Beauty in the Novel “Gilead”: Part 2

gileadOne of the striking aspects of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is its particular concern for the beauty of this world, a thing made that much more beautiful, Robinson suggests, because it is a temporal experience never to be had again once we find ourselves on the other side, that is, in eternity. Check out this gorgeous excerpt, again from the voice of John Ames, who is writing out his soul to his young son, knowing his end is nearing:


“I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try” (57).

Beauty in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: Part 1

This year I finally read Marilynne Robinson’s gileadcelebrated Gilead (Picador, 2004). This is a deeply beautiful novel, written as a series of letters from a dying father to his seven-year-old son. The setting is 1950s Iowa and the father is one in a long line of ministers, so themes revolving around faith and theology, sin and redemption, are prominent throughout the book. Robinson has been rightly praised for writing a book which, as the Washington Post put it, is “so serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” It is this “touch of grace” that I was most impressed with: It is as if hundreds of pages in this book drip with beauty, with words capturing the quotidian glory of, say, the reflection of light in water as a baby is baptized, or the quiet courage of a woman (the narrator’s wife) whose uniquely trying life demanded of her a special courage. In this and I hope two more posts I’ll share excerpts that are representative of the profoundly beautiful and in many places intimate language that Robinson is known for. This first excerpt is the opening paragraph; I especially admire the rhythm of the dialogue in the first lines:


“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 old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. 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 an put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.” (3)

“Smart” Men Wouldn’t Have Written the Bible

BibleIn his helpful and encouraging book, Why Believe the Bible?, John MacArthur gives reasons why we can believe that the Bible is the inerrant and authoritative word of God, and describes the importance and benefits of knowing and studying the Bible for the Christian life. In it he answers the charge made by many that the Bible isn’t actually God’s words, written down by common, sinful, yet Spirit-inspired men, but that it’s merely the thoughts of men – admittedly, men of great intellect and literary genius. The charge may be expressed as: “The Bible is full of errors and mistakes and it certainly is fallible at many points, but in regard to its ethics, its morals and its insights into humanity it reveals genius at a very high level.” So MacArthur, I think very reasonably, responds like this:


“[This view] doesn’t hold up. For one, smart men wouldn’t write a book that condemned them all [see Romans 3: 9-18]. Smart men wouldn’t write a book that provided salvation from the outside. Smart men want to provide their own salvation; they do not want to have to trust in a perfect sacrifice made by God’s Son. And one other thing: Even the smartest of men could never conceive of a personality like Jesus Christ. Even the most gifted fiction writer could not fabricate a character who would surpass any human being who ever lived in purity, love, righteousness and perfection.” (46-47)

Ta-Nehisi Coates: A Voice We Should Listen To

coatesIn his celebrated and controversial Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and writer for the Atlantic and probably the most forceful and eloquent person writing on the issue of race in the U.S. – gives a brutally honest and even harrowing account, written using the literary device (as he explains here) of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, of what it’s like to be a black man in America. Though I don’t agree entirely with his portrayal of America’s history (I think this is partly informed by his atheistic, materialist view of the world, where religion is “magic” and “myth” and all we have is our bodies, but not souls), I believe Coates is a voice that we must listen to, and listen with care and empathy. We should listen to him for at least two reasons. First, because in some ways he speaks for the many whose God-given dignity has been violated by the terrible sin of racism, and it’s important that we try to at least begin to understand this experience. And second, because, though an atheist, Coates describes racism and the evil it unleashes with all the moral clarity of one who knows that there is a God who hates this sin with all his being and who is totally committed to justice. In short, I highly recommend this book, especially for Christians, who must not look away as their brothers and sisters are sinned against in this most grievous way.

Some passages that struck me with the kind of force that Coates is known for bringing to the written word:


Racism is “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them.” (7)

He tells his son that “all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.” (10)

“America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” (12)

“To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” (17)

Keller: How Prayer is Like a Light Switch

light_switchIn his excellent and highly practical book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton, 2014), Tim Keller uses a great analogy to show that on their own, our prayers do not have power to make God listen to us or to earn us favor with him. Those who have trusted in Christ already have these things, and so prayer is more of the mechanism by which we connect our hearts to God and avail ourselves of the access to him that has been purchased by Christ, our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16).


“When you flick on the light switch, the bulbs illuminate. Does the light switch provide the power for the bulbs? No – that comes from the electricity. The switch has no power in itself, but rather it connects the bulbs to the power. In the same way, our prayers have no virtue to procure us access to the Father. Christ has done that. Prayers that are in accord with a gracious God, however, can connect us to him.” (104)

Elisabeth Elliot: What Our Pets Can Teach Us About Trust

ElliotIn her excellent book Discipline: The Glad Surrender (Revelll, 1982), the great, late Elisabeth Elliot (wife of Jim Elliot, a missionary who was killed by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, and author and speaker) offers a terrific, and sweet, example of the kind of worry-free trust in God and his provision that should mark us:


“Things are given by God. We can trust Him to give to us. My little dog, MacDuff, taught me many lessons. How simple life was for him! He trusted me. He lived his life one day at a time, wearing his one ragged black coat, provided by a heavenly Father, appropriate to all occasions, all year round. Supper was there in the dish – Ken L. Ration, Gainesburgers, table scraps, whatever. No decision about the menu troubled him. He owned a house and a tremendous yard and quite a few squirrels and rabbits that he felt responsible to chase and bark at, but he had no taxes or mortgage payments. Everything was taken care of. What he did naturally is a hard lesson we human beings have to work at” (116).

Thomas Jefferson and His Books


“I cannot live without books.”

This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.

I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.

Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.


“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)

“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)

“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)

“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)

“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)

“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)

“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)

His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)

“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)

To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:

– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law

– Eight to 12 pm: Law

– 12-1 pm: Politics

– Afternoon: History

– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory

And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends: