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A minister of the word

The novelist and academic Marilynne Robinson brought alive a preacher's life in Gilead. Martin Wroe asks her where he came from

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AP/BRIAN RAY

AP/BRIAN RAY

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 glance?

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 are legion.

"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 true."

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 Jack Boughton.

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 moment.

Sermons are sacramental, not sentimental. She cites Calvin, who, taking the Greek into Latin, trans­lated logos as sermo, root for the English word, sermon.

"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 happens."

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 tradition.

"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 true."

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 rediscovered."

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 me."

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 universe."

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 consideration.

"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 £15.30); 978-0-374-29878-4.

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