Now that I’ve read “Gilead,” I see that it is really about universal salvation, once the cornerstone of a whole denomination and then taken so for granted that it seeped into the mainstream, and now again needed in this time of fear and shortage. It was a rural, Jesus-loving but liberal sort of denomination and its money paid for the Montana circuit-riding ministry I did 1982-85. In the modern context I see that the idea of predestination and hell -- terrible punishment awaiting all who do not accept a certain point of view -- has been restored to us through the right-wing fundamentalists of all three Abramic religions and has become the advertising theory of the health industry as well as politics: stir up terror and offer to protect from it. Suffering and death are seen as avertible by prescription. (Or money -- to them, the same thing.)
We are asking “where is salvation” and it looks to me as though Robinson is suggesting immanence, quiet human lives in homes. But she is also aware of events like the Civil War that demand the sacrifice of all of that in a mighty effort to achieve justice, even though in a few generations (there are four Ames generations here) the warriors will be forgotten. The story’s foundation effort to reclaim that courage is Old Ames as a boy, walking for months to his grandfather’s grave with his own father in a time of drought that has made a fertile land into a desert. There are echoes of Abraham and Isaac, but there is no intent to sacrifice the boy. Instead both are fed when they locate the grave and clear away the undergrowth. All through the book, the women guard the bodies of the men by feeding them, a commandment in the country where men do hard labor and sojourners pass through.
“Gilead” explores nonconformity (which the churchy dogmatic feel should condemn someone to hell) as being in the end openness to freedom. It confronts the faithlessness of people who risk their lives to rescue slaves and then re-enslave the same people through prejudice against their skin color. The nonconformist who ignores that stupidity is punished, even threatened by hell or at least ostracism. But the grandson of one of those warriors, “Old Ames” (pun intended, I think) in a generational line of clergy, in the end grants formal blessing. (This strikes to the heart of me because in the last few years I have tried to convey blessing to the nonconventional desirers we label “homosexual,” because they are already carrying the demonized curse of AIDS with Big Pharma money standing in the way of a cure. I can be more explicit in other venues.)
This book is packed with preachers, all of them with sons of one kind or another. The women watch, feed, mend, and plant -- carrying the pastoral domesticity which I’ll save for discussion in another post. In the end -- I’ll just give it away -- one old preacher, finding his best friend’s son about to leave town and finally understanding what a virtue breaking the rules can be, and what a terrible price it can exact, puts his blessing hand on the brow of the man who waits for the bus as he has when he christened the same man in infancy. He has given this man not just his word, but his name.
The book unfolds subtly. Near the front is a charming story about children christening kittens. One of the challenges to the Christian template has been the boundary between animal and human so that children can ask whether dogs go to heaven and declare that if dogs don’t, the child doesn’t want to go there either. But the author reminds us that the hand of the minister fits the head of an infant just as the hand of a child fits the head of a cat, and also the minister’s hand fits the brow of the adult petitioner. (The narrator reflects wryly that it was a good thing the baptizers of cats were not Total Immersion Baptists.) There is an unspoken likeness to a caretaker testing for fever. What it feels like to be the receiver of these attentions for either purpose is also unexplored. Instead the narrator remembers the sensation in his hand and the frank response of the beloved receiver.
There is a second sacrament that appears again and again: communion. Not strictly, but the act of putting food into an upturned, trusting and loving face. Old Ames’ father tells about receiving an ashy bit of biscuit from the hands of his father. (Ashy from the lightning-struck and burned old church. Judgment? Human judgment tried to burn the black church and failed.) Old Ames himself tells about the baptism and first communion of his second wife, theologically unsophisticated but committed. Nothing is said about the wine. I should reread this book and index it for more study.
And there is a third “sacrament,” an American mid-West act of communication and grace: a man and a boy playing catch in the long summer evenings. Old Ames’ namesake, Old Boughton’s prodigal son, comes to throw the ball with Old Ames’ son by his second wife, who is immediately warm to that same man “Jack.” Old Ames is jealous and fearful -- he is easily displaced, he is facing death by old age, and Jack could take his family away from him or just inherit it after his death. It’s not until he realizes that Jack has his own family, separated by racism, that he relaxes. If one thinks of a church as the pastor’s wife, and vice versa, Old Ames is easy to understand.
It appears to me (and possibly this is because of my own focus and preference when it comes to traditional religion) that we have here a pastor whose approach is based on dogma (“Old Boughton”) alongside one based on sacraments (“Old Ames”). They are both loving men, but both limited. I often talk about the contrast between Unitarianism, a heresy based on rational principle, and Universalism, a heresy based on the heart. But Calvinism is the father of both movements and deserves more attention, especially the recovery of Jonathan Edwards’ joy in immanentalism, the belief that holiness wells up from within.
This interpetation of the preachers owes something to Martha Nussbaum’s idea of the “Fragility of Goodness,” which may be the real meaning of being spiders dangled by a thread over a kitchen stove. I haven’t read it -- just a quick summary that suggests that those who try to do good can pay a terrible price. The two preachers in this novel are very old and frail, even as the church buildings are abused and overgrown or else given over to proud brick prosperity. Each man has paid a price, not so much for his beliefs as in spite of virtue, which did not save them from suffering. In this version of the story, the prodigal son cannot return nor can he find happiness in another land. But he can be blessed in his effort.