APRIL 6, 2005

Reverend John Ames is the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” The book is written in the form of a letter to Ames’ son. Ames himself is the son and grandson of preachers. His grandfather “preached men into the Civil War” and later became a Union Army chaplain and lost an eye in battle. Ames’ father had quite other views on the war.

I offer this excerpt, keeping in mind my discussion with Denise last night. We were each offering an account of what happened with Paul and the Jerusalem Church. In her account Paul and Peter cooperated from the outset to establish what we know as Christianity today. (See Marcus Borg on Christian Diversity.)

In my account, Paul was unwelcome at the Jerusalem Church, which would indicate there has never been agreement on what Christianity is or should be. We both agreed there are other accounts as well.

I find the following excerpt interesting in this regard: In the same country, same state, same county, same town, same home and same family you have two very different views on who God is and what God wants, so different that a father-son relationship completely breaks down over it; point being: If father and son can’t agree, is it any wonder Denise and I tell different stories or that the human race at large has never come to a consensus on belief? Could it be more obvious that as times and circumstances change, perceptions change, people change, beliefs change, and that not even visions or revelations stay the same from one generation to the next? There may be some absolute truth in all this religion talk someplace — but who’s to say where?

The following excerpt begins after the narrator and his father found some items that had belonged to the grandfather. Note, they only called each other “reverend” when they were really pissed off. Begin excerpt:

I did know a little about the shirts and the gun because of a quarrel my father and grandfather had had. My grandfather, who of course went to church with us, had stood up and walked out about five minutes into my father’s sermon. The text, I remember, was, “Consider the lilies, how they grow.” My mother sent me to look for him. I saw him walking down the road and I ran to catch up with him, but he turned that eye on me and said, “Get back where you belong!” So I did.

He appeared at the house after dinner. He walked into the kitchen where my mother and I were clearing things away and cut himself a piece of bread and was about to leave again without saying a single word to us. But my father came up the porch steps just then and stood in the doorway, watching him.

“Reverend,” my grandfather said when he saw him.

My father said, “Reverend.”

My mother said, “It’s Sunday. It’s the Lord’s Day. It’s the Sabbath.”*

My father said, “We are well aware of that.” But he didn’t step out of the doorway. So she said to my grandfather, “Sit down and I’ll fix a plate for you. You can’t get by on a piece of bread.”

And he did sit down. So my father came in and sat down across from him. They were silent for some time.

Then my father said, “Did my sermon offend you in some way? Those few words you heard of it?”

The old man shrugged. “Nothing in it to offend. I just wanted to hear some preaching. So I went over to the Negro church.”

After a minute my father asked, “Well, did you hear some preaching?”

My grandfather shrugged. “The text was, ‘Love Your Enemies.’”

“That seems to me to be an excellent text in the circumstances,” my father said. This was just after somebody set that fire behind the church that I mentioned earlier.

The old man said, “Very Christian.”

My father said, “You sound disappointed, Reverend.”

My grandfather put his head in his hands. He said, “Reverend, no words could be bitter enough, no day could be long enough. There is just no end to it. Disappointment. I eat and drink it. I wake and sleep it.”

My father’s lips were white. He said, “Well, Reverend, I know you placed great hope in that war. My hopes are in peace, and I am not disappointed. Because peace is its own reward. Peace is its own justification.”

My grandfather said, “And that’s just what kills my heart, Reverend. That the Lord never came to you. That the seraphim never touched a coal to your lips
— ”

My father stood up from his chair. He said, “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, this has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing. And I was, and I am, as certain of that as anyone could ever be of any so-called vision. I defer to no one on this. Not to you, not to Paul the Apostle, not to John the Divine. Reverend.”

My grandfather said, “So-called vision. The Lord, standing there beside me, had one hundred times the reality for me that you have standing here now!”

After a minute my father said, “No one would doubt that, Reverend.”

And that was when a chasm truly opened. Not long afterward my grandfather was gone. He left a note lying on the kitchen table which said:

No good has come, no evil intended.
That is your peace.
Without vision the people perish.
The Lord bless and keep you.

I still have that note. I saved it in my Bible.

*Of course, these days, not all Christians even believe this!


Favorite quote from Marilynne Robinson:

“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back.”


Opening section of “Gilead.” (Robinson is not big on quote marks.)

I told you last night that I might be gone some time, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. (my emphasis) And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers to my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face beside your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this — it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then — I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

From a note to Marge:

Richard Rorty talks about weak thought in his recent book, “The Future of Religion.” It reminds me a lot of “Gilead.”

I think he is saying that preachers and philosophers are always trying to give us a strong place to stand; but time has shown that all these strong stances erode under nothing more complicated than life itself.

The preacher in “Gilead” has strong religious training and belief ... but he also was a human being existing in a world of troubled friends, laughing couples, darkened streets, long nights of reading, baseball games, trips, beautiful sunsets ... his humanity, as it played out in daily life, weakened the strict hold of religion on his heart and mind, and that's what he's expressing in his letter, that there's more going on than one viewpoint or set of ideas can contain.

The fact that he wrote a letter and not a sermon to his son is all we need to know about cultural relativism and postmodern philosophy. Ideas are always created and used by people in their own personal ways; we can't seem to help that — even if some people think they're above it.


From Marcus Borg posting

"We can perceive Christian diversity in the various cultural forms that Christianity has taken. To illustrate without seeking to be comprehensive: there is a second-century Syrian way of being Christian, an eighth-century Irish way, a twelfth-century Eastern Orthodox way, a fifteenth-century Chinese way, and a nineteenth-century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way.

"There is theological diversity as well. Without explaining the differences, there were, from the early days of Christianity, Arian and Athanasian Christians, Monophysite and non-Monophysite Christians, predestination and non-predestination Christians, infant-baptisim and adult-baptisim Christians. Being Christian therefore can't be about getting our beliefs 'right,' even though we have often acted that way.

"The point is, there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being a Christian. ... "


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little
awakening. No doubt: no awakening.”

©jonfobes 2005