Monday, November 29, 2004

Gilead -or- Books about Pastors

There are number of classics in the field. The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz, for example, is one of those texts not necessarily assigned in the Luther Seminary curriculum, but certainly read at various times by groups of students and faculty. It tells the tale of three generation of Swedish pastors, their lives and their ministries. If I was the president of a seminary, I might allow for a close reading of the book in lieu of CPE. No, scratch that, CPE if done well has its own gifts and importance. But Giertz would be a close second.

Then there's "Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic" by Reinhold Niebuhr, which is not a novel exactly, but certainly one of the best descriptions of the ministry I've read, this one first-hand and non-fiction. Open Secrets by Lischer is a worthy read in this category.

But in the world of fiction, pastors and parsons tend to be comic figures, or problem people in some way. This is one of the things that makes Marilynne Robinson's new novel so extraordinary. It takes the ministry of one pastor very seriously, and in the great tradition of first-person narratives in novels, reveals a letter from dying father to young son.

Any novel that easily translates into a moral is not really worthy of the name novel. So it would be a disservice to say that Robinson's novel teaches a moral. And yet it is true to say that this novel is moral in the most profound and personal sense of that term.

It is also beautiful. Robinson was widely acclaimed for her first novel, Housekeeping, and folks have been waiting 20 years for this new breath of fiction. It was worth the wait. You could probably say the novel is a long riff on the Prodigal Son, but the story is as complex as that parable, and different in some ways.

It is not a defense of the faith, nor does it try to be a Christian novel in an insipid sense. Rather, it is very human. In fact, if I can say anything categorically about the theological character of her novel, is that it weds soteriology and anthropology in a profound and helpful way. A dying man's epistle to the young son he loves more than life, and a life he loves, a prairie life.

I cannot think of a better novel than this. It is now #1 on my list.

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