Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The theology of John Calvin permeates this novel, especially the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which is introduced in the context of whether Jack Boughton can repent and reform. Boughton’s story also references the New Testament’s parable of the prodigal son; it is possible that he will be like that scapegrace son who returned to his father and was forgiven. Marilynne Robinson gives her town the biblically based name of Gilead to pursue this theme of forgiveness. The town’s name makes reference to the prophet Jeremiah’s quest for a balm in Gilead that would heal the wounds of battle. Jack, in returning to his hometown, is looking for a similar healing and reconciliation, one that will also represent a racial reconciliation for America as a whole.

The Christian convictions of John Ames III require a fearless soul-searching, especially with regard to giving his blessing to Jack Boughton. Despite the challenges represented by Boughton and by a secular modernity, Ames retains a Christian faith that informs all his actions, including his forgiveness of Jack. He continues to affirm his father’s pacifist sentiments when he foregrounds the Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) as the one most important to him. Even more, Ames’s invocation of this commandment affirms the Christian value in which he believes most strongly: the sacredness of the human creature. Related to this is his gratitude for the gift of life, including everyday things such as baseball and his cat Soapy, as well as an appreciation for more profound moments of love and beauty. The imagery of light and water in Ames’s narrative also suggests a transcendental dimension to all of life itself.

In the Bible, the land of Gilead is described as a site of war and bloodshed—and indeed John Ames’s Gilead saw conflicts that culminated in the Civil War. This image of Gilead is associated with Grandfather Ames’s participation in the abolitionist movement of the 1850’s. Robinson uses the example of Grandfather Ames to suggest Christianity’s strong intrinsic connection to such causes as civil rights and social justice. The pacifist sentiments of his son and grandson, however, represent another Christian value: As times change, it is the task of each pastor to bring a genuine Christian perspective to the historical moment in which he or she lives.