The Delight and Truth of Fiction

flaming-mapleWilliam Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI, was recently appointed as the social media coordinator for Reformed Fellowship, publisher of the The Outlook. In his continuing task to help Reformed Fellowship build an online presence and engage meaningful internet discussion, he posted yesterday (October 20, 2016) a link to my article on Fiction’s Delight and Truth.

I wrote the article over a year ago, and it appeared in 2015’s November issue. At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate, I felt then and I still feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever written. In my defense, I submit what Leland Ryken (longtime professor of English at Wheaton College) wrote after I shared it with him:

Your essay is what I call a moon shot in my classes. It is absolutely perfect as a complete coverage of the material in a small compass. Congratulations on work well done. You did it better than I could have.

Considering Leland’s prolific writings on the subject and his astounding output as an author, I take this as the highest compliment. And I give all praise and glory to God, the I AM who writes all our stories as part of His great and never-ending story.




Fiction’s Delight and Truth

2015-06-nov-dec-outlook-coverAn article I wrote about why Christians should read fiction appears in the November issue of The Outlook. You can page through this online preview to read that article as well as a lovely review of my Matthew books.

Book club?

Not all great ideas turn out to be viable options. It seemed like a good idea to start a blog book club, but I’ve been having second — and even third — thoughts.

First, it turned out to require a lot more time than I anticipated, both preparing and blogging. Time is at a premium for me, and I must be discerning about how I spend this valuable resource.

Second, it was a lot of work. I am not shy about work, and I don’t think I’m lazy, but I like to know that my work is worthwhile. And I’m just not sure if this venture is worth all the effort.

Third, and this is the primary thing bothering me, it hasn’t been as interactive as I’d have liked. In fact, apart from some “likes” it hasn’t been interactive at all.

So I’m taking some time to assess the blog book club concept. And I’m inviting some friends and acquaintances to help get the conversation started.

Glenda Mathes seeking and receiving Marilynne Robinson’s signature in her copy of Gilead.

In the meantime, if you’d like to see my blog book club begin or want to join a discussion of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, please let me know. The best way to do that would be to comment on this post. Maybe you’ll have to set up an account in order to comment, but that’s a free and fairly painless process.

If you missed my previous two posts about this, you can find the first one here. And the second one here.

If you have suggestions for how this blog book club could work, I’d really appreciate hearing them. I don’t think it’s wise for me to expend precious time and energy on something that isn’t beneficial or enjoyable for others. So let me know what you think. Please.

Preacher heritage (Gilead-2)

Welcome to Fiction Friday and my blog book club! In last Friday’s post, I invited you to join me in discussing Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. It’s worth noting that Robinson’s writing successes span genres; she’s published different types of nonfiction as well as fiction. That’s what I want to be when I grow up: an inter-genrational author.

Today’s discussion looks at pages 3-17 of the 2004 hardcover edition of Gilead, up to the paragraph that begins: “You know, I suppose, that I married a girl when I was young.” If you read last’s week post, you’ll remember that Gilead doesn’t have traditional chapter breaks. The text has spacing breaks with an occasional break indicated by a short line. My opinion is that spacing breaks generally represent a different day, while line breaks may indicate later on the same day. Later we’ll talk about one significant exception to this normal format.

You may also recall that a primary theme is the relationships between fathers and sons, and this first section gives a glimpse of John Ames’ relationship with his six-year-old son as well as a story showing his relationship with his father and his father’s relationship with his father.

How many novels have you read that begin by addressing “you”? Not very many, I’m sure. Here’s about half of the first paragraph:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life (p. 3).

If an unknown author submitted to an editor a first page that portrayed dialogue that way, it would be the rare editor who would see past the format to the beautiful style. And it is beautiful. We can hear the narrator’s kindness and gentleness. We hear the typical queries of a very young boy. We see the boy put his hand into the man’s; we can imagine the bulky fingers tenderly intertwining with the small ones. We know that this narrator believes in God and trusts him. He believes he’s had a good life and that his son will have a good life, too, even though he realizes his son’s experience will be very different from his own and from the life they have together now. And we learn in this first paragraph that our narrator is dying.

Like a gently murmuring stream, the narrator continues this letter to his son. As he writes, a picture of the man and his situation emerges. We learn he’s a minister who lives with this son and his mother in an old parsonage that he’s lived in most of his life. We learn that he lived in great loneliness there for a time. And we learn that his heart is failing and he will die soon. He regrets not having provided better financially for his young family. He apologizes for the hard times he knows his son and his mother will go through after his death.

Several times in this section we see the way John Ames is touched by beauty. He hears his wife and son talking as she tries to get the child to sleep. He hears her sing, which sounds beautiful to him. Reflecting on beauty, he wonderfully describes young mechanics joking and smoking (p. 5).  He sees a bubble float past his window “fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.” He looks down and sees the boy and his mother blowing bubbles at the cat, who was beside herself, leaping in the air. He writes about the bubbles: “They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and the effulgence of bubble rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world (p. 9).

Ames relates some personal history, including this telling sentence: “My mother’s father was a preacher, and my father’s father was, too, and his father before him, and before that, nobody knows, but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess” (p. 6). After admitting that he and his father disappointed each other, even though they meant well, he confesses a “deeply mysterious fact”:

You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension (p. 7).

Later he writes: “My father left me a trade, which happened also to be my vocation. But the fact is, it was all second nature to me, I grew up with it. Most likely you will not (p. 8). On page 9, he begins a lengthy story about a trip he took with his father to find the grave of his father, who had died in Kansas (the fictional town of Gilead is located in extreme southwestern Iowa). He recounts the remarkable trek, which took place in 1892, with vivid descriptions.

After finally finding the grave and cleaning up the cemetery, he and his father stand to pray. Struggling to keep his eyes closed during that very long prayer, young John Ames looks around and relates an ingrained memory:

At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them (p. 14)

This descriptive ability and Robinson’s literary skill make Gilead a joy to read. Some people find the pace too slow and don’t enjoy it. If you’ve read it, what was your initial reaction? What parts of this first section struck you?


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!