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The Religious Life
January 13, 2009 |
Dear Mr. Keillor,
I think Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead is superb, and does a fine job of capturing a small-town Midwest religious life. Have you read the novel? You grew up in some kind of hard-core fundamentalist church, that from what I hear is rather like the Missouri Synod Lutherans with which I grew up. Just what was that church [I've heard different stories about that] and how did you come to drift away from it?
Haven't read Gilead, Ervin, but have heard good things about it. Probably a novel capturing small-town Midwest religious life isn't a novel I'm anxious to pick up. You're a better man than I. I'd rather pick up a novel capturing the life of gay sophistication in Vienna in the waning days of the Hapsburg Empire or Mafia life in Las Vegas in the early Fifties.
I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren in Minneapolis. Our meeting hall was at 3701 14th Avenue South and we went every Sunday morning and again in the evening. It was somewhat different from Missouri Synod Lutheran in that the Brethren renounced the idea of church hierarchy and forms of liturgy and any sort of pomp or churchy decor. Men in surplices, sanctuaries with candles and crucifixes they regarded it as a thin veneer of piety that appealed to the worldly. They were puritans in the original sense, radical reformers. Growing up in it with most of my relatives, it just felt like family to me. I left rather precipitously when I was twenty years old, a college kid, and it was made clear to me that the Brethren did not feel that a Christian could be a journalist or a writer of fiction. So I made a clean break. The Brethren are in steep decline today, due to their schismatic nature. They believed in the inerrancy of Scripture, which made them scholars of the Bible, which brought out a prideful and legalistic side of them, and they neglected the more loving pastoral gifts and let it be a lesson to the rest of us. We all have a judgmental and self-righteous side and the Christian life is more about kindness and mercy. So on we go, by the grace of God, and thanks for the letter.