My literature professor once told us to read Graham Greene’s book The Power and the Glory when we were depressed. The advice struck me as being both peculiar and salient. First, he assumed we would at some point get depressed. Second, he prescribed fiction as the antidote. So on my shelved copy, still unread, I keep a blue sticky note that says, “Read when depressed.”
Another college professor recommended we read fiction as part of our devotions, another thought that startled me. I combine the advice of these two sage men and prescribe to everyone a particular book: Marilynne Robinson’s subtle white-and-green-bound Gilead: A Novel. I take out a blue sticky note that says, “Read as part of your devotions. Read when you need rest.” I sign it with the flourish of a physician and hand it to you in my imagination. Here is your delicious pharmaceutical recipe. Take it once every evening before bed, and rest. If it tastes as good to you as it did to me, take much more often.
Gilead, which takes the form of a 247-page letter from a dying Midwestern minister to his young son, tells a story of prodigals. It is a lulling and long contemplation of religion, philosophy, and character—but especially character. The book found me in the right spot, in my fuzzy pajamas at an at-home season, calming myself before the next enormous adventure: marriage. John Ames, the writing minister, favored me with the kind of gemmy sentences that flame out at you from the page and then stay with you for a long time afterward. “When you encounter another person,” he writes, “when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”
He says, “I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it.”
All the while I read Gilead I was astounded that it won the Pulitzer. It is a book about a pastor who didn’t leave the faith when others did. It showcases centuries of godly wisdom from Augustine to Calvin, and takes things much deeper than proposition.
A book of fathers and sons, it treats you gently and shows Christianity at the level of the heart. You leaf your way through hundreds of priceless quotations and cannot quite comprehend the story they convey until the final pages. The book wins you quietly, teaching you to approach matters of faith not with hammers and tongs of judgment but with humility. The book reminds me of a piece of wisdom my mother uttered this weekend, offhandedly, “People should know that when they’re loud, they’re usually wrong.”
In Gilead, grace, upheld by doctrine, holds together the fibers of the human soul. It’s better than therapeutic. It’s humbling, and it’s true.