Fiction is a wonderful medium. It can get at things by way of imagination that an essay or sustained argument is just not designed to do. That is why, after so many years, I decided to incorporate more fiction into my regular diet of reading. It’s not so much that I might know more. Rather I want my mind to experience the breadth of truth, beauty, and goodness in God’s creation. Good fiction has a way of making us more fully human. By “good fiction” I don’t mean a sin-sanitized story. Or a narrative that functions primarily as a morality tale—like an extended fable. A book qualifies as good fiction if it tells a compelling narrative that characterizes good as good and evil as evil. It strives for a literary quality that is artistic, honest, and emotionally arresting. The way I am defining it, “good fiction” should make its case for a biblical worldview by engaging the pathos, ethos, and mythos of the human soul. That’s a tall order for any book. But hey, why waste good time on reading suboptimal fiction? Life is short. Read well.
So that’s my criteria for choosing fiction to read. If you want to read an excellent, thought-provoking Christian novel that comes close to meeting these criteria, then I recommend Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It is the first in a non-sequential trilogy that explores some of life’s big questions from the perspective of a fictional Iowan town called Gilead.
Robinson’s novel is structured as a personal journal in which Congregationalist minister John Ames records his thoughts for his young son who will probably never know his father well. In fact, the “plot” (loosely deployed) revolves around the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, and the spiritual battles that exist between them. Rev. Ames is an older man who finds himself in failing health. He accepts with grace his prognosis of a creeping death. And his way of coping with loss of vitality and eventually his life is to reflect on the nature of human existence from his (mainline-leaning) Reformed Christian beliefs. He writes his journal over the course of a year or so (I wasn’t really counting—that was the sense I got), meditating on the meaning of family, legacy, forgiveness, beauty, love, faith, and redemption. All through the lens of a simple pace of life familiar to those from rural communities that were reshaped in the post-Civil War years until the present (for Ames, the 1950s). The prose is gentle and keeps moving like a rolling brook. The pace feels too slow at first, but the author is reshaping the reader’s capacity to meditate and ponder the parts of life that we usually drive by without noticing. Although the book only has two chapters (the first encompasses most of the book), natural divisions are included with spaces that suggest a new journal entry.
I must confess it took me a while to “get” this book. Its many critical accolades kept me pressing forward until about two-thirds in the story opened up and grabbed me. One of Robinson’s stated goals was to reclaim the good name of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition that follows him. Thus there are multiple references to the Reformer’s theological insights that prove he is not the monster some make him out to be. Karl Barth, a more respected theologian in the Protestant Mainline traditions, is another theologian she often alludes to. Rounding out her ironic trifecta of thinkers who influence Ames is the atheist and critic of Christianity Ludwig Feuerbach. But as much as these three figures are revered by the protagonist, by far the most allusions come from the Bible itself. Robinson professes faith in Christ, and her extensive Bible knowledge overflows in a quiet, unassuming joy manifested in allusion after biblical allusion. The prose is still beautiful for those who may not catch the reference, but for those who recognize the influences of Scripture, reading Gilead becomes almost an invitation to prayer.
One of the themes Gilead explores is the Bible’s doctrine of predestination. While Robinson seeks to explain and defend this teaching, I find she is actually defending the Barthian view. Calvin’s view (which I believe is the most faithful explanation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject) is obscured. That is one of the reasons, I think, that so many mainstream reviewers praised the book (it even won the Pulitzer Prize!). Frankly, Barth’s view is less offensive and more affirming to most people. Another reason for the huge popularity of the book is the way it flirts with the idea of universal salvation. In Robinson’s world, everyone is basically a good person, there is no real personal sin (just mistakes, misunderstanding, and evil out there), and conflict in relationships can always be atoned for through forgiveness. Thus the world Gilead portrays is not the world we actually live in, but more of a world moving toward utopia. That vision of reality is amazingly attractive. It makes Christ the great Healer and Restorer, but ignores Christ as Lord and Judge. In Gilead, a partially true Jesus lives, but not the wholly true Jesus.
Yet, these are minor quibbles because Gilead is not trying to be the Bible (although at least one reviewer–Anne Patchett of The Village Voice (the first book blurb inside the cover)–wants it to be something like the third testament!). Read it as a work of beautiful fiction that provides glimpses of truth and goodness, albeit imperfectly.