Religious Warriors Should All Read Pulitzer Novel ‘Gilead’

Posted May 4, 2005 at 5:05pm

Before the religious wars of Washington become any more incendiary, I recommend that everyone involved — politicians, pundits and activists — pause to read last year’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize novel, “Gilead,” a tale of forgiveness and redemption.

[IMGCAP(1)] In fact, I’d love to see someone widely respected — maybe the Rev. Billy Graham or Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs — convene a conference of religious combatants and assign Marilynne Robinson’s deep and theologically rich book as the topic for discussion.

The participants could include, from the right, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. And, from the left, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), representatives of the National Council of Churches and New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd.

All these worthies have been battling back and forth about what true religious faith involves, especially in the political realm. Some on the right have been threatening the federal judiciary. Some on the left have been accusing those on the right of being “fanatics” or “zealots” who want to impose a “theocracy.”

There is a treasure of wisdom, obvious and subtle, in “Gilead,” but the starting point for discussion would be these paragraphs, part of the book-length epistle that a dying 76-year-old Iowa clergyman has written to his young son:

“This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question were being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?

“If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.

“You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.”

Once settled down and reminded of the biblical injunction to love one’s neighbor, even one’s enemies, our contentious book club might go on to discuss the themes in “Gilead” and enjoy, on the way, Robinson’s gems of expression.

Such as: “If you want to inform yourself as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”

And: “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” There is a jewel like these on practically every page.

The main theme of this book — and a discussion that Washington disputants should have — revolves around the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus says that God will celebrate the return home of his wastrel son and forgive him, and that this likely will enrage his obedient, loyal, hard-working son.

In “Gilead,” the clergyman, John Ames, is challenged to accept and forgive his wayward godson, John Boughton, whom he has written off (aware though he is that he should not be judgmental) as “dishonorable” because he is “recalcitrant” and has not repented.

Graham or Gibbs probably will have as difficult a time getting Dobson and Dowd to stop being judgmental about each other as Ames is toward Boughton. Judging others is what many evangelical politicians do. And it is what pundits are paid for.

Boughton’s unforgivable sin, in 1950s rural Iowa, is that he once fathered a child out of wedlock and abandoned his responsibility. Ames obviously also fears that attractions are developing between Boughton and his own younger wife and son.

Almost every rave-writing reviewer of “Gilead” declared, as the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda did, that Ames “is that rarity in fiction — a thoroughly good man.” But it would be a good question for our book club: is he really?

He does forgive and accept Boughton to a certain degree, and if Gore could reconcile as much with DeLay, and vice versa, we’d all be amazed.

But ultimately, Ames cannot do what God is certainly calling upon him to do. Boughton, it develops, is the loyal companion of a black woman and the father of her child.

The two cannot legally be married, and they both have suffered grievously from their “miscegenation.” Both have been fired from their jobs and cast out of decent housing. She’s been disowned by her family. Boughton has come home to Gilead clearly hoping — but not expecting — that the town will accept his family.

Gilead, the town, has a history, built around Ames’ family. Ames’ grandfather was a radical abolitionist preacher who rode with John Brown and fought in the Civil War. His father, reacting against the bloodshed of World War I (and the grandfather), became a pacifist liberal. Ames is a pacifist, too, but thinks he’ll vote for Eisenhower.

The town, located on the Kansas border, once was a refuge for runaway slaves and a base for raids against slave owners. But, in later years, the town’s small black population moved away. Once, a fire was set at a black church, but Ames dismisses it as a small one.

Ames reconciles with Boughton and “forgives” him but does not fight for his acceptance in Gilead, does not even act as a go-between to reconcile Boughton and his own family and allows him to leave for a deeply uncertain fate.

What I’d hope, when Washington’s battling book club finishes its discussion, is that its members could do better than simply forgive each other. There is work for them to do together: heal the sick, educate the ignorant, create opportunities for the poor and stop the killing in Darfur.