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Gilead (2004)


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Darren, or Buckeye, or Crow:

Would one of you like to start things rolling? Not that I'm trying to shirk my duties, but I know I won't be finished before the weekend (hopefully), and if you all want to get started, feel free.

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I'm happy to wait for you, Mark. Also give others a chance to finish up. Since I've never participated in a book discussion before, I'd like to "dip my toes" first, if you will; I don't know the first thing about leading one.

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I'm willing to wait as well until everyone is ready. How do we want to do it this time, by posting questions, or just our general thoughts?

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I'm going to try to make an effort to read every night this week, instead of catching up on recorded episodes of 24, Lost and Invasion. (We'll see how disciplined I really am.)

As for starting the discussion - using the recent Film Club discussion of Wrong Man as a template - some general questions seem to help get the ball rolling.

(BTW, Christian - I didn't mean to make it seem like you weren't welcome to get the discussion started ... I was assuming you, like me, hadn't finished the book yet. Not that you thought that, but rereading my initial post, it kinda sounded like that's what I meant ... :( )

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Kicking Off The Discussion...

I finished the book last week, and I

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I haven't yet made the time to give Gilead the close attention it deserves, but here are some random ideas inspired by Christian's questions . . .

- I was surprised to find myself choking back tears when John told Jack he'd like to bless him. It hit me in the same way other moments of unexpected grace in favorite works of art have -- for example, Louis and Ethel delivering the Kaddish in Angels in America or Johannes returning to the family in Ordet. I think this is one reason that I (and many others here, I'm sure) have gone out of my way to somehow "sanctify" my taste. Art is occasionally able to make strange again the mysteries of faith that have become too familiar through unthinking repetition.

John's desire to bless Jack is, in some ways, motivated by very human desires -- the desire of a dying man to reconcile with his "son," at least -- but, by that point in the novel, John's humanity has become so suffused with grace and wisdom and love (and jealousy and regret, as well) that it becomes, for me at least, a moment of the Gospel realized. To borrow from Jack Nicholson, John Ames makes me want to be a better man.

So it's a very human moment but it also begs the question: what heavenly good comes of an earthly blessing? I think about this often when the subject of marriage comes up, especially among non-Christian friends who are, at best, ambivalent about it and, at worst, downright hostile. Ultimately, I have to admit that I genuinely believe something holy happened that night when Joanna's and my marriage was blessed. It's not just a contract or a promise or a ceremonial tradition (though all those things are important); rather, it's a spiritual, God-enacted union. Do I believe the same thing about John's blessing of Jack, or about church-y blessings, in general? Honestly, I can't say that I've given the question too much thought (again, it's that comfort of familiarity). I think it matters to John and Jack, and I suppose it becomes an act of faith to believe that Jack will benefit -- spiritually, at least -- because of it.

- I think the story shifts toward Jack, also, because he becomes a surrogate for John's own son -- the adult he won't live long enough to know. Even without children of my own, I was constantly moved by John's deep regret for this lack in his life. It reminded me of Christian mourning. There's the confidence that comes from knowing he will meet his son again one day, but it's always balanced against the very real human suffering. ("But I loved her body, too," Inger's husband says in Ordet.)

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Christian,

I'm not sure Jack's story really IS the main story, even though Robinson brings the plot into that orbit by the end. Like you, it was a surprise for me that Jack got so much ink in the last part of the book, much as it was also a surprise to Ames.

John's story seemed to dwell on other threads -- his father, his grandfather, his wife, his faith (certainly his work as a preacher and thinker), and his friendship with Jack's father. But one of the thing's Robinson does so well is to offer up subtle clues, the significance of which are not immediately apparent. The reader begins to make discoveries, to see issues in focus, along with the narrator. As John muses about his life, he finds perspective, and so do we.

The thing with Jack is that it's not merely part of Ames' past, or (as we first understand it) part of his friend's painful past. It is very much a part of his own present, so that as he is pondering this part of his story, the story is changing. I think Jack re-awakens in him some of his old wounds -- he becomes a reminder of the flawed human condition generally, and a threat (or perceived threat) to the future happiness of his wife and son... a sad reminder of his own aging body.

So, I think Robinson's elliptical story, in part, disorders Ames' attempt to neatly resolve the challenges of his life. Instead, Jack's unwelcome intrusion into the end of his life alarms and challenges him, and in the end his ideals and his faith are put to the test, and shown to be strong and real. In the end, it is that wrestling with life and truth that are the story, the Promised Land; Jack is merely the Jordan that must be crossed.

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I think Robinson's elliptical story, in part, disorders Ames' attempt to neatly resolve the challenges of his life. Instead, Jack's unwelcome intrusion into the end of his life alarms and challenges him, and in the end his ideals and his faith are put to the test, and shown to be strong and real. In the end, it is that wrestling with life and truth that are the story, the Promised Land; Jack is merely the Jordan that must be crossed.

Really well said, Tim.

So here's another question: Do any of you have a friend like Boughton? I'm so jealous of that relationship.

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Good thoughts, Darren and Tim. I had composed a response to Darren earlier, then thought better of it and deleted it -- which just goes to sure I'm not quite sure what to make of Jack's character.

About the blessing. Like Darren, I find that scene very moving. But I think the most moving moment in the entire novel may be when Ames, challenged by Jack about Barth, tells him that none of Barth's words, as valuable as they may be, could compare to moment of true communion between John Ames and his Lord. It's really quite a powerful scene. I backtracked the CD and listened to it twice, just to feel the force of it. There's a mountain of Truth in that idea.

Edited by Christian

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To answer Christian's first question, I think the primary theme of the book is that of legacy. John Ames narrates the book as a letter to his son, leaving him with a record of his life and trying to explain to his son who he is. I believe the reason that he is preoccupied with Jack is that the elder John Ames sees his name as a part of his legacy, and Jack shares his name: John Ames Boughton. I believe the elder John Ames sees that the name links Jack to him, and Jack's indiscretions mar his own name too.

In blessing Jack at the end, maybe John Ames sees this as a way of forgiving him. He's letting his own legacy stand and is learning to let go of Jack, as he is learning to let go of his wife and his son in his own journey, leaving this life and preparing to enter heaven.

Edited by Crow

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So here's another question: Do any of you have a friend like Boughton? I'm so jealous of that relationship.

Intrigued by your question, Darren ... can you elaborate? I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, and trying to figure whether it's a male phenomenon that most of us don't build friendships with much spiritual or emotional depth, but I'm not so sure it is.

FWIW, I'm totally captivated by Robinson's writing, so much so that I find myself almost unconcerned with the plot's progress. It's not an easy book to read on the treadmill or stationary bike, because I'm not great at blocking out surrounding distractions, and it's the kind of book whose language I want to savor.

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I'm gonna try and read through the underlined sections and margin comments again in the next couple of days, so I'll hopefully have a bit more to add, then. (I first had to finish the Wendell Berry book I was reading - I guess I'm on a bender of deceptively folksy yet deeply philosophical, small-town writings lately). Anyway, a couple of responses in the meantime:

::I think the primary theme of the book is that of legacy.

Yes, I would agree, Crow, that that is at least a major theme here. One could also say a key theme is the relational dynamics between fathers and sons. In looking at the various story lines, we learn much about the lives of 3 generations of Broughton men, as well as 4 generations of Ameses - that which they emulated or rejected in their elders, where they pleased and perhaps most notably where they disappointed their fathers. The theme of disappointment is especially clear in the dyads of Broughton-John Ames Broughton, and Ames' father and grandfather.

On my second read-through in particular, I noticed how many times Ames writes about Broughton, 'I wish you could have known him when he was younger,' when he was clearly voicing his regrets about his own age and lack of vigor, and how his own son will remember him. IIRC, it wasn't until 100 or more pages in that he wrote more directly, 'I wish you could have known me in my prime.'

::FWIW, I'm totally captivated by Robinson's writing, so much so that I find myself almost unconcerned with the plot's progress...it's the kind of book whose language I want to savor.

I so agree with you. It's an overused work in book reviews, but this is the kind of work for which the word 'luminous' is apt, in more ways than one. The prose simply glows on the page, and Ames as narrator so clearly perceives the light that surrounds and emanates from God's creation. I also feel a spiritual glow in reading a work of such theological richness, and in seeing the life of a pious simple saint who has lived a full life of fighting the good fight, through many toils and snares.

::Do any of you have a friend like Boughton? I'm so jealous of that relationship.

As far as a male friend, there is one in my life who is sort of like that. It is a blessing indeed. Now if only I could find a church that I felt connected with...

Edited by Andrew

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Oh, and isn't there a sad irony to the racial subplot here: Gilead as a town that was involved with the radical abolitionists in the past, yet in the present is not a place where John Ames Broughton could respectably bring his black wife. Perhaps we could tie this to the whole 'legacy' theme...

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re: Robinson's writing . . . When I finished reading it, Joanna and I were lying in bed, and I put it down and just said, "Goodness, that's a great book." It was almost a sigh -- like I couldn't imagine writing that strong and an imagination that big.

Mark, two years ago, when my mother- and father-in-law passed way (suddenly and tragically), we were surrounded by friends. But its occurred to me many times since that I have only one male friend who has consistently expressed a genuine concern for me. Considering all that my wife has lost, I feel a bit selfish when I think about my own grief, but I also know there have been many times when well-intentioned friends have pulled me aside to find out "How Joanna is really doing," and I wanted to ask them, "What about me? I've also lost two people I dearly loved, too."

Sorry. Didn't mean to get so heavy there, but I do think this was often at the back (and, at times, the front) of my mind as I read Gilead. I envy Ames when he talks about "needing to discuss this with Boughton," and I envy the years they've spent together in the same town, the thousands of talks they've shared. I have no doubt that I spend too much time online in forums like this because I lack that kind of friend in my "real" life.

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Wow! Its hard to know where to begin; you have all captured so much about the novel!

For me, Gilead catches me at an interesting time in life: its now five years since my own father passed away unexpectedly, and four months since my first child was born. Undoubtedly, this has had an influence on my own reading, and often I found myself thinking that what a blessing this letter is to John's son. With the passage of time between his loss of his father and his growing up, this letter will both shape and renew his own relationship with his father. It strikes me a bit in writing that sentence, that this is similar to the letters written by the Evangelists and Apostles, "How blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed" and "Even though I am not with you at present, I am with you in spirit".

This is a work of active legacy, a way of mending the gap that death and age differences bring between John and his son. Its an effort to ensure that John's grandson will not see the same broken relationship that he saw between his father and grandfather.

As I wrote elsewhere, I found Gilead much more satisfying than I expected; I thought Jack and John's wife would reach some understanding whereby he would "replace" John, both as a husband and in caring for John's son (did he have a name? even mentioned once?). I was glad to see that this was not the case; or if it were, it was outside the scope of the narration. This made the relationship, unfolding as we read, between Jack and John much more poignant, and its expression of the blessing at the end both fully satisfying and unexpected. Have you ever experienced something like that in a relationship, where you were prepared to write someone off, and ended up coming alongside them or "blessing" them in a way?

Good thoughts all! Glad to be able to read alongside you!

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Mark, two years ago, when my mother- and father-in-law passed way (suddenly and tragically), we were surrounded by friends. But its occurred to me many times since that I have only one male friend who has consistently expressed a genuine concern for me. Considering all that my wife has lost, I feel a bit selfish when I think about my own grief, but I also know there have been many times when well-intentioned friends have pulled me aside to find out "How Joanna is really doing," and I wanted to ask them, "What about me? I've also lost two people I dearly loved, too."

Sorry. Didn't mean to get so heavy there, but I do think this was often at the back (and, at times, the front) of my mind as I read Gilead. I envy Ames when he talks about "needing to discuss this with Boughton," and I envy the years they've spent together in the same town, the thousands of talks they've shared. I have no doubt that I spend too much time online in forums like this because I lack that kind of friend in my "real" life.

Great post, Darren; it made me smile for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, this is what I thought you initially meant, and I completely relate to that feeling. And second, this line "Sorry. Didn't mean to get so heavy there," is such a man thing to say. :) And maybe explains at least part of why many of us have few (if any) fulfilling male friendships. We back off, and even apologize for, talking about the real stuff of our lives, the pain of our existence ... it's Ok to talk about that stuff in the pulpit, in the abstract, but not in relation to ourselves and our own experience. (Surely that's why the relative anonymity of the Internet is so attractive.)

Maybe we see some of that in Jack. Maybe it explains some of his "hateful" and "mean" actions toward Ames, that he's envious of the strong bond of friendship and connection his father shares with Ames. Jack's difficulty expressing himself translates to his behavior and seemingly mean-spirited behavior around Ames? Just a thought that occurred to me now. (and FWIW, I've still got about 40 pages to go)

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Nice thoughts, Buckeye. I remember when, earlier, you were guessing about Jack

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Mark, there's a great scene in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, when one older man confesses to another older man that he's having an affair. The narrator -- the man who's being talked to -- spends a paragraph or two describing the affection he suddenly feels for his friend, knowing how rare it is to find a man with whom he can feel so intimate. I'll try to remember to post some snippets when I get home. It's really good stuff.

I wonder, also, if we're less likely to find a friendship likes Ames' and Boughton's simply because most of us now live in suburban homes that we rarely leave without a car. I guess I'm thinking about "community" in the larger sense, too.

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I wonder, also, if we're less likely to find a friendship likes Ames' and Boughton's simply because most of us now live in suburban homes that we rarely leave without a car. I guess I'm thinking about "community" in the larger sense, too.

I agree with that to some extent, but to me the number one factor in John and Boughton's friendship was the death of John's first wife and child. He had time for such a friendship, both emotionally and chronologically. Being in a walkable, small town community only facilitated it. .

At one sense, is not the book tinged with regret that he'll never have a long term relationship with his son or wife? Although Aames states again and again that we would not have changed his life in any way, I wonder if that's so--given a choice between knowing Boughton so intimately or having his son in his youth, would he really choose the former?

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At one sense, is not the book tinged with regret that he'll never have a long term relationship with his son or wife? Although Aames states again and again that we would not have changed his life in any way, I wonder if that's so--given a choice between knowing Boughton so intimately or having his son in his youth, would he really choose the former?

Fascinating question, because of the theme of regret and disappointment that runs throughout the novel, particularly in father-son relationships. Surely Ames would have chosen to have his son during his own youth; whether his relationship with his son would have been as rewarding as his intimate friendship with Boughton is questionable. If the relationship between Ames' grandfather and father is any indication, and the strange dynamic between young Boughton and old Boughton, and young Boughton and his namesake, Ames ... there's a pretty good chance Ames and his own son would have played out that same dance of father-son disappointment and regret.

One of the most poignant aspects of the novel is Ames' tenderness for his young son; of course, Ames knows he's dying at this point, and his son isn't old enough to have disappointed him yet, or for his father to have significantly disappointed him. (Ames writes something to that effect early on in his journal.)

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As I wrote elsewhere, I found Gilead much more satisfying than I expected; I thought Jack and John's wife would reach some understanding whereby he would "replace" John, both as a husband and in caring for John's son (did he have a name? even mentioned once?).

Wow - hadn't thought of this... Is Ames son really never named?? Amazing.

Also, FWIW, here is a link to an earlier thread where the book was discussed.

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For me, Gilead catches me at an interesting time in life: its now five years since my own father passed away unexpectedly, and four months since my first child was born. Undoubtedly, this has had an influence on my own reading, and often I found myself thinking that what a blessing this letter is to John's son. With the passage of time between his loss of his father and his growing up, this letter will both shape and renew his own relationship with his father. It strikes me a bit in writing that sentence, that this is similar to the letters written by the Evangelists and Apostles, "How blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed" and "Even though I am not with you at present, I am with you in spirit".

This is a work of active legacy, a way of mending the gap that death and age differences bring between John and his son.

Yes, yes. This passage, so sad and tender and hopeful, nearly devastated me:

While I'm thinking of it - when you are an old man like I am, you might think of writing some sort of account of yourself, as I am doing. In my experience of it, age has a tendency to make one's sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.

Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing - only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.

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Circumstances beyond our control conspire to prevent us from going to church this morning. But I miss it all the more having reread a small portion of Gilead just now. I haven't read Calvin's Institutes and I'm interested in hearing more about how they effect (affect?) a reading of Gilead. But it strikes me again, just as I mentioned earlier that just as the letter is a testament of John Aames to his son, it is also a bit of a sacrament. Or at least a recording of the sacramental nature of familial memory.

John records the story of his father handing him a piece of "the bread of affliction", ash-charred biscuit while cleaning the burnt Baptist church in the rain. He connects this memory to a moment when he served communion to his son, and specifically informs his son that he wishes him to have a memory like John has of his father. This is then followed (contrasted?) with a story of John's father washing the rebel's blood from the church floor and meeting with a soldier that intimates that his grandfather is involved in a dangerous conflict with the government.

To me, this legacy of blood and discord seem as much a part of John's blessing, his sacred story, to his son as does the memory of the ashen biscuit. Broken bread, broken body, broken relationship. But in the relationship between John and his son, a healing, a restoration is taking place.

This breaks out even in places unexpected, in ways unforeseen: Jack Boughton's interracial marriage--surely only possible because of the brokenness of the nation personified in Grandfather Aames, and almost in spite of what anyone's wishes in Gilead would have been. And its culminated in John's blessing of Jack, a hopefulness of reconciliation and redemption for the prodigal.

Is this not what the nature of the sacrament is? To break bread and sip the cup, doing it in rememberance of Me? And in the memory of this communion, the sacramental effect is reconciliation effective through the memory itself; action is informed by it and performed because of it.

Edited by Buckeye Jones

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This breaks out even in places unexpected, in ways unforeseen: Jack Boughton's interracial marriage--surely only possible because of the brokenness of the nation personified in Grandfather Aames, and almost in spite of what anyone's wishes in Gilead would have been.

Could you explain this a bit? Not sure I get what you mean about Jack's marriage (actually not a legal marriage, since they've been in trouble for 'cohabitating').

The themes of sacrament and reconciliation and hopefulness - very moving in that final interaction between Ames and Jack. But there's a sad irony, too, isn't there? In that even Ames himself can't safely predict that Jack's interracial relationship wouldn't break his relationship with Old Boughton. Even after Boughton has accepted Jack's illegitimate daughter, continued to love Jack unconditionally and, to a fault, cover for his transgressions ... the racial divide is too great for the father's love to cross. (Or so Jack and even Ames believe.) And this is after the bloodshed and radicalism of Ames's grandfather, which led him to neglect his own family and injure his relationship with his own son.

BTW - I love Ames' periodic references to his boy's red shirt (and his wife's blue dress). At first I thought this was a vivid detail to capture what Andrew called earlier "the light that surrounds and emanates from God's creation." But now I wonder if there's significance to those colors? The red shirt, reminiscent of the grandfather's bloody clothes identified with the struggle for racial equality? (That might be totally off, and those passages where he notices those favorite clothes are beautiful in themselves, so maybe I'm reading way too much into this.)

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This breaks out even in places unexpected, in ways unforeseen: Jack Boughton's interracial marriage--surely only possible because of the brokenness of the nation personified in Grandfather Aames, and almost in spite of what anyone's wishes in Gilead would have been.

Could you explain this a bit? Not sure I get what you mean about Jack's marriage (actually not a legal marriage, since they've been in trouble for 'cohabitating').

My thoughts are that the nature of a sacrament is that of an efficacious rememberance, in which the remembering recalls and involves the power of that which is memoralized in such a way that it transforms the present reality to the desired or ideal outcome. The transformation is not necessarily immediate or incomplete, but ongoing, a now but not yet proclamation of Christ's lordship and the presence of His kingdom, especially in the life of the participant.

If you view John's story to his son as a type of Christian sacrament, involving both his own story and that which has been inherited down through his family's story, then the history of Christ's reconciliation of the world to Himself is seen in the events around John.

Jack's relationship with his wife is only possible because of the struggles of men like Grandfather Aames. Even so, it still is not accepted by society, black or white (hence the "cohabitation"--actual licensed marriage is probably illegal at this time). His failure to find peace drives him to Aames, and in that relationship, he is blessed, although his story is unfinished. To me, Jack's story is one in which Aames is brought closer to his Father in part through reflection on his own heritage--his willingness to bless Jack surprises us, but it is fitting: a man in his old age who is still growing and changing. This step is enabled by the radicalism of his grandfather, the quest of his father for a reconciliation that will not be consummated, and the world in which all the extraneous circumstances align (in bringing Jack back to Gilead).

In this, a marriage of the two races, I see hints of Paul's comments that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile. And I agree about the irony in the final blessing; a tinge of discomfort--the object of blessing is unfulfilled, the story is left incomplete for John's son and in Gilead the flawed work of John's grandfather is unfinished. But it is marching on toward completion in and through the Church.

I'm not sure that this is any more helpful at articulating what I'm thinking. It feels incomplete to me.

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