Balm in Gilead: Reflection and Healing
Though a work of fiction, Gilead is also a letter and written record of spiritual reflection. Reading Gilead slowly and meditatively can prompt readers toward spiritual reflection and prayer. Writing in response to Gilead may make such reflection even more fruitful.
Describe your reading experience of the novel as precisely as possible, and your feelings at various moments in the text (illumination? wonder? absorption? boredom? distraction? skepticism? agreement?) Your responses can help determine what is at stake for you in the reading of the novel, and where God might use the reading and discussion of this text in your life.
- Describe the structure and progression of the story. The author Marilynne Robinson carefully arranged the novel with deliberate literary decisions (e.g. writing this as a letter, leaving out chapter breaks, focusing on character rather than plot, etc.).
- What are the effects of the structure and genre of the novel?
- What sorts of reading seem to do Gilead the most justice and help you have a meaningful experience with it? (Is this a novel to read slowly, over time or one that you read in a few sittings, or a book that asks you to go back and re-read key passages?)
Consider the Unnamed Son
Some readers are frustrated by the fact that the narrator’s son isn’t named.
- Why might Robinson have made that narrative choice?
- What are some effects of Robinson’s use of “you” rather than a name?
- Did you, at various moments, feel addressed by the novel? Where?
Preparing for the End
In the opening paragraph of Gilead, the narrator John Ames says, “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime.” In that way the novel may set itself up as a reflection on mortality and a preparation for a good death.
- What do you imagine would be a good death?
- What experiences with others’ deaths offer you examples, whether positive, negative, or mixed?
- How might you prepare to end well?
Living a Good Life
In that same opening paragraph, John Ames also says “there are many ways to live a good life.”
- As you read through, think about the vision of the good life emerging from Gilead: in what does it consist?
- Now think about your life or others’ lives that you know. Give two examples of the good life in specific moments or stories.
- Then, define the good life in a paragraph that begins, “A good life would consist in. . .”
- How do your examples of the good life differ from or enhance your more formal definition?
Practices of Discipleship
As you read, note some passages that describe John Ames’ practices of discipleship (e.g. “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”; his practices of sermon-writing; his relationships, etc.) even from his youth--and things perhaps, too, that he and Lila are passing along to their son.
- What practices of faith seem to ground John Ames’ life--and how do they?
- And you? What are your own spiritual practices?
- Might any from Gilead help you in your ongoing journey?
A Legacy for the Next Generation
John Ames seems to have written his letter to his son in small chunks over a period of time. Such a letter not only instructs the next generation, but also helps John himself work through some major issues in his country and himself as he prepares for the end of his life. American literature boasts some captivating letters in this tradition: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew” (part of The Fire Next Time) by James Baldwin, and even The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
- Write a chunk of your own letter to a next generation.
- Then, reread it: what larger issues and personal issues seem worth further reflection, prayer, and responsive action?
Practices of Remembering
- In one reflection, John Ames remembers hearing the stories of when his father and grandfather returned home after war to a ruined church and town and found the women having their Bible studies and prayer meetings even though the church had buckets and pans in the aisles to catch leaks from the roof. He writes “my own church is sanctified by the story” (96) and that “it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions” (97).
- What such stories and visions come out of your memory or your hearing of the life of faith?
Facing Challenges to the Faith
Gilead alludes at several points to Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, a 19th-century work of skeptical philosophy that critiques Christianity as a projection of the human mind onto God. Some of these references are funny, as when Lila suggests that they name the cat Feuerbach. Most of them, though, have to do with challenges to Christian faith. The Essence of Christianity marks John Ames’s brother’s departure from the faith of his youth (23-27, 63-65), and seems to contribute to his father’s departure from his ministry and from Gilead (176-179). Yet John Ames seems ultimately unfazed by the book, though he has read it carefully, and he even sees some positive aspects of it.
- To what extent are books, movies, ideas, or particular claims threatening to the faith?
- What are faithful postures toward ideas or materials that disagree with or fundamentally critique Christianity?
Engaging Enduring Questions
At various moments in the novel, John Ames encounters people struggling with really difficult, enduring questions.
- Why do people die of epidemics (41-43)? Is war ever just (83-86)?
- Are some people predestined to perdition (149-153)?
- What is John Ames’s posture toward such questions?
- What is the novel’s posture toward them?
- How do you handle such questions?
- What are resources to help when you question?
- How does Christian faith shape our attempts to engage enduring questions?
Race and Christian Community
John Ames writes, “There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either” (6). And Gilead seems to be the record of a man’s trying to grapple with what’s happening under the surface of life. One of the main subterranean aspects of life in Gilead for its 1950s residents is its race history. Ames tells a funny story about its misguided support of the underground railroad (58-63--literally underground!); John Ames’ grandfather has fierce and morally questionable ties to Bleeding Kansas and abolitionist history (105-110); and the town has become, mid-twentieth century, even more racially segregated than it had been (171-172) in a state that had prided itself on being a “bright, radical star” against slavery and racial injustice.
- Consider the passage on pages 36-37 among all the others above on race:
I think that was a big part of [Ames’s grandfather] running off to Kansas. That and the fire at the Negro church. It wasn’t a big fire--someone heaped brush against the back wall and put a match to it, and someone else saw the smoke and put the flames out with a shovel. (The Negro church used to be where the soda fountain is now, though I hear that’s going out of business. That church sold up some years ago, and what was left of the congregation moved to Chicago. By then it was down to three or four families. The pastor came by with a sack of plants he’d dug up from around the front steps, mainly lilies. He thought I might want them, and they’re still there along the front of our church, needing to be thinned. I should tell the deacons where they came from, so they’ll know they have some significance and they’ll save them when the building comes down. I didn’t know the Negro pastor well myself, but he said his father knew my grandfather. He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them.)
- How does John Ames think about this incident and race in the town?
- How does the novel want you to think about race and the church/town?
- Does your experience of church and race compare to that of the town of Gilead?
- What does a look at a 1950s rural white church and town offer you in the 21st century?
Loneliness and Community
- To what extent has John Ames experienced community in the church and in Gilead?
- How does this match up to his expressions of loneliness?
- What about you?
Place and Community
Gilead is a novel named after a place-- a place where some people leave and some people stay. The name alludes in part to a biblical phrase from Jeremiah 8:22 “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? /Why then is there no healing / for the wound of my people?” that became an African American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead.”
- What is the effect of thinking through the resonances of this title and its enduring questions alongside the content of the novel Gilead?
- What are places you have stayed at and left--and why?
- What makes some places attract you and some repel you?
- How do you participate in the making of places attractive or repellant?
Conflict, Faith, and Relationships
Radically different theological and political positions are at the heart of some of the most painful relationship ruptures in Gilead--between John Ames’s grandfather and father, between his father and his brother, and between his father and Ames himself.
- What does Ames learn from these differences?
- Does the novel give you insight into how to handle different visions or versions of Christianity, especially as they work out in politics?
Reconciliation in Christ
The question of whether we or someone we love is reconciled to God in Christ (or reconciled to others we love) is often quite troubling--and it comes up a number of times in the novel, for Ames as he considers his brother Edward on pages 63-65, and also as all the characters think of Jack Boughton.
- How does the water-glass baptism scene with Edward comfort John Ames?
- How does that scene connect to the climax of the novel with Jack and the blessing at the bus station?
Longing for the Past
Some readers of Gilead wonder if the novel is a bit too nostalgic for a time in American history that has disappeared.
- Do you think so?
- What passages support your reading of it?
- How does nostalgia function in your own life? Positive? Negative? Something in between?
The Beauty of Prairie
Very close to the end of the novel, John Ames bursts out a surprising paean to an often overlooked midwestern landscape:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy,” but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout, and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view. / / To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. (246)
- It’s not the first time in the novel that Ames finds beauty in the prairie: on his pilgrimage to Kansas, he sees the sunset and moonrise meet across the wide openness. But this ending is startling. What does it mean to end the book with this reference to a landscape and an ecosystem that, scholars say, is all but disappeared, less than 2-3 percent remaining of original tall grass prairie (and in Illinois, even less--less than 1/10 of 1 percent)1?
- How does Ames’s appreciation for the ‘ordinary’ landscape of the Midwestern prairie prompt you to look again with new eyes at your own local landscape and its particularities?
- Do you catch glimpses of surprising beauty?
1 Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson. The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest. University of Iowa Press, 2010. For more on the Illinois prairie, pay a visit to the Nature Conservancy website. Other relevant reading on the prairie: Cindy Crosby. The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Northwestern University Press, 2017.