Takeaway: An essential novel for Pastors.
Gilead is one of those books that pretty much everyone should read. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And all kinds people have it as on lists of their all time favorite books. Which means that I have been reluctant to read it ever since I was aware of it.
Why is it that as soon as a book is one that you ‘should read’ it instantly becomes less interesting?
I finally decided to pick it up when I needed to buy another book from Audible to get a $10 credit. And when Englewood Review of Books put it on their list of 10 novels every pastor should read.
Gilead is the story of John Ames. Ames is a congregational pastor in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. Ames is now an old man (76). After being single for most of his adult life, he married late in life and now has a young son (6). Ames’ heart is bad and throughout the book we know he is going to die soon. So he is writing to his son. He wants his son to know who he, and the rest of his family history since it is unlikely that he will be around much longer to tell him.
We hear a lot about not only Ames and the town of Gilead and Ames’ best friend (another pastor that is also in failing health), but about Ames’ father and grandfather. This book is set in 1956, and because of Ames’ age, his grandfather story reaches back to before the Civil War.
While there are good stories, what is really important about this book is the memories of a pastor nearing the end of his life. This book feels like a cross between Wendell Berry’s fiction and Eugene Peterson’s memoir. John Ames is the type of pastor that is rare these days. A scholar, committed to a single church and community, who has the historical memory of an entire community. Ames is far from perfect. Much of what he wants to tell his son is confessional about the mistakes he made and how he wishes he could have done better.
This is another book where the point isn’t the end of the book. It is the prose that moves you along. The story arc is just a method of concluding the book. (Andrew Sullivan has had an ongoing thread about why so many great books have mediocre endings. And I think this book falls into that category.) Robinson seems to really understand the role of the pastor and small town Iowa life.
I do not think that many pastors will read this and emulate John Ames. That style of pastoring has moved on in most of the world. But the care of a congregation, waking up in the middle of the night to pray over them and struggle through sermons and seek to pass on a love of Christ will never leave the role of the pastor. It is a beautiful model.
- Top Ten Books Every Pastor Should Read [ERB Playlist #3] (erb.kingdomnow.org)
- Hannah Coulter by Wendall Berry (Bookwi.se)
- The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson (Bookwi.se)