In Defense of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: A Response to Jessica Hooten Wilson

St. Donatus by Phil Roeder

St. Donatus by Phil Roeder

I appreciate the impulse behind Jessica Hooten Wilson’s critique of Marilynne Robinson’s theology from a couple months back. As a Pulitzer Prize winning Christian novelist, Robinson has legions of devoted fans, including many who do not share her faith. This cultural cachet gives the author an outsized influence on the public’s understanding of Christianity. If what her books are preaching is other than gospel truth, and yet are taken as doctrinally sound, they would in fact do real harm. And given how enchantingly beautiful Robinson’s novels are, theological distortions in them would prove even more insidious. It’s understandable then that Wilson would want to warn readers against equating the books’ beauty with truth and to encourage circumspection. All good things.

And yet as I read Wilson’s piece, I found her critiques of Gilead off the mark. At times it seemed like she was writing about an altogether different book, I recognized so little of Robinson’s novel in her interpretation. Wilson’s two main concerns are that Gilead elevates human perception to divine status and that it promotes a cheap grace, which takes neither sin nor love seriously. Such conclusions, though, it seems to me, rely on selective evidence and fail to take into account so much of Robinson’s rich story. Flannery O’Connor is Wilson’s standard-bearer for proper Christian theological aesthetics, with her unflinching depictions of evil and her use of “large and startling figures” to shock readers out of their complacency. Robinson is no O’Connor in that respect. She opts for the quiet and subtle, the elegant and psychological, but that makes her novel no less theologically sound. Christian doctrine, after all, has many nooks and crannies, myriad subtleties and nuances to explore, and innumerable ways to express the truth. For its part, Gilead offers a deeply personal meditation on the existential challenges of forgiveness, faith, and hope. And in so doing, it extols the virtue and value of prayer and the possibility of God’s transforming grace. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a theological treatise on atonement, though the role of the cross in justifying sinners to God is implicit in the story, made manifest in hymn titles and baptism and communion motifs that run throughout the text.  

The story is more light than dark because it’s animated by the belief that love is stronger than death, hope more powerful than despair, grace capable of making transgression inconsequential.

Robinson’s novel takes the epistolary form, where John Ames, an aging pastor facing a terminal diagnosis, writes an extended letter to his young son. In these lines, he considers ultimate—and contingent—things, reflects on the shape of his life, and offers whatever wisdom he’s earned through his experiences. It’s a slow build with very little overt drama. Much of the plot centers on Ames’ relationships through the years and his attempts, mental and emotional, to come to terms with the longings, regrets, and fears inevitable in this world. He’s especially at pains to square those complicated feelings with his deep conviction about God’s goodness. Ames has endured agonizing loss in the course of his life and waited so long for a wife, a child, yet almost as soon as they arrive, he stands to lose them.

Wilson’s claim that Ames sanctifies human experience and deifies consciousness is undercut by passages where Ames explicitly points to God as the source of all value. When talking about blessing, for example, Ames says “[i]t doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it.” The world as Ames describes it has an obstinate reality that he can do nothing to alter but is yet called to appreciate. This is notably true of human beings. While Ames takes great care to attend to and honor others, he consistently admits that their value comes from a source other than his perception: “I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it.” The close of this particular passage underscores Robinson’s Christian Personalism, the notion that each individual is unique and of inestimable worth, as manifest in this novel: “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.”


Ames’ coverage of the Ten Commandments fairly puts to rest questions about Robinson’s understanding of man’s relation to the divine: “Briefly, the right worship of God is essential because it forms the mind to a right understanding of God. God is set apart—He is One, He is not to be imagined as a thing among things.” And all right valuing of creation and other people flows from that proper starting point: “When you love someone to the degree you love her [the child’s mother], you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and Being itself.” Ames’ focus on consciousness and human perception is key to the book, but as an example of properly ordering the mind toward reality, of unifying the subjective with the objective, and not, as Wilson’s critique suggests Ames believes, the source of value itself.

Instead, Ames knows himself to be woefully insufficient to such grandiose expectations. Much of the book’s pathos stems from the contrast between the father’s acute awareness of his imminent demise and the son’s childhood innocence. The opening lines capture this tension well, setting the stage for the novel to explore the human condition in all its beauty and pain:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, 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.

To my mind, this scene is poignant, not sentimental and cuts right to the book’s pressing question: what hope do we have for abundant life in this world where death seems to reign supreme? Far from thinking sin trivial, Gilead asks readers to take its full measure insofar as it’s the catalyst for the death and other separations that pervade the book. The world of Gilead does indeed “glimmer and shine” as Wilson describes it, but it does so in the face of tragedy and loss and real harm done one to another. The juxtaposition of both realities demonstrates the author’s conviction that goodness trumps evil. The story is more light than dark because it’s animated by the belief that love is stronger than death, hope more powerful than despair, grace capable of making transgression inconsequential. This is no mere Pollyannaish wish on Ames’ part. Not a page goes by but that he reckons with sin and its consequences, most often through prayer as he increasingly realizes his own failure either to understand or to rectify faults (including his own).     

Ames’ fraught relationship with his godson and namesake Jack (John Ames) Boughton epitomizes Ames’ struggle, and their potential reconciliation serves as a fitting culmination of what turns out to be Ames’ spiritual journey. The son of Ames’ best friend, Jack has been a thorn in Ames’ flesh since his birth. At first a painful reminder of the heartbreaking loss of Ames’ first wife and child, Jack later makes himself a nuisance with his pranks and secrecy. Worst of all, Jack impregnates a young girl, an indigent, only to abandon her. Although much of the tragedy of the book is set as backdrop—war, the Spanish flu, racial tensions, drought—Robinson attends to this scenario with agonizing detail: how Jack took advantage of the girl’s admiration of him, how callous Jack was to her needs, how despicable Jack was to offload his guilt and responsibility onto his family, how distressed the family was in response, and how their efforts to help the girl and her child were largely rebuffed.

With each act of love, with each welcome embrace, with each word of kindness comes the risk of rejection. It’s tempting to calculate the odds and withhold grace if it looks like a losing bet. That would be much safer, much less painful. But it would also not be grace.

There are no easy answers here, no authorial attempts to paint over this ugliness—the child dies due to unsanitary conditions. There’s no “magic wand” to whisk her back to health and on to happily ever after. The fault lies entirely with Jack. Jack’s family is left to pick up what pieces they can. Far from suggesting that the child’s death “don’t matter,” which Wilson posits is Ames’ position, he is disgusted and thinks Jack may just be beyond hope. Jack’s sin and the consequences, in other words, are not up for dispute in the novel. How to forgive is. Ames simply cannot reconcile the grief Jack gives his father with the lavish love Boughton bestows on him. In many ways, Gilead is a quintessential prodigal son tale, zeroing in on the older brother figure represented by Ames. Home, the second entry in Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, explores the Boughton family backstory, and in Gilead Ames acknowledges his ignorance of whether, and how, they reconciled with Jack. But what matters for Gilead’s thematic purposes is Ames’ reaction to the Boughtons’ unwarranted and undying commitment to Jack and his own need to relinquish the envy and pride it stirs in him.   

Ames is a lovely character, sensitive and thoughtful, grateful for his unexpected blessings and sincerely trying to close out his life with dignity and honor. For those reasons, it’s easy to see him as the book’s spiritual standard and to think that where he fails, the book’s theology falls apart. That’s the tack Wilson’s interpretation takes. By blessing Jack as the novel closes, Ames has failed to take sin seriously, Wilson argues. He requires no confession of Jack who has shown no contrition for the many wrongs he’s perpetrated on his family and others. To bless in such a way—without cost, if not to Jack then at least to Ames himself—is a grave error, Wilson contends. It sidesteps the need for sacrifice and makes the cross irrelevant. Wilson asks the right question, “How does John Ames move from his inability to forgive Jack to blessing his godson at the end of the novel?” But she fails to see that Ames’ stubborn inability to extend forgiveness is his sin, something God needs to break in him, not a righteous standard that Jack must meet before he’s afforded so much as an offer of grace. It’s not, as Wilson claims, that Ames takes Jack’s sin too lightly at the novel’s close, but that he had overestimated its power up until that point.

When Ames first recounts the episode of Jack’s disgrace, he condemns Jack as dishonorable. Acknowledging that he might be wrong, he still protests that “dishonor is recalcitrant” and that he feels as a pastor he has nothing to give a dishonorable person. He might affirm the need for forgiveness in general terms, but Jack’s sin, with its offense striking so close to Ames’ innermost hurts, overrules for him even the possibility of grace. Ames has written Jack off as beyond the pale, outside the bounds of redemption, which is why the Boughtons’ open-heartedness toward Jack unsettles him so. With each act of love, with each welcome embrace, with each word of kindness comes the risk of rejection. It’s tempting to calculate the odds and withhold grace if it looks like a losing bet. That would be much safer, much less painful. But it would also not be grace.

This is the import of the conversation primarily between Jack, Lila, and Ames about predestination. While Ames finds himself flustered and angered by Jack’s questions, thinking he’s being set up and (probably) also realizing the gap between his theology of God’s love and his own attitude and behavior toward Jack, Lila merely offers hope: “A person can change. Everything can change.” In her own transformation from destitution to domesticity, Lila knows intimately the power of this truth. Ames, of course, recognizes it where Lila is concerned, given his role in her restoration. And eventually he comes to understand its implications regarding Jack.

It’s not easy for Ames to get to this point, to see Jack through Boughton’s (and God’s) eyes as a beloved son. To do so, Ames himself must relinquish his pride and sense of entitlement, and he does so only through prayer and with much inner turmoil. The second blessing at the close of the novel signifies this change. Here Ames corrects Jack’s earlier infant christening where he had been so distracted by self-pity that he failed to rightly honor the child. Full reconciliation requires acceptance of forgiveness by the offender, and we do not know how Jack ultimately responds to Ames’ loving gesture. But, at least in Gilead, Jack’s response is not the point. What Ames learns, and his story teaches, about love’s extravagance is. Love is not just what God does. It’s who God is, and, by his grace, it’s ours to freely give.