Saturday, 29 September 2012

"Gilead" and "Home" two powerful novels by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” (published 2004), and “Home” (published 2008) are parallel novels by the splendid writer Marilynne Robinson.

Both are set in the fictional town of Gilead in Iowa in the 1950’s.  They speak of the lives of The Revd. John Ames, a Congregationalist Minister, and his friend and colleague the Revd. Robert Boughton (a Presbyterian Minister).


Ames (the story teller in “Gilead") is in his late sixties and is moving towards death.  His first wife and child had died many years before. In later life he married a quiet but perspicacious woman, Lila. Together they had a son Robert (Robby) named for the Presbyterian minister.

Robby is now aged seven.  Ames tells his story in the form of a journal which he hopes his son will read long after his (John Ames’s) death.


“Home” is told from the point of view of Glory, one of Robert Boughton’s eight children.  Glory has never married and she has returned home to take care of her Dad, her mother having passed.

Both books tell the same essential story, but with very different styles and themes.

Central to “Gilead” and “Home” is the return home of John “Jack” Boughton, (named John for his father’s friend John Ames).

Jack had left town in disgrace after fathering and abandoning a child. He had been a petty thief, a drunk, and a jail bird. He’d also had a common law wife Della. They too had a son. Jack had been forced to leave Della by her strict parents (because of his reputation), and because Jack and Della could never hope to have a married life in the segregated south with its laws against miscegenation.


They are, as I said, parallel stories, told by different voices.

Marilynne Robinson is such a brilliant user of these disparate voices that each book could stand alone.

At the same time each book illuminates the other.

Her writing is so profoundly true to human experience.

None of the central characters (John Ames, Robert Boughton, Lila Ames, and brother and sister Jack and Gloria Boughton) are never one dimensional.

“Gilead” and “Home” deal with the central themes of human existence.
What is faith?

Why is it impossible for some folk to believe?

What is home?

What are the prides, follies and wisdoms of the preachers?

Above all else Robinson wrestles with the whole matter of human forgiveness, and of “what is home?”.

The Revd. John Ames despises Jack and cannot bring himself to believe that Jack should be forgiven.

The Revd. Robert Boughton loves his errant son with a deep passion, yet he cannot forgive.

Jack himself believes that he cannot be forgiven, and that he, like Cain has been forced to “wander the earth” – because for him there is no home  -  there never was one, even when he grew up in a house with a loving family.

Theologians talk about forgiveness in obtuse, abstract, and arcane ways.

Preachers (such as your blogger) often speak about forgiveness with an all too glib certainty.

Marilynne Robinson tells stories.  And in doing so she speaks more effectively and powerful than any theologian or preacher.

I could hardly put these books down, and I will return to read them again in a year or so. They are more splendid than any sermon or theological treatise.


Here are two reviews.  First from the evangelical monthly “Christianity Today”

Second, from the well known (secular) monthly “The New Yorker”.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Background to "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind"

Quaker poet, abolitionist, and social reformer John Greenleaf Whittier was born in Haverhill MA in 1807.

He died in Hampton Falls N.H. in 1892

His remains were buried in Amesbury, MA.

Whittier was one of the founders of what became the Republican Party (the party of Abraham Lincoln)
The Quaker founded Whittier College in CA was named for him. (President Richard Nixon was a graduate of Whittier College).

The  hymn which many Christians know as “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" is part of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem "The Brewing of Soma"

The poem appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.  It started with an account, evidently from Max Muller's translation of Vashista, of the drink brewed by Hindu priests and drunk by worshippers, bringing "sacred madness" and "a storm of drunken joy."

Italicised words from

Whittier, a sober and sombre minded Quaker, was deeply suspicious of “Revivalist Religion”. So his poem links what he understood as the drug induced ecstasies of Hindu ceremony, with the frenetic excesses of Christian revivalism.

His ‘link’ stanza is this:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane (i.e. Christian revivalism jmp) 
The heathen Soma still!

Those words lead directly  into the familiar

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

I attended a Quaker Meeting

Frequent readers of this blog will recall that I long for  silence in  Church services.

I have written about the very wordiness of the liturgies of the Episcopal Church. With hymns, prayers, readings, psalms, creeds and sermons we scarcely have time to think, and often have no time to reflect.

(This wordiness is probably endemic in all churches: mainline protestant, evangelical, fundamentalist or roman catholic).

With that in mind I took myself to Sarasota’s Quaker Meeting last Sunday.  There we were, some forty or so folks who sat in prayerful silence for the best part of an hour.

There was but one “speaker”, a man who (responding to the "Inner Light" as Quakers would describe it), reflected briefly on the recent death of a Friend.

His reflection was followed by singing, when a woman arose and began to sing one chorus of “I’ll fly away”. Some of us joined in.

(I did find it a wee bit incongruous to be singing a bit of an old gospel song in a Quaker Meeting!).

I enjoyed the silence – the more so I think because it was a shared silence.  I was able to reflect and pray as I recited various psalms and hymns in my mind.

It all reminded me a bit of my up-bringing in the “Plymouth Brethren” where the Lord’s Day observance of the Breaking of Bread took place in the context of silence, broken from time to time when some brother or other (always a brother, never a sister) led us in extempore prayer, or read from the scriptures, or announced a hymn – to be sung a cappella.

Of course there were huge differences.

The Plymouth Brethren meeting always led to a sharing of the bread and the drinking of wine “in remembrance” of Jesus.  

Quakers have no sacraments or ordinances.

Brethren theology is fundamentalist (or more accurately “dispensationalist”)

Quakers eschew theology.

The silence in the Brethren was called “waiting on the (Holy) Spirit”.  

Quaker silence is devoted to being in touch with one’s inner light.

But the silence was the same. It was refreshing to my spirit.

I am not thinking of becoming a Quaker, (I am far more certain of my inner darkness than of any inner light!) -  but it was good to be away from the hustle and bustle of “normal” Church services, and to relax in the quietness.

John Greenleaf Whittier  (1897-1892) was a Quaker poet.  One of his poems has been abbreviated and turned in to a hymn. It’s well known to folks of my generation.  His words ran through my mind last Sunday at Quaker meeting – I believe that they beautifully express the spirit of Quakers as they meet for worship.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

Tomorrow I will add a blog entry which will give you the background of “Dear Lord and Father”

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Chatter box

When young Toby was here on his visit from England my brother and I gently teased him on account of his non-stop chattering.

Of course we were two pots calling one kettle black.  Martyn and I are also talkers.

Last evening my friends Ron and Charlotte stopped by my home for a social hour, together with new friends Den and Karen.

They were my guests for about 1 hour and 40 minutes.

I swear that I talked almost without interruption for about 90 of those 100 minutes.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

North Haven, Penobscot Bay, ME

This photo' of the harbour on the island of North Haven ME was taken by my colleague David Macy, who is the year round resident minister there. (I visited the island some four years ago).

The photo' makes me wistful for the beauty of New England.