Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This book really, really moved me. It was, is, and will continue to be for some time, very important to me. I’m going to do my best here to describe why. I’m not really sure if words will do it, at least not in the way that I use them, but I’ll do my best.

This is a book of such beauty and grace. I know that’s not a novel description of it. It’s on the cover of the book itself, and countless reviewers have probably said the same thing, and will continue to. But it’s new to me. I don’t think I’ve ever, not even in all of the thousands of unread words I’ve written in journals, used the word grace to describe a book. The fact that I’m doing it now is itself a testament to the way reading this has impacted me.

If that paragraph above was a little too pretentious for you, strap in. It’s only going to get worse from here.

My relationship with this book started really contentiously. I’d heard about it, knew that it was centered around religion and was told from the point of view of a religious man, and that caused me to enter into it a little warily. I’ve had a difficult relationship with religion. I’ve always been surrounded by it (I spent a large portion of my youth around a big, warm, lovely catholic family), but I’ve never had much time for it myself. I don’t hate it, not like some people do (though my feelings towards the institutions, as opposed to the people and communities who practice it, are not as kind), but I’ve never appreciated it much either. Never really believed in it. I still don’t. My brain is wired for facts, numbers and statistics and reasons that people can give why I should believe them. Believe, not believe in. The difference there is subtle, but it’s there. I think I’m missing that thing, whatever it is, that allows people to believe in a person or an idea that completely. In fact, if we’re being honest, I’ve spent much of my life looking down on that quality and the people who have it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. It seemed archaic, unnecessary, a false comfort for people who couldn’t face the cold, hard intellectual truths of the world. A way of ignoring them. I try to live my life being kind and understanding, to view the world through other people’s eyes (to not be an asshole, essentially), but every now and again the stubborn, opinionated, right teenager I used to be would bubble up. I’d say, yes, that religion of course had it’s place. Whatever comfort people could glean from the world, false or not, was a good thing. And that the institutions didn’t reflect on the people. I would acknowledge that it was made up of individual, distinct parts (how good of me). But then I’d clear my throat and crack my knuckles and say that just because an institution is made of kind people who do kind things doesn’t mean that we should just ignore the injustices they’ve been responsible for. Those kind people gave their money to the church, provided them with the power that they’ve misused, again and again and again. And if you think about it, catholics especially, why are you giving your money to the church to begin with? The pope preaches giving alms to the poor from a city made of gold. It’s hypocritical and gross. Then, smug and satisfied, I’d pat myself on the back for an argument well-made and go on my merry way. Looking back on it now, the arrogance of it embarrasses me.

The truth is that I still believe most of those things to be true (though I never bring them up anymore. What good does it do? How many people’s minds have I actually changed? Is that even what I want? If I did manage to persuade someone, really change what they thought, would what I was offering them be worth what I was taking away? Am I that sure of my own rightness? There’s too many questions behind it, and I don’t have the answers to any of them), but that they’re besides the point when you’re talking about the religions themselves, when you’re speaking about belief. It’s also just rude.

Because of my antagonistic way of interacting with religion, I always felt a sort of antagonism back from it. The offenses you perceive from other people have more to say about yourself than they do about them. I know that that’s true here, and I think it’s also just true generally. I always felt like their terminology was demeaning. By offering to save me, by referring to the act of joining them as being saved, they were denying my right to know what was best for me, denying my ability to look at the world and figure it out for myself. They were, in my eyes, dismissing the thing that I value the most about myself, my intelligence. But really, if you think about it, of course that’s the word they would use. And most religious people of any kindness or intelligence would inform you that it’s just a term. That they don’t really believe that people are ignorant or stupid for not believing what they believe, or that those people are doomed to burn in hell. No God that loves us would damn us just for the crime of non-belief. He couldn’t be that cruel.

The most obvious example of that is the brother and the way the narrator interacts with him. He mentions the brother’s belief (gleaned from an author and thinker whose name eludes me) that the kindness and beauty that we make in the world (and that which exists without our involvement at all) should be sufficient for our understanding of it. The world itself is enough. He thinks that religion is unnecessary, and that it should just “stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised” (this is the view in the book that hews most closely to my own). The author thinks that his ideas are marvelous when it comes to appreciating the world, but that he is ultimately wrong. At first after reading this I was furious. How dare he wave that idea away, belittle it, treat it so trivially. It was right! But the more I read and thought about it, the more I realized that’s not what happened. The narrator (the author) had thought about the viewpoint and respected it, but simply disagreed (with me). That’s all. And disagreement itself is not dismissive, despite what my pride may want me to believe. I had treated their beliefs about the world with condescension and arrogance, and I was looking for the same in return. And if you look for something hard enough, you’ll find it, even if it’s not there. Even if it never was.

After coming to that realization I was able to let my guard down, and, for the first time in my life, set aside my prejudices enough (or as much as is possible) to get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a person who really, truly believes. And it was lovely. Different, yes, and in some parts so much so that it was hard for me to grasp, but no less beautiful for its strangeness. The narrator had so much warmth and wisdom and kindness to share, so much love for the world. He wasn’t using his religion to shield him from the darker parts of it, he was using it to confront and understand them, to seek guidance through them. Most importantly he was using it to appreciate all the light. As he would say, that’s a remarkable thing to think about.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’ve been converted. I am who I am, and who I am lends itself to a belief in the physical, the tangible. But I feel like I learned a lot. I’m still no expert on faith, but I think I understand it better now. I respect it (not that it matters to anybody whether or not I do). I may not think that it’s right, but for the first time in my life I feel like it might be good.

Grace. I think I’ve avoided using that word to describe previous books or authors because I never knew what it meant, not really. I still don’t think that I’ve quite figured it out. But I’m a good deal closer than I’ve ever been.

Be good to each other.



2 thoughts on “Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Add yours

  1. Hi!! What a fantastic post!

    I’m of the same opinion as you when it comes to religion; it is not something I have ever understood. I was never brought up with any religious influence whatsoever and I’m interested to see if this book could give me some understanding of it, if it has managed to do so for you.

    Thanks for the insight 🙂


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