you can. My plan is to discuss brief bits of it as we work through it, and then look at progression and common themes after we’re finished. If you have a copy of the book, you’ll notice that there are not regular chapter breaks.  Rather the text flows with spacing breaks or brief line breaks at periodic intervals (we’ll talk later about the one major exception). My perception is that spaces breaks appear to indicate different days that Pastor Ames writes in the letter to his son while a straight line seems to indicate a break during the same day’s chronicle.

These unusual breaks will make it a challenge to follow along unless you’re using the same copy I am (2004 hardcover), but I’ll try to be specific about our sections. I hope you can join me next week as we discuss the first section of the book (pages 3-break on page 17), up to the paragraph that begins: “You know, I suppose, that I married a girl when I was young.”

What do you think? Would you like to discuss Gilead with me? Have you read and enjoyed it already? Let me know your thoughts by commenting here!

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