Book Balm


“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”

– Marilynne Robinson [Gilead]

I’m not sure how God does this; I can’t exactly remember why I came to be reading any novel, let alone Gilead whilst on Sabbatical. But there it was in my pile of books, so I read it. I used to read novels at school, because I had to, and yes, I did enjoy some; but not really the English ones. If there was any that appealed it was the French short story, the conte or nouvelle. Not exactly the same as the English novel, not as long as the roman either. Perhaps this was because, like much of the French film genre, they are written with a sort of predetermined purpose – to be able to say at the end “… and so boys and girls, that is why we should always/never…” It looks for a kind of ‘nicely tied together’ ending, whether you agree with it or not, which in a certain way helps to focus on the reader in a “…so what are you going to do about this?” kind of way.

I always liked this type of completeness, and so whether it was Maupassant, Aymé, or even the avant-garde film-maker Buñuel I preferred all of their story-telling technique especially to tedious, long winded descriptive tomes of prose (e.g Dickens!) which may well have had good ethics intended by them, but always seemed pompous, condescending and indiscreet in comparison to Tournier for example.

As a result, if I was not reading something Biblical or theological, I would not be generally reading an English novel. I really enjoy travel writings, and so have read most if not all of Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux and a few others; I like historical biography, so I have read lots by and about Churchill, Disraeli, US Presidents and the like, not to mention hundreds of Christian biographies and histories of course. I have recently got into reading anything by Niall Ferguson who writes socio-economic histories which have often been turned into Channel 4 Documentaries; Empire, Colosus, War of the Worlds, and The Ascent of Money are all brilliant in my humble estimation. I read biographies & autobiographies, especially Christian missionaries and leaders like Wesley (e.g. his Journal), Moody, Wilberforce and indeed anything by John Pollock, but also modern leaders such as Chuck Colson, Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Chris Patten, Brian Mawhinney; I’m reading Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father at the moment.

There are rare occasions when I have read things which come very close to novels, for example the Year in Provence series, Driving over Lemons (also the sequel the title of which I forget, but it was about a parrot I think) and I remember reading only a few years ago a work called English Passengers – but this was an historical novel, the fiction was secondary to recounting to you the story of English colonization of Australia and Tasmania, set in the context of English, or more precisely Manx seamanship in the 1800s. Then I have also enjoyed many of the Lake Wobegon series and other books by Garrison Keillor but his writings are so humorous they are best heard read aloud to you, like stand-up comedy – especially in his low smooth mid-western accent – since they are really originally designed for radio or spin-offs of this genre.

Gilead is the story of a man, a family and a community in the mid-west USA largely set in the 1950s. It is convincingly written in the first person of the elderly pastor John Ames, who, like his father and grandfather before him, leads the small community of the Congregational church in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The story unwinds in the form of a letter written by the aging pastor, who was widowed childless, has remarried now and become a father late in life. The reason for this missive is Ames’s failing health; he desires to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms –

“Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?”

I won’t spoil it for you by recounting the whole tale, for it is gorgeously written, and it is not at all surprising that the author Marilynne Robinson won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for it.

The Washington Post said of Gilead that it is “so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.”

It is a sumptuous story which stretches the emotions; we are laughing one moment, crying the next; touched by an unexpected mercy, then horrified by a heinous act; wooed by pure sweet love on one page, shocked and shamed by the human potential for stubbornness and bitterness on the verso. It is achingly beautiful. We adore such tales, books, movies, and dramas. These are rare awesome pleasures – to be gently but firmly exhorted to venture towards the seeming extremities of one’s affections and sensibilities, what the French might call attendrissement, and then to be compelled to look further.

Gilead is a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable in a fuller, more complex, twentieth century guise. But there I will leave it for I am in danger of giving the game away and I do want many of you to get hold of a copy and appreciate it for yourself.

However it may well be that it was simply just written for me.

For, together with other things I was reading, listening to, and watching, along with talking all this through with Judith (who also read Gilead and other books I was reading), through this means the Lord tenderized my heart so he could prepare me to receive his fresh grace again. I am so grateful that he did it this way. Else I might have wasted the rest of my time away, and not seen what God wanted to do in me first, before anything he might want to do through me.

It was so good to get away and see the wonders God is indeed doing all over the world. But first I am persuaded that he desires to do wonders in my heart. Yours too!


One response to “Book Balm

  1. Equally I had the same experience from a literary point of view when it came to the types of book being read. Amongst the first novels I read as an adult were actually C.S. Lewis’ sci-fi trilogy “The Space Trilogy”. My growth in education made me think that science fiction was that of Star Trek and the likes, however that is far from the truth.

    Lewis’ transformation through his Christian life led him to write fiction with such grandeur that I was instantly hooked despite shunning science fiction novels in the past. What I especially liked about this series was his subtle biblical referencing, for example Dr. Ransom (the main character) being wounded in a battle with the enemy where the wound was that of a bite to the heel. There’s many more references that I could go on about but what I wanted to get across was that novels can actually reveal something that you would only expect out of some deep theological study books or the bible.

    I can definitely agree on the wonders He does in our hearts.

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