NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, November 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Today we welcome book reviewer Emily Whitten to talk about our Classic Book of the Month. Thanks for joining us, Emily!
EMILY WHITTEN, GUEST: Hey, Mary. Glad to be here.
REICHARD: What book shall we talk about this month?
WHITTEN: How ‘bout some Pulitzer Prize winning fiction?
REICHARD: I’m going to trust you on that one. Sometimes the prize winners aren’t my cup of tea, ya know?
WHITTEN: Yea, I get that. But I think this one will be! My pick this month is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. And I have a great sound clip to start us off.
To set it up, the book’s narrator is John Ames. He’s a Congregationalist minister in Iowa during the 1950s. He’s coming to the end of his life. He writes this book as a letter for his son to read after he’s gone.
This clip comes from a National Endowment for the Arts program. In this passage read by our author, Robinson, narrator John Ames thinks about the thousands of pages of sermons he wrote in his life:
ROBINSON: I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction, sifting my thoughts and choosing my words, trying to say what was true. And I’ll tell you frankly, that was wonderful.
WHITTEN: Hopefully, you hear something of the poetry and cadence of the writing there. You may also notice the religious focus. Ames both prays and preaches in that passage. Robinson’s willingness to see the religious part of life may be the most remarkable quality of this book. Throughout Ames’s story, readers get a glimpse of the complex, vibrant life of a Christian pastor in what many consider flyover country. Listen to how Robinson puts it in an interview with editor Paul Elie:
ROBINSON: I wanted to give the sense of a life lived around religious assumptions that are beautiful and worthy of any amount of thought or attention.
REICHARD: I can tell this is my cup of tea. It’s refreshing to hear respectful treatment of religion in a mainstream book. I’m kinda curious why she would choose to write about a small town pastor. What got her interested in that kind of character?
WHITTEN: Robinson grew up in the 1940s and 50s in small town Idaho as the daughter of a lumber company employee. She was raised Presbyterian but later became Congregationalist. So she knows something about the time and place and people she writes about here.
REICHARD: I can relate to that. I grew up in a small town myself. What else should we know about her biography?
WHITTEN: Robinson’s love of books has played a large role throughout her life. For instance, she earned a P-h-D in English in 1977 at the University of Washington. Not long after that, she published her first prize-winning novel, Housekeeping. I found it a little surprising that she didn’t publish another novel until 2004. Any guesses what might have distracted her during those decades, Mary?
REICHARD: Well, I’m a mom, so I’ll guess bundles of joy? Children?
WHITTEN: Yeah, and obviously they weren’t just distractions.
REICHARD: Right. Also wonderful investments.
WHITTEN: Yes, indeed! Robinson took quite a bit of time to invest in marriage and kids. Back to her love of reading, she also used that time to wrestle deeply with a lot of Christian classics.
When you look at a character like John Ames, all those hours of Robinson’s wrestling with Christian ideas are on display. Ames can easily quote Augustine and John Calvin, Karl Bartz. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character who applies so much Biblical imagery to everyday life. For instance, he talks about his body as a seed that will drop into the ground, referencing John 12, “unless a seed dies, it remains alone.” It’s really beautiful.
REICHARD: Sounds immediately applicable to life. Emily, what kind of reader would most enjoy this book?
WHITTEN: Almost anyone could pick this book up and benefit from it. No sex, no violence, no profanity. Robinson manages a few surprising plot twists along the way–most of it has to with John Ames’s father and grandfather, as well as the reappearance of his godson, Jack Boughton. Abolition and racism play a role, and they add to the book’s positive moral center. Overall, it’s not plot but the depth of the storytelling and the fascinating characters that will keep readers turning pages late into the night.
REICHARD: One final question. You and I talked about this book earlier, and you noted Robinson’s liberal views on a number of subjects. Do we see those in Gilead?
WHITTEN: She’s much more strident in her essays, but we do see some of her liberal convictions here. For instance, in her interview with Paul Elie, Robinson explains that she used the character of Ames’ godson, Jack Boughton, to explore whether God loves secular, or non-Christian, people:
ROBINSON: I have no conception of God that would not include love for these people. This is a mystery for me. It’s probably as big a challenge to my religious assumptions over time as anything had been. And finally I thought, I’m going to test this. If you write a character, if people love Jack Boughton, then God loves Jack Boughton. He is what he is, nothing sinister, well, he’s not a great guy, but neither was Jacob.
WHITTEN: So I sympathize with Robinson here. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” But Robinson’s universalism, or her idea that everyone goes to heaven, clashes with the second part of John 3:16. That part reads, “…whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Ames doesn’t want his godson, Jack, to perish. He wants him to be blessed, and much of the climax revolves around this desire. But God’s Word says there’s a requirement for that ultimate blessing. This unbelieving young man has to repent and believe in Christ. And at the end of the day, it’s not loving to pretend otherwise.
REICHARD: Is this book something conservatives might choose to skip, then?
WHITTEN: No, I think we need this book more than ever. Respect for religion seems at an all time low in our country right now. Gilead can help people of every stripe see the beauty in Christian beliefs. I just want to encourage folks to be discerning. We need to be Bereans, testing everything by Scripture, even when it comes to brilliant Christian writers.
REICHARD: Emily, thank you for the recommendation today.
WHITTEN: You’re very welcome, Mary. Happy reading!
REICHARD: Today, Emily recommended Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Find other classic book recommendations at worldandeverything.org. Just search for Classic Book of the Month.