Rumor has it that 21st-century America is a pretty secular place—at least as far as the smarty-pants people in the literary world are concerned. So what's up with Marilynne Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead?
Written as a long letter from an old, dying preacher to his very young son, Gilead is so full of religion it almost reads like a sermon. Well, actually, given the fact that the main character is a preacher, this isn't surprising. But seriously, these pages are packed with so much religious insight you might think you were reading a treatise by somebody like Saint Augustine or Martin Luther or John Calvin.
And praying. There's lots and lots of praying.
So, then, was this tale of spirituality despised by the powers that be? Hardly. The novel totally won the Pulitzer Prize. President Barack Obama names it as one of his favorites. The secular press praised it. Gilead's explicitly religious content hasn't diminished its reputation among Christians or atheists or anyone in between.
Why the near universal admiration?
We're gonna go with the obvious answers, folks: the novel is great because Robinson's a great novelist. Robinson is sort of like two other great writers, Graham Greene and Flannery O'Connor, whose faith informs their fiction without turning it into a Christian apologetics. Gilead overflows with religiosity, but that's only because Robinson's characters are very religious.
In Gilead, faith, religion, and spirituality are serious business. They're the stuff of drama and conflict and character. Christian readers will find smart, articulate characters who share their faith. Atheist readers will find smart, articulate characters who share their disbelief and criticisms of Christianity. Every reader will find a story that brings the deepest fears and longings of the human condition into clear, bright focus.
The world of Gilead spans from the Civil War to the 1950s. Times were different, sure, but it wasn't a different world. Not entirely.
In our "Nutshell" section, above, we talked about how Gilead tackles issues like religious faith and spirituality from a fresh, respectful, 21st-century perspective. It's a novel that takes spirituality seriously but doesn't knock you over the head with it. If you're thinking about faith, religion, or spirituality in any form, this book probably has something for you.
That's enough of a reason to give this book a shot, but what other things can we get from Gilead? Let's look at a different issue: in the world of Gilead—as well as in ours—black churches burn, and black people face systematic violence and marginalization.
Yeah, race is an underlying theme in the novel. All the main characters are white, but black lives matter, as the hashtag says. They matter especially to Jack Boughton, one of the main figures in the story, who has come home to small-town Iowa to see if it will serve as a suitable home for his common-law wife and their child.
Jack's wife, Della, is black, and in their world, laws against interracial marriage are still on the books in some places. Iowa doesn't have such laws, but Gilead has no other black people: they left years ago after a fire took their church. One question constantly on Jack's mind is this: can the apparently good Christians of Gilead accept him and his family?
Gilead reveals that liberation and racial equality didn't come right away with the end of the Civil War. Structural discrimination and oppression continued in subtler ways—and they continue today, in some of the same forms.
It's no coincidence that President Obama quoted Marilynne Robinson in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of the victims of the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Robinson's is a vision of hope that is all the more powerful because it never overlooks the horrors of the past, the crimes of the present, or the work to be done into the future.
New York Times Review
Here's what they thought of Gilead in New York.
Inside American Religion
The Guardian looks at the Robinson's second novel.
Back to Iowa
The Iowa Writers Workshop talks with Marilynne Robinson about her works, in particular her new book Home, a sequel of sorts to Gilead.
Back to Iowa Again
Robinson talks to Bill Moyers about the themes in Lila, another sequel to Gilead.
Book Club of the Guard
Here's a podcast interview with author Marilynne Robinson, discussing Gilead.