Faith gets such a bad rap these days. The most egregiously distorted personifications of it stand as paragons: Sarah Palin's hypocritical, dangerous and politicized evangelism; Pat Robertson's venomous, hateful, racist diatribes. Et cetera.
At the foundation of these demonstrations of faith is a lack of any kind of sensible, coherent, thought-through logic. The Palins and Robertsons of the world--and their brand of religious belief and practice--are easily dismissed because the presentation of it is nonsensical to the point of psychosis. They require, on the part of their followers, the complete turning-off of that part of the brain that questions and evaluates. The thinking
part of the brain. As a result, thinking comes to be antithetical to Christian belief or any kind of extremist religious belief.
This is not right. I am open-minded enough to know that, even though I don't share it and can't share it, there are many people whose faith is well-founded on a belief system that has been examined, scrutinized, sometimes (often) struggled with. A belief system that includes doubt and fallibility; and also compassion and tolerance for those who don't share it. This is why it's faith, because it includes--not precludes--doubt and questioning.
John Ames, Marilynne Robinson's creation in Gilead
, is the latter type of believer, a person of faith which does not preclude either doubt or intellect. In reading this character's thoughts, my eyes were opened again to that kind of believer, one for whom I have ultimate respect. I can't share his world-view, but I can respect it, and here, I can even enjoy it--the beautiful, lyrical, literary examination and presentation of faith.
I've now said more than I wanted to about this book, because this review
captures almost precisely my response to it, and far more eloquently than I have so far. (thank you, brian)
Some other things I enjoyed, all of them very subtle:
1) the wry, sneak-up on you humour (very unexpected, but welcome);
2) the imagery of the 'hereafter' -- envisioned as a third dimension, unknowable and indescribable;
3) the presentation of aging (in this, Ames reminds me of Hagar in Laurence's The Stone Angel--another gorgeously evocative depiction of the aging mind);
4) of course, the character and symbolism of "Jack"--what he represents to John Ames, the doubt and struggle with his own faith and adherence to faith-based behaviour that Ames ultimately manages to integrate into his own belief system, and with whom he reconciles, both on a physical 'in-the-world' level as well as a spiritual one.