Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’

Note: This isn’t so much a review as it is a reflection, my thoughts on a book I’ve come to love. If you haven’t read Gilead, be forewarned that there are major plot spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.


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A year ago I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and was shocked to find that I hated it. Perhaps “hate” is too strong a word — it’s more accurate to say I disliked it, that it rubbed me the wrong way and left me feeling preached at, a sensation I couldn’t stand. Though friends and professors claimed I would love it because Robinson reminded them of Annie Dillard, the comparison offended me. Marilynne Robinson was not Annie Dillard, and Gilead didn’t come close to Holy the Firm.

Despite my dislike of the novel, I wrote a paper about its central character, Jack Boughton. Even though my class hated him, I had a soft spot for Jack. He struck me as lonely, misfit, and misunderstood, and I wanted to understand him. In my paper, I took a much more favorable view of him than my classmates did, and placed much of the blame of his bad behavior on Ames, the narrator (and incidentally, the old preacher). I also argued that Jack played numerous biblical roles throughout the novel, depending on his actions and the actions of those around him. Though I made a strong case for all four, my favorites were scapegoat and Christ figure.

Casting Jack as the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:20-22 — the goat who wanders the wilderness bearing the sins of God’s people — fascinated me; I identified with him all too well. In fact, Jack Boughton is probably what kept me from completely dismissing Gilead the first time I read it. In the midst of my own fledgling faith crisis, I clung to Jack and his uncertainties, Jack and his skepticism, Jack and his earnest attempts at reconciliation despite his feelings of unworthiness and consistent track record of mucking things up. I couldn’t trust Ames because he was a preacher, but I could trust Jack, the lonely outsider.

As I finished the semester and headed home to what I knew would be a summer of keeping my mouth shut while going through the motions of church, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jack and his wilderness wanderings, the prodigal-cum-scapegoat who was finally allowed to return home.

(from my paper)

“Used for making atonement” (Lev. 16:10), the Levitical scapegoat is not allowed to return to the camp. But Jack is not a Levitical scapegoat. Having wandered his wilderness for over twenty years, he at last returns to Gilead, a move which sets in motion his final transformation from scapegoat into Christ figure.

When I wrote those words last April, I wrote them with the intention of proving everyone wrong. I wanted to show once and for all that Jack Boughton was not the bad guy, that he was just misunderstood, and that all he needed was for someone to love him — really love him — regardless his presence or absence in the church.

What I didn’t know was that I was making that case for myself.

While I hadn’t fathered a kid and abandoned it (mothered, I suppose), I had stopped believing in the rigid rules of my upbringing. I no longer associated church attendance with salvation, I questioned the necessity of baptism, I cursed, I doubted biblical authority and the condemnation of homosexuality, and I wanted to know why God didn’t have a gender but nevertheless couldn’t be referred to in feminine terms. I couldn’t even look at a Bible without wincing. I was losing my faith — or so I thought — and the prospect of returning home and having to hide all the questions I’d been asking in the safety of my professors’ offices frightened me. I was certain my parents would take one look at me and know.

So I begged. I pleaded. I wrote a passionate defense of Jack Boughton to show how he went from scapegoat to Christ figure, how even he in all his failings could be redeemed. And what’s more, he was redeemed without returning to that old, stifling religion he found so inadequate for his needs.

(from my paper)

Ames’s acceptance and blessing of Jack — even in the face of Jack’s continued failure — brings both their struggles to an end. First Ishmael then prodigal then scapegoat, Jack is now a Christ-figure, a conduit of God’s grace and forgiveness flowing down over Ames’s life. Forty years ago, covetise prevented Ames from accepting his best friend’s gift, but now, through Jack’s atoning twenty-year wandering and a preacher’s subsequent soul-searching, John Ames is finally able to accept the grace set before him.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote in that paper anymore, but I do still believe this — that Jack is Ames’s Christ-figure, come to redeem him from the guilt and sin of their past relations. Today, I can also recognize Ames as Jack’s Christ-figure, that in a beautiful, paradoxical way, they each redeem the other.

Probably the thing that amazes me most, though, is my relationship with this book. Just as Jack plays multiple roles in Ames’s life — a thorn in his side, a scapegoat released into the wilderness, and a conduit of grace poured down upon his head — so too does Gilead play multiple roles in my own life. A year ago I hated it, saw it as just another sermon preached to my disbelieving face. Today, thanks to my wilderness wanderings, I can accept it with a quiet sort of love. A year ago it sent me into the desert, bitter and lonely and angry and scared. Today, it welcomes me, still hurting, still questioning, still confused, but not alone, never alone, and for the first time in my life, conscious of God’s grace. Grace upon grace upon grace.

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