SURELY only predestination can account for the stellar success
of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. How else can we explain the
universal, critical praise - and the Pulitzer Prize - that was
given to a series of letters from a retired clergyman, the Revd
John Ames, to his young son? Or that the 77-year-old Mr Ames, whose
primary form of literary expression is the sermon, could be so
beguilingly good that Calvinism itself appears to be worth a second
And what, bar divine will, could bring several hundred readers
of The Guardian - many with
highly dubious religious creditworthiness - to deliver their
testimonies on one of Robinson's rare London visits?
Someone has read Gilead
four times, and is reading it a fifth. A Baptist minister has, like
Ames, "a whole stash of sermons up in my attic". This novel,
someone else says, has transformed his spirituality. "This is a
book that talks about religion to non-religious people in powerful
ways," another says. "It has reshaped my atheism." The book-signing
queue snakes across the foyer, and, among her admirers, the clergy
"At least three ministers have said to me since I've been in
England: 'I don't know what to do with my sermons,'" she laughs.
"And the thing that breaks my heart is that we'll never know what
is in them. Maybe some George Herbert is writing sermons, and will
simply keep them and then burn them when the end comes."
On the other hand, maybe quite a few of them are best suited for
loft insulation. "That's true," she laughs again. "I'm sure it's
Speaking the next day, at the offices of her publisher, Robinson
gives answers that are thoughtful and considered. And, when they
have carefully completed the task of answering . . . they end.
In the ensuing silence you are left looking at this brilliant
bibliophile, wondering if she knows you are still trying to process
the subtleties of the answer, and wondering if, with one of her
other minds, she is quietly multi-tasking on a new tale set in
late-1950s rural Idaho.
GILEAD, the last will and
testament of a Congregationalist minister, John Ames, is
addressed to the seven-year-old son of his late-in-life wife,
Lila, who is 30 years his junior:
If you're a grown man when you read
this - it is my intention for this letter that you will read it
then - I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what
there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to
myself. That seems to be the way of things.
Robinson is, herself, a member of the Congregational United
Church of Christ, in Iowa. An academic in a university town, she
teaches literature and creative writing as well as theology. This
helps to explain the authentic tone of Gilead, and its companion, Home, set in the neighbouring
family of Ames's lifelong friend, a Presbyterian minister, the Revd
It is not just that Ames or Boughton might have walked out of
the pages of the Bible, but that the novels are written like pieces
of extended scripture - collections of psalms, books of
lamentations. There is a mythic and meditative quality, every other
page containing passages you wouldn't mind committing to memory.
Ames writes to his son:
It is one of the best traits of good
people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women
than of men. So they get themselves drawn into situations that are
harmful to them. I have seen this happen many, many times. I have
always had trouble finding a way to caution against it. Since it
is, in a word, Christlike.
THE preacher's voice came to Robinson out of the blue, some
quarter of a century after she had last written fiction, her
acclaimed debut Housekeeping.
She had been reading about the abolitionist movement before the
American Civil War, and its founding of towns, churches, and
colleges. And she had been reading theology.
"In a hotel on Cape Cod, just at Christmas . . . I became aware
of an elderly, gentlemanly voice - the voice of a man about whom I
seemed to know certain essential things. He was a minister, the
father of a young son, and aware that his failing health meant that
he would not live to see the boy grow up."
She was surprised that it was a man's voice, but welcomed it. "I
felt very much at ease with Reverend Ames. It was pleasant work,
spending time in his company."
Pleasant when Ames is preaching, which is his style, and even
when he's not. Seen through a lens of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or
The Vicar of Dibley, the
notion of the sermon is discredited at best, comic at worst. But
Robinson locates it as a distinguished literary form. It is
neither fact nor fiction, but inspiring spiritual rhetoric, in
which a new moment is conjured up that transforms every other
Sermons are sacramental, not sentimental. She cites Calvin, who,
taking the Greek into Latin, translated logos as sermo, root for the English word,
"The word implies an act - not something inert, but the act of
speaking; so this whole Christology is built around this idea of
the act of speaking, and this creates an enormous sanctity around
that moment. So there is the presumed application to be very
serious - in the sense of communicating in absolute good faith -
and then there is the implied obligation for the congregation to
hear in good faith."
And on a good day? "When the sermon is good, when it has really
grasped something, that is a very moving moment - something
AND something happens reading Ames, a man whose goodness and
mercy threaten dour old Calvinism with a long overdue makeover. "My
man!" laughs Robinson at the suggestion, but she takes the project
seriously. In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books,
she offers an extended study of the 16th-century reformer as
someone essential to American liberalism.
"I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max
Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker. And
one of the crucial things he brings to me, is that the encounter
with another being is an . . . occasion in which you can, to the
best of your ability, honour the other person as being someone sent
to you by God."
She maintains that - behind the one-dimensional,
fire-and-brimstone iconoclast of popular lore - there is a way to
read Calvin which will change the way we see everyone.
"He says that, if a person offends you, Christ is waiting to
take the guilt of the offence on himself; so you have to consider
the other person, in a sense, exonerated, even in the course of
his offence towards you. [There] is always the question 'what does
God want out of this situation?' To me this is extremely
beautiful - in a way, the most beautiful articulation of the
Christian ethic I have ever seen."
Robinson argues that this belief, that every voice matters, is
at the heart of the American ideal. "To identify sacred mystery
with every individual experience, every life . . . is to arrive at
democracy as an ideal."
BUT can this grow from Calvin, in his "Taliban hat", as the poet
Les Murray captures him; the name, above all names, to whip up the
polluting smog of predestination?
"Which is so bizarre," Robinson says, anticipating the
objection. "I'm always listing them - Augustine, Ignatius of
Loyola, Luther - all these people have defended predestination,
sometimes at great length, sometimes very discreetly, and Calvin
also defends the idea, but he is only in the stream of theological
"I mean, you couldn't even make an argument that is dismissive
of this problem, unless you had not read the Bible - because there
is a great deal in the Bible that encourages precisely that
understanding, and everyone that defends it defends it on the basis
of scripture. So it's a red herring. To say that, if you are not a
Calvinist, then you have escaped that problem - that's not
So, Calvin is more of a mystic and less of a muggle than we
realise? "Exactly. He is somewhere between a mystic and a
metaphysician, and his intellectual tradition is very fertile, from
the point of view of great poetry, from Milton to Emily Dickinson,
great literature in general, that runs exactly along that line
between metaphysics and mysticism. I would like to see him
BORN in the town of Sandpoint, Idaho, in 1943, Robinson went
East after school, to study at Pembroke College - and returned to
the West to take a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University
of Washington. She has called the Idaho of her childhood the "least
church-oriented part of the country". Although her family was not
especially religious, she sensed God at a young age.
"It was in the air, in a way. I lived in the mountains, in a
very dramatic landscape. I think those ideas took root in my
imagination very naturally, beside how the wind sounded. It was a
very unpopulated place, when I was a child. There was the
disproportion between nature on the one hand, and human beings on
the other . . . that was part of what gave me the feeling of it, of
a very powerful other, a very animate other. It just seems true to
As a teenager, she recalls being influenced by her elder
brother, coming home from college and leaving his Nietzsche around
the house. Was there a moment when she chose faith, or had it
always chosen her ?
"I definitely went through a period when I thought I would make
the experiment of unbelief, and it lasted several months, and it
felt so wrong. It was as if the ceiling of the universe had come
down, so that it was just over my head. By attempting not to think
in religious terms, the validity of religious terms came rushing
back, and from that point on I dreaded the idea of the contracted
She describes the act of writing in ways in which others might
describe the act of faith, "a continuous attempt to make inroads on
the vast terrain of what cannot be said. . . I seem to know, by
intuition, a great deal that I cannot find words for."
WHEN Ames says, "for me, writing has always felt like praying,"
you sense that this has not been far off the truth for his creator.
She does not need to worry, now, about finding a publisher, but
even if she could not find one, she would write, anyway.
"When I was a little kid, I wrote poetry, and I always hid it.
And I had a completely approving family. Every once in a while, my
mother would come across this child's poetry, and it would sort of
hurt her feelings that she hadn't seen these poems. But the
sensation of writing itself is unbelievably powerful, and
necessary, and, in a way, it overshadows any other
"I have met a good number of people who have written several
books that were never published, and, in many cases, those have
been the most important experiences of their lives, because the
thing about writing is that you find out more about your mind, in a
sense, than you would find out by any other means.
"You find out where your imagination lives, and what your
favourite words are, and what kinds of things have an emotional
charge that you would not anticipate they would have. You find out
that you have an incredible store of memory that you would not
otherwise access. And so you have the feeling of being a much
larger life, in a way, than you would have known you were if you
had not written."
In her essays, it is clear that she sees all of life as a unity.
She has no time, for instance, for atheist scientists who want to
marginalise a religious perspective, or for Evangelicals with a
primitive take on science. "Contemporary science really is
beautiful," she says, and she laments a loss of confidence in
clerics, who are revealing their sense that science has undermined
their authority in society.
"There's something shy and apologetic about their role, and
this makes other people shy and apologetic, and sort of weakens
the core of things. It seems to me that, as much as anything, it is
the clergy's loss of confidence in the meaningfulness of their
role, relative to a congregation, that undermines them.
"I'm not saying they need to be assertive, or dominant, but
that, when they baptise someone, they have to believe that they
have done something important; when they preach, they have to feel
that they are living up to the definition of the sermon."
An academic, Calvinist, essayist, and storyteller, Robinson has
every confidence in the faith that calls her. "More than anything,
I am struck by the splendour of it all. Christianity has a
narrative that asserts that 'God so loved the world'. What is the
world that God would love? Something splendid, I think.'
When I Was A Child I Read
Books, by Marilynne Robinson, is published by Little
Brown at £16.99 (CT Bookshop