So, from my perspective, this book is about faith. And, from my perspective, it is a fabulous book. The way Robinson constructs the thoughts of this man is simply gorgeous. As seems to be my trend of late, this is another book that requires some concentration. You should see my copy of it. Almost every page is marked or folded. There is some deep stuff in here and I would often stop and think - A LOT - about the sentiment oozing from the pages. If you've read the book and if, from your perspective, this book is not ultimately about faith, let me know.
John Ames is a pastor of a protestant church in Gilead, Iowa. His father was a pastor and his grandfather was a pastor. Ames says, albeit unconvincingly, "My vocation was the same as my father's. I assume that if I'd had another father entirely the Lord would still have called me." The entire book is written by the dying 77-year old Ames to his seven year old son (note the use of seven here). Certainly, Ames longs to give his dearly beloved son a picture of his own youth and some advice for the future. Ultimately, I thought the Reverend was trying to figure out whether all of his life-long beliefs are really true as he prepares to meet his maker. Here are some of my favorite lines that show just how much he is struggling with his faith:
"The fact is, I don't want to be old. And I certainly don't want to be dead."
"Oh, I will miss the world!"
"I have worried some about those last hours. This is another thing you know and I don't - how this ends."
And my favorite on this topic of doubt is this: "My father always said when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore. But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet."
Gilead is peppered with references to Karl Barth, Ludwig Feuerbach, and John Calvin. I happen to be reading Calvin's Institutes each morning, so these references were incredibly interesting to me. I know a little about Barth, and less about Feuerbach, and I wondered if my conclusions about the book would change if I would read some of their writings.
I spend a good deal of time with pastors, so the parts of Gilead that highlighted the occasional frustration with the vocation spoke to me. Ames says, "After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it. I know they are planning to pull it down. They're waiting me out, which is kind of them." He tells a humorous story of ministering to a widow in his congregation. Remember, he is dying. He poignantly explains, "You can never know what troubles or fears such people have, and I went. It turned out that the problem was her kitchen sink." Ames even addresses the tricky situation of being your wife's pastor: "Your mother was startled the first time I mentioned to her that she might as well not do the ironing on a Sunday evening. It's such hard work for her to stop working that I don't know what I have accomplished by speaking to her about the day of rest."
Interwoven with his thoughts on faith are Ames' thoughts on forgiving John Ames Boughton, his namesake and son of his best friend. Boughton has committed just about every crime that exists. He has come to town to "pay his respects" to Ames, his godfather, and his own father (who is apparently dying as well). This part of the story line is immensely compelling, as Boughton is trying to redeem himself. In what I think is the most beautiful line in the book, Ames writes, "As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer." Think about that. "Struggling against our rescuer." Oh, how true that has been in my own life. I've been pondering that one little phrase for four days. One could say that is the mark of a Pulitzer Prize winning book.