Now, at that point I did feel that Jack Boughton was, so to speak, winning the conversation, and furthermore, that he was no happier about it than I was, maybe even a little disgusted. Certainly I found myself in a false position yet again. I felt like pleading old age. But I was sitting there in my church, with the sweet and irrefragable daylight pouring in through the windows. And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone. And my heart rose up within me — that's exactly what it felt like — and I said, “I have heard any number of fine sermons in my life, and I have known any number of deep souls. I am well aware that people find fault, but it seems to me to be presumptuous to judge the authenticity of anyone's religion, except one's own. And that is also presumptuous.”
And I said, “When this old sanctuary is full of silence and prayer, every book Karl Barth ever will write would not be a feather in the scales against it from the point of view of profundity, and I would not believe in Barth's own authenticity if I did not also believe he would know and recognize the truth of that, and honor it, too.”
I hope readers who have absorbed and taken nourishment from Marilynne Robinson's brilliant novel, Gilead, will find fault with my choice of excerpt. It could be the most didactic bit of prose you will find in the novel's entirety, only hinting at the sublime pleasures and tensions she sustains with her articulate attention to the poetic rhythms of a spiritual life. But I think it highlights the strength of character in this novel of hers, and this novel is all character.
This excerpt captures perfectly those vain arguments we all enter, foolishly hoping to be persuaded out of our convictions. Jack Boughton has broached the subject of Karl Barth, the neo-orthodox theologian who John Ames, the book's narrator, reads with delight. Boughton slides in and cunningly uses Barth as a means to critique the piety he faces in Ames (a tactic not dissimilar, perhaps, to some of my own). Ames is wise enough to intuit that such fault-finding is thin and bitter broth for young Boughton, but does not yet have the insight to appreciate the torment within his tormentor. Ames's life has not been without its own sorrows, but as ever he reaches for the only constants he knows: “sweet, irrefragable daylight”; “silence and prayer.”
This proves to be a conversation-stopper, as so many of his poetic metaphors are. The only internal monologue any of us can be certain of is our own, and as Ames articulates his, we realize just how dodgy this monologue can get without the external impertinences of an engaged life. The book begins with the elderly Ames joyously ready to shed his mortal coil, and choosing to fill his notebook with reminiscences of previous difficulties and the eternal delights that seem to have flowered in their wake. Life has one final difficulty to fling at him, however, in the form of a namesake he never asked for.
I hesitated to read this book because too many people were recommending it. It seems to win over the faithful and the infidel alike. The fine folks at Books & Culture are smitten with it; so are atheists like James Wood and Nick Hornby (in fact, after singing Robinson's praises, Hornby promptly declared he was ready to spend the next several years in a theological college — a claim he quickly renounced in his next month's column after having read (insert sound of my grinding teeth) A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews).
Furthermore, I was informed by DV that the Amazon “recommendation engine” had noted his recent purchase of Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb, and had “thought he might also enjoy” ... Gilead. Visitors who have followed my reading habits will already be aware that DeVries, born to a Calvinist household, takes it upon himself to deflower the Calvinist TULIP — first with ribald glee, and finally with a savage and irrefutable anguish. Now, Ms. Robinson has stated for the public record that she is a resolute Calvinist (possibly the only Calvinist to gain full access to the American public square — no small feat). Can this absurd disparity, generated by this absurd engine, co-exist promisingly for the perceptive reader?
To my incredulity and delight, it can. Hornby and Wood are right on the money in their generous appraisal. “Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction,” says Wood, an indication he has come across a genuine find. Hornby says Gilead achieves “an astonishing hush” that has turned him into “a wiser and better person.” Hornby's being somewhat cheeky in the latter statement, but only a little. He says, “I didn't even mind that it's essentially a book about Christianity, narrated by a Christian; in fact, for the first time I understood the point of Christianity — or at least, I understood how it might be used to assist thought.” The emphasis is mine, and it's important. Typically, whenever Christianity is used as the starting point of any discussion, whether by friend or foe, it is not in an effort to assist thought — quite the opposite. In one slim, magnificent novel, Marilynne Robinson provides the antidote, proving that if a “religious” writer can assiduously measure the height, breadth and depth of human experience, they can achieve what all writers strive for: transcendence.