Marilynne Robinson won her Pulitzer in 2005 with the brilliantly conceived narrative vision of Gilead. Throughout the novel’s pages, an aging and dying long-time pastor, John Ames, writes a lengthy journal-letter to his young son, the son of his old age, product of an improbable marriage, and a child whose mind will not develop soon enough to appreciate his father’s wisdom at first hand.
As a preacher over many years in the same pulpit, the third generation from his family to minister in this tiny Iowa town, John Ames is well aware of the Bible. As C.H. Spurgeon said of John Bunyan, “cut him and he’ll bleed scripture.” He knows the beginning of John’s gospel with its proclamation that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is a man who values both the word and the Word.
In the course of his writing to his son, Ames notes that he has thousands of previously preached sermons packed away in the attic, sermons for which he holds only a bit of value. He sifts through them during the weeks of the book’s composition and finds only a few of any enduring value. One has to wonder about this man who has spent his professional life attempting to expound the Bible to a more or less receptive congregation only to near the end of both career and earthly life questioning his effectiveness. Does he entertain similar doubts about the possibility of communicating through the written word to this son?
In one way, John Ames, in the hands of Robinson, can stand as a sort of anti-Derrida. In Ames’ view, the efficacy of the word breaks down not in a swirl of endless play and a multitude of competing significations but due to the ambiguities of human communication and the uneven attentions of an audience. In Proverbs 16:10, we read, “Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” John Ames would be far too pious to contradict the truth of that proverb, but he would nonetheless point out the many impediments to giving heed to instruction.
While Karl Barth, whose influence is noted in this novel–John Ames proclaims Barth’s commentary on Romans as his favorite book after the Bible–and its sister book, Home, proclaims a transcendent Word of God, a Word that leaps from the page and exists with energy that goes beyond human language, Robinson, without contradicting the power of the Word, brings to the forefront in this novel the many impediments that the flesh raises to prevent easy comprehension.
In these pages we learn of an abolitionist grandfather who, preaching a rousing sermon years after the Civil War and Emancipation, doubts that his words have had any real effect. We learn of a father who struggles to understand the passions that animate this grandfather. We see some measure of the grief and fear of this same father when the older of his two son’s, John Ames’ brother, returns from theological studies in Germany a determined skeptic. And finally we witness the simultaneously calm and frantic attempt of John himself to reach out meaningfully to his son.
Robinson acknowledges the difficulties of human communication but does not follow that difficulty into despair. The Word may be difficult and words may be imperfect, yet these are the best tools that we have to connect with others and with the Eternal.