The great Tobias Wolff wrote an essay called “Winter Light” about the spiritual experience of seeing the Bergman film of the same name when Wolff was an undergraduate. Wolff feels a certain stirring — “buried things churning to the surface” — as he watches the film, about a pastor struggling with his own faith and unable to provide for a parishioner in need. When the film ends, Wolff and those watching with him — twenty-five or thirty people gathered at a church to view then discuss the film — sit in silence until the church’s minister begins talking. The minister acknowledges the bleakness of the film, its challenge to those like himself who are believers, before using it as a segueway to preach the Gospel. He does so by projecting William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” onto the same screen the movie had played on. Wolff, who was not a churchgoer, had up to that moment begun “to feel a sense of grudging assent” to the pastor’s message. But when he sees the painting, he writes, “I lost it. Because I really disliked that painting.
“It seemed to me a typical pre-Raphaelite production: garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality; pretentious humbug,” he writes. “The contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me. Was this what the minister held in his mind as the answer to all our problems — a kitschy figure from a calendar?”
Wolff’s friend Rob, who watched the movie with him that night, reacts differently. Wolff suggests they cut out for a pint, and Rob tells him to go on. Rob went on to enroll in Bible classes at that same church and become a missionary in Africa.
Wolff wonders if a different picture, like Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”, might have kept him sitting in the pew. “We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.”
Wolff ends the essay by describing the first moment he found himself on his friend Rob’s side. The poetry of George Herbert, Gerald Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot point Wolff toward what he calls “the possibility of faith.” As he reads the poem “Little Gidding” to a friend, fully convicted of the meaning of those words, Wolff looks up to see his friend observing him “with kindly amusement.” “So,” his friend says. “You really like that stuff?”
The first book of “Christian” fiction I (Ben) recall reading was Joseph Girzone’s Joshua, sometime in late elementary school. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but I was conscious that this book — a gift to me from a member at my church — was meant to be different than anything else I had read, and possibly more spiritual. I read it with a certain apprehension. It was polite, earnest, and utterly without conviction. Thus ended my short-lived pursuit of “Christian” fiction.
I am thankful that I had read enough by that age to know the difference between good books and bad books. And I had read enough good ones to be swept away by so many emotions, a few of them something like spiritual ones, to know that a book that walked and talked like a pastor could be total claptrap while the most rousingly far-fetched and subversive books — stuff by Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry, or titles like Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia, to say nothing of The Chronicles of Narnia or my personal favorite, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles — could say more about faith and doubt than a hundred sermons.
Once at a Christian retreat I was making small talk with someone and told her I liked writing. “So you want to be a Christian writer?” she said. “Like Frank Peretti?” Well, no, I thought. Not at all like Frank Peretti. But I was talking to someone for whom a Christian writer was Frank Peretti or Joseph Girzone or nothing else. Like seeing Rob staring rapt at “The Light of the World,” I didn’t want to ridicule her for experiencing God through This Present Darkness. It’s just that a book like that makes me want to puke.
My “Little Gidding” was probably Oscar Hijuelos’s Mr. Ives Christmas. I read it when I was a freshman in college, for pleasure, not as an assignment. I was a Christian at that point in my life, but after I finished reading that book I began to wonder if I had ever understood the first thing about being a Christian at all. It is the story of a father whose son — just seventeen, and planning to enter the priesthood — is shot on the streets of New York by a Puerto Rican teenager. The rest of the story is, simply, a story of grief, doubt, anger and soul-searching. The father tries desperately to forgive his son’s murderer, and the two meet at the end of the book. Like Wolff watching “Winter Light,” reading the book was “a harrowing experience … [with] its scrutiny of the human face in anguish, uncertainty, and yearning.” I have not read it in over ten years, but I wonder what my reaction would be today. Reading the Publishers Weekly review on Amazon just now, I was startled to see the book through the skeptical eyes of another. “The author’s attempts to render all this as a Dickensian tale of redemption through dignified suffering — Dickens is invoked more than a dozen times — are crude and work no wonders,” the reviewer writes. Wow. Really?
Faith and aesthetics are clearly subjective. I’m quite happy that God has chosen to reveal himself to some through Frank Peretti and William Holman Hunt, and to others through Bergman, Eliot and Caravaggio. I walked out of a Flaming Lips concert in Pittsburgh feeling as if I had participated in nothing short of a religious experience. I remember thinking, “This is what church must feel like for people who don’t go to church.” What’s clear to me is that art contains within it deeply spiritual qualities. Tastes differ, but the transcendent possibility for art to reveal something numinous is hard-wired into everyone.
Which brings me to Marilynne Robinson. Her novel, Gilead, walks and talks like a pastor because it is told by a pastor: John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister, who writes a letter to his young son (Ames is seventy-six, his son seven) explaining his life and faith before he passes on. The book itself assumes the form of that letter. Things take an unexpected turn when John’s godson and namesake, his friend and fellow pastor Robert Boughton’s wayward son, returns to town and kindles feelings of anger, jealousy and uncertainty in John. Gilead is dense with philosophy and theology, and is best served by slow, careful reading, the way one might dwell on scripture in a spirit of meditation. Its themes are in many ways identical to a book like Joshua; it is a book about “what it means to lead a noble and moral life,” to borrow Ann Patchett’s words. (“I would like to see copies of it dropped into pews across our country,” Patchett continues, and I heartily agree.) And yet Gilead expands the mystery of faith rather than diminishes it. It is honest about doubt. Its grace is hard-won. It is Bergman and Eliot and Dostoevsky and more.
When I finished Gilead, I did not want to speak of it to anyone. I could not bear the thought that someone else could read it and not be as moved as I was. The critic Lev Grossman articulated this feeling to Laura Miller in her essay “Your Best Friend’s Reading List”:
“I love certain books so much, I would not recommend them to other people. There’s one novel that spoke so deeply to me about what I thought was sad and funny and beautiful about the world, that I didn’t want anyone else to know about it. If I were dating someone and truly felt a profound connection, I wouldn’t go to my friend and say, ‘You’ve got to try sleeping with X. It’s fantastic!’ There are some books that I don’t want to whore around.”
I may not have used those words, exactly, but it took me a long while before I could recommend Gilead to anyone else. And when I did that person said, “Oh, I read it for a book club. It was slow and kind of boring.”
Home, Robinson’s new novel, is also set in Gilead, Iowa. It is the story of Jack Boughton, the “lost” son of Reverend Robert Boughton who returns home as a prodigal. Certain episodes overlap with Gilead, and Robinson is deft at touching on minor themes and asides from the prior book in this one. Home is told mainly from the perspective of Glory Boughton, who has returned home to care for her dying father. The youngest of the Boughton children, Glory is there when Jack finally returns to Gilead after twenty years away.
I have heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son preached so often, and usually so unimaginatively, that I have to confess a certain boredom with it. It is the fallback text of choice when pastors are in a pinch; guest pastors in particular abuse it with alarming regularity. Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son gave me a renewed appreciation for it, as he spoke of identifying with each of the three main characters at separate stages of his life. But that book also spoiled me even further to hearing the text preached, because pastors frequently reduce it to a simplistic message, assuming that their listeners will first and foremost relate to the prodigal and leaving the rest of the text unexplored.
I much prefer to see the parable fleshed out in art, its ambiguities and open threads (it ends, after all, on a rather puzzling note, with the older brother going off for “an angry sulk,” as Eugene Peterson puts it) still intact. The movie You Can Count on Me is a near-perfect retelling of the parable minus the father figure. (I nominate Mark Ruffalo to play Jack Boughton in the film adaptation of Home.) Home pushes those same ambiguities into several thought-provoking directions. Was the prodigal truly changed the minute he arrived home, or was he only taking the first step of a long journey fraught with peril? Did the father’s love and forgiveness sustain itself through days and weeks and months, or did he too continue to work out his own salvation in fear and trembling? What if, in fact, the father found he could not forgive? And in Glory Boughton, Robinson presents a compelling portrait of what is usually the parable’s most remote character, the older son, revealing the burden of being forgotten and ordinary, less wayward but no less lost in her own way.
Reading Home, I had an uneasy feeling about two hundred pages in that darkened my reading of the rest of it. And it was this: As sharp and luminous and beautifully written as Home is, it was no Gilead for me. It is slow and a bit too enclosed. I began it certain that I would experience what I did before, and my fear that I wouldn’t became a burden that is perhaps unfair to the book itself. But I felt what I felt. Save for a revelation in the final five pages that casts everything that has happened before in a different light, bringing poignancy to Jack Boughton’s pilgrimage and capturing the redemption still possible even in deep doubt, Home is a good book but one I do not need to keep as a secret for myself.