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No, I’m not talking about A New Kind of Christian or The Story We Find Ourselves In or The Last Word and After That. Instead, I’m talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and the theology of Pastor John Ames.
Of course, it is foolish to debate what is the Emergent novel, but I am willing to make this claim: there is no novel out there so personal in its articulation of theology, so local in its embodiment, or more concerned with the importance of how one lives in comparison with what one believes in creedal form.
Marilynne Robinson, in the 80s, wrote a novel called Housekeeping that was an award-winning study of life. She then wrote two non-fiction pieces, and has just now returned to fiction. It, too, has already won some awards. I don’t know much about her, but after reading my one planned new piece of fiction for the year (I’ll soon be reading McLaren’s new one), I can say I love Pastor John Ames for who he was in his community — even though it is all make-believe.
It is a tale, a long one with only two chapters, and chapter two comes way back at the end with only a few pages left. I don’t know why fiction writers do things like this, but I’ll leave that to the English Dept to tell me. The prose is smooth and silky and transparent and as ordinary as the Iowa landscape described in the book.
Pastor John Ames is 77 and his wife is much younger and they have a 7-yr old son. The book is a long journal describing for his son what his life was like — one may say it is a series of blogs to his son about his life. In the process, Ames delivers one gem after another of sparkling, home-spun, theologically-sensitive bits of wisdom. No one will agree with Ames’ theology always — and again, of course, one can’t because he’s a fictional character who can’t argue back, but one can’t help but at times thanking Marilynne Robinson for inventing such a good man.
For theological types, the relationship of Ames with his brother Edward, who went off to Germany and found Feuerbach and lost his faith, and with Jack Broughton, his godson whose life was a mess but who returns to make peace with his father, but only does so through Pastor Ames, his father’s best friend, are worth the effort to read — if you read fiction.