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For reason of principle, men have gone to war, often in the name of one god or another. And for reason of principle, men have often refused to go to the very same war, often in the name of the same god or another. In our most recent American war, the current conflict in Iraq, our religious leaders—preachers and priests and theologians—have, for reason of principle, urged us both to go and to stay, to free an oppressed people and to spare the shedding of innocent blood for oil and money. It is the sort of paradox that can lead a reasonable person to wonder how even people who worship the same God, who quote from the same holy scriptures, who equally claim a mantle born of spiritual blessing, can arrive at such diametrically opposed conclusions—conclusions with severe and irreversible consequences.
It is the sort of question that haunts the Reverend John Ames throughout Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's epistolary novel, her first book-length work of fiction since Housekeeping, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1981. In 1956, Reverend Ames, a Congregational minister nearing the end of his long life and suffering from heart problems, begins an extended letter that he intends to be read at a much later date by his son, who is only six years old as Ames begins his narration. The letter is part family history, part theological meditation, part advice book from father to son. "Here I am trying to be wise, the way a father should be, the way an old pastor certainly should be," Ames writes.
The story that unfolds stretches back to the middle of the nineteenth century and the grandfather and namesake of Reverend Ames, one of those aforementioned men of principle. As a young man of sixteen, he saw a vision of his Lord in chains and so forsook his native Maine to come to Kansas as a Free Soiler. Armed with a Bible, a gun and a willingness to use both to set the captives free, physically and spiritually, Ames's grandfather "preached men into the Civil War," later to join them as a chaplain in the Union Army and to lose his right eye in battle. Yet it is this man's son—another man of principle, another preacher, the father of the Reverend John Ames—who will side with the Quakers and become a pacifist during World War I, a split that will first damage, then forever sever his relations with his father. "I have thought about that very often," writes the youngest Reverend Ames to his [End Page 226] son, "—how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next."
Time and again Ames confronts such dilemmas—the tangled contradictions of abstract theological convictions when necessarily embodied in life—as he considers his own life and the lives of his family, congregation and community. They are lives filled with all the attendant sorrows and joys, beauties and hypocrisies, doubts and convictions. And yet the Reverend Ames is a man who has never lost faith with his God, even as he has absorbed the requisite blows of his seventy-six years—his older brother Edward's disavowal of the faith and turn to atheism; the loss of his first wife and infant child; years as a solitary widowed preacher in a small Iowa town; the feud between his father and grandfather; and, at times, God's silence in the face of it all.
But the return to Gilead of his own namesake, John Ames Boughton—the favored son of his best friend and fellow preacher, the Presbyterian "Old Boughton"—troubles the waters for the Reverend Ames's latter days. For Jack Boughton has been a source of pain and misery for Old Boughton and his community since he was a boy—a Prodigal Son, unrepentant and unredeemed—and a...