Scott’s Last Read: Gilead


Scott Alan Johnson is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A native of Wakefield, Nebraska, he has served congregations in Barrett, MN and Ames, IA prior to his current call as pastor of St. Petri Lutheran Church in Story City, IA. An avid reader, Scott also enjoys music, running, golf, and puttering around the house doing woodworking and landscaping. Scott has been married to his wife Kristin for ten years – Kristin and their daughters Ainsley and Alanna are the best proof of a beneficent God Scott can imagine. 

You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. [1]​

​So often people tell me about some wickedness they’ve been up to, or they’ve suffered from, and I think, Oh, that again! … I think sometimes there might be an advantage in making people aware how worn and stale these old transgressions are. It might take some of the shine off them, for those who are tempted. [2]

​When my friend Ryann asked me to write an article in this Last Read series, it gave me a chance to revisit a favorite I’d already been thinking about: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

Gilead is a first-person testament from a pastor to his son. Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran pastor, so it may appear as though my choice of Gilead might center on the occupation of the protagonist rather than on the book itself. This is assuredly not the case. Gilead is first and foremost a really good book. If it were a wine I would describe it as balanced: emotional without becoming maudlin, deep without becoming obscure, unflinching without becoming a diatribe. There are no chapters or other dividers along the way save for the occasional space marking a break in the narrative. Gilead reads as if the author were transcribing a journal rather than writing a novel. In the hands of most authors this choice of composition would be fraught with peril. Robinson pulls it off without a hitch; the narrative is sparse and compact, but never abrupt. Robinson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and currently serves as faculty: one can sense in her writing the excellence that comes with good editing, reducing a novel down to its best, most elemenal substance.

John Ames, the protagonist, is a 70 year-old minister in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa.

imageAfter losing both wife and child in childbirth in his 20s, Ames has pastored his small congregation for over 40 years, only to fall in love again and become a father in his 60s. Diagnosed with heart failure, he begins composing an account of his life to his seven year-old son, and it draws us into the multi-generational epic of Ames, his father, and his grandfather, all ministers. The tension between Ames’ abolitionist grandfather, pacifist father and Ames’ own questions of legacy and purpose provide a rich and fascinating look into the lives of three very different ministers, and the consequences of their actions and inactions. There are only three more characters of note: the Rev. Boughton, Ames’ lifelong friend, and his children, Glory and Jack. Jack Boughton’s full name is John Ames Boughton, but the relationship between Ames and his namesake is fractured for reasons that only become clear as the novel progresses.

Gilead is, in its soul, a theological novel, but one that should be accessible to most readers, and which many may find enlightening if they are or have been members of any community of religious faith. For pastors, it is eminently quotable – reading in e-book format, I find myself highlighting quite often for future sermons. Robinson has said that she based the town of Gilead on Tabor, Iowa, and as a child of small-town Nebraska from the 1980s I’d say she has a very good grasp of the dynamics of rural communities: their banalities and victories ring true, perhaps even more this second time through.

Every month, in the back of our denominational magazine, there’s a list of obituaries for pastors and other church workers. I read through the list every month because each one represents a life lived in service to others, even if I never knew these colleagues personally. In John Ames I found a character I would love to call a colleague, and I think readers of all faiths or no faith at all will find Gilead well worth the reading. “For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough,” says Ames. In Gilead, reading feels like praying, too, the most edifying kind. That’s the sort of last read I’d love to have – a prayer to send me on my way.

[1]  Robinson, Marilynne. (2004-11-15). Gilead: A Novel (p. 8). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., pp. 138-139.

1 Response

  1. “That’s the sort of last read I’d love to have – a prayer to send me on my way.”

    What a beautiful, touching and erudite post! I loved GILEAD and always appreciated the father/son love letter aspect while still telling the generational story. But Scott’s post lends so much agency to the greater details of the tale. I think that would be a lovely and comforting send off as a last read. Thank you for sharing.

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