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The Religious Life

January 13, 2009 | 13 Comments

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?

Ervin W.
St. Paul


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.


Actually, _Gilead_ might appeal to GK more because it is an unusually poignant portrait of fatherhood, particularly the experience of being an old father to a young child. Not something to be read in a Vienna/mafia mood, granted, but not to be missed, in my opinion.

Garrison, I also recommend Gilead; one of the most moving novels I've ever read, excepting "Lake Wobegon Summer"

Gilead is all these things and more. Robinson has a mystical eye and through the good Reverend Ames we see from within a lifetime in the most exquisite light. Light and liquid, fire and water, theology and feeling in constant interplay.

Two dedicated pilgrims making their way through parched earth are refreshed by a kind farm woman who shares all she has. A young family plays in a stream irrigated by dappled light. Water from above follows the fiery preacher grateful for his one, fierce eye. The first, impromptu communion of the good reverend by his father's wet and soot-covered hands. Even the family cat, "Insouciant Soapy," is seen in cosmological significance. I could go on and on. It is not a novel read for plot but for the level of wisdom that one savors, as a cool drink in a warm day.

I shall certainly look out for this novel. It may have reached our far away shores by now. There are members of the Plymouth Bretheren in South London. Some of the children have been at school with mine. Despite being a state school with no religious denomination, there is a strong Christian ethic - religious assemblies, nativity plays, harvest festival, etc., The only people who object to their children taking part are the PB - the Muslims, Hindus, and the rest quite cheerfully join in. Next year will be my last as a primary/elementary school parent, and I'm sure I'll shed a tear as the last tambourine is rattled at the nativity play. Not a dry seat in the house......

Gilead is so much more than about small town religion. Don't discount it on that basis.

Gilead was a fine read, but I, too, prefer something a little more earthy. I grew up in the southern Church of Christ, which I think is rather like the Plymouth Brethren in their pride in scripture knowledge and in their belief that they were 'the only ones' and they weren't so sure about some of their own! So I left 'em. I discovered the Episcopal Church in college and that's where I stayed. (I listen to PHC on internet here in England -- it gets better all the time!)

Garrison, I will agree that many Christian folks are judgemental and self-righteous. But please do not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Bible makes it very clear that we should face our spiritual need and, in humility, appreciate and accept what Jesus Christ offers us through his sacrifice. I hope you can see that truth and benefit from it.

Enjoyed GK's reply to the letter concerning Gilead.
Seems that half this country is hung up on morality and half on doing good works. I lean toward the good works side, but can do without the attendant political correctness, which can sometimes take on a self-righteous tinge.

Amazing how our Lord could balance both, by saving a harlot's life and booting the moneychangers out of the Temple.

Did not make Him too popular with the religious authorities of His day...

Just a comment about lapsed Missouri Synod Lutherans, of which I am one:Although I left the church years ago, I still have plenty of the Lutheran experience left in me, as evidenced by my reaction to the movie, "Doubt".
While my companion(a practicing Hedonistic Agnostic)was dismayed by the attitudes expressed by the nuns, I was entirely comfortable with them. They reminded me very much of my Lutheran Day School Teachers. In those days, only unmarried virgins need apply for the job of teaching fine Christian children so the ladies who made the cut were very much like nuns...but without the warmth. I still have scars on my psyche. Not to mention my knuckles.

What a lovely answer. In listening to your show, it is very clear that you are a man of principles and kindness. So,I say, whatever dogma those emotionally constipated do-gooder, judgmental folk shoved down your throat, was not for naught.

Clearly, the "Golden Rule" (which is the best part of what I took away from my own dreadful childhood religious tutelage) has been assimilated by you as well and clearly you "walk the walk".

Gail Young

I'm smiling at what looks like black and white thinking concerning earthiness and dogma, faith and spirituality. Have any of you who think Gilead is NOT earthy or IS dogmatic read the book? It is as far from dogma as one can be, all about the spirituality of the earth!

Please don't dismiss it unless you've read, or at least tried, to read it.

Please consider picking up the three books written by Meredith Willson (The Music Man)(If you can find them). Growing up in the rich musical life of a small church, Willson tells story upon story about his youth where the church was the center of his family and his musical education. What a life he had in Radio of the 1930's and 1940's.

In the January 18th edition of the New York Times, Gilead is listed as one of President Obama's favorite books.

Sally Hanford

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