Study Guide

Gilead Religion

By Marilynne Robinson


One great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and what you might as well ignore. (1.1.16)

It comes with set expectations. People tend to have a notion of what a good preacher should be and what a good preacher should do, and they seem to also have ideas about how he should interact with the community. There's a continuity to the job. It's much the same from week to week.

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but acknowledges it, and there is power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. (1.2.33)

For Ames, baptism is less a transformational ritual than a sign of acknowledgement that the one being baptized is already sacred.

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn't mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. (1.2.91)

Why is Ames proud of this particular sermon? We're sure he's also been happy with other sermons he has written, but his humility makes him realize that anything he could possible say about God must pale beside the reality of God. So what makes this one sermon special?

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard that way. (1.3.3)

If a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation, then it calls for a passionate response. Who's responding? God? The congregation? Both?

I believe there are vision that come to us only in memory, in retrospect. That's the pulpit speaking, but it's telling the truth. (1.7.66)

"The pulpit speaking" is a phrase Ames likes to use now and then. It means it's the kind of impressively high and mighty thing he'd say from the pulpit, but maybe not so much in intimate conversations, where it wouldn't have the same effect.

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. (1.10.2)

If you hadn't noticed, John Ames isn't the type of preacher who tries to instill a healthy fear of hell and damnation in the members of his congregation. He's not indifferent to wrongdoing—far from it—but his religion isn't about sin. It's about the drama of human life, and it's about humankind's relationship with God.

There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had overspilled its denominational vessel. You'd have thought I died. (1.11.4)

You'll notice these little jokes throughout the novel. Here, Robinson playing on the different Protestant denominations in her little Iowa town.

…right worship is right perception… (1.12.11)

Seeing God in the right way is important to Ames. He doesn't want to be complacent in his faith. He wants his perception of God to stand the trials of doubt and criticism. That's a lifelong task: since God is transcendent, Ames has to constantly make sure he's not closing his mind to that ultra-reality that is God.

There are two insidious notions, from the point of view of Christianity in the modern world…One is that religion and religious experience are illusions of some sort (Feuerbach, Freud, etc.), and that other is that religion itself is real, but your belief and that you participate in it is an illusion. I think the second of these is the more insidious, because it is religious experience above all that authenticates religion, for purposes of the individual believer. (1.14.17)

Ames isn't anti-doubt, but he's not all about second-guessing the faith, either. You'll notice what he criticizes here is not professions of doubt but professions of certainty. He frowns on people who think they are 100% right and 100% sure of their faith.

I believe I have tried never to say anything Edward would have found callow or naïve. (1.14.89)

Ames believes that religion often descends into silliness and superstition, but he also believes that at its base, it's more than these. Is he wrong to desire a faith that the non-believers he knows can respect?

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