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In this month’s Readers’ Review, Diane invites listeners to join a discussion of “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. The novel received the National Book Critics Circle award in 2004 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. On his Facebook page, President Obama lists it as one of his favorite books. Written in the form of a letter from a dying preacher to his beloved young son, the novel begins as an account of his son’s “begats,” family history and other things he wouldn’t be able to tell him over the course of his growing up. It evolves into a way for him to work out unresolved moral issues. The story spans the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, and Kirkus Reviews describes it as “a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and as moving as prayer.”
- The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd dean of the Washington National Cathedral
- Reverend Derrick Harkins Senior Pastor of The Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D. C.
- Susan Page Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright 2004 by Marilynne Robinson. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. A paperback edition was published in May 2006 by Picador:
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm, with this month's "Readers' Review," Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Gilead," written in the form of a letter from a dying preacher to his beloved son. It begins as an account of his son's begets, family history and other things he won't be able to tell him over the course of his growing up.
MS. DIANE REHMIt evolves into a way for the preacher to work out unresolved moral issues. Joining me in the studio, Reverend Derrick Harkins of the 19th Street Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C., Susan Page of USA Today and the Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, he's dean of the Washington National Cathedral.
MS. DIANE REHMI don't know whether you have read the book. If you haven't, you've a treat in store for you. I must say, having now read it for the second time, I was so moved. I had tears in my eyes half the time. I do want to welcome you. Whether you've read the book or not, join us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And good morning to all of you.
MS. SUSAN PAGEGood morning.
REV. DERRICK HARKINSGood morning.
REHMSo good to see you.
VERY REV. SAMUEL LLOYDMorning.
REHMSam Lloyd, tell me what the word Gilead brings to mind for you?
LLOYDGilead refers to -- comes up a number of times in the Old Testament and mostly, it's a place where trouble's going on. People go running away to get to it, Jacob runs and hides there. It's a place -- it's a town that through the Old Testament story has various sorts of difficulties and family difficulties.
LLOYDAnd the great phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, there is a balm in Gilead. Gilead is a place that's needed balm and so Marilynne Robinson seems to have chosen this image of a small community where there has been a lot of complexity going on.
REHMAnd Derrick Harkins, what does it mean to you?
HARKINSThat's true and I think along with that, the measure of -- the idea of there being a balm in Gilead and that in the midst of the turmoil, in the midst of suffering and strife that Robinson unfolds so beautifully, there's this wonderful, calm recognition of the peace of one's mortality and I think Rev. Ames does that so well in the course of this story, to let us know that in the midst of the turmoil, there is indeed a balm in Gilead.
REHMSusan, you have an even more realistic and practical sense of Gilead.
PAGEWell, we do know that the author based "Gilead" on an actual place in Iowa. A place called Tabor, Iowa, which had an abolitionist minister, who preached there, very much like the grandfather of Reverend Ames, the narrator of this story.
PAGEHe was -- had a stop on the Underground Railroad. He stored arms that John Brown used in his raids on Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas period. So it's not -- so there is a real story behind this fictional story, which of course she's aware of because she's lived in Iowa now for 20 years at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
REHMWere you as moved by this novel as I was?
PAGEI like the novel very much. I love the very spare, grave language. It made you, I think, slow down in reading it. I read it more slowly than many books I read and as someone who was born and raised in Kansas, who didn't step foot outside the state until I went away for my freshmen year of college, I love the appreciation of the Great Plains.
PAGEBecause, you know, we're used to people making fun of us, people on both coasts saying that Kansas is a place and Iowa as well, a place you fly over and in this book, there is an appreciation both for kind of a distinctive, dry, Midwestern humor and also an appreciation for the landscape of the Great Plains, which is something that perhaps takes a little time to cultivate.
REHMBut Sam Lloyd, there is such tension going on here. There is the tension that the Reverend Ames feels because he has a heart condition. He knows he, at 76, 77, has not long for this world. He has a seven-year-old by virtue of a second late marriage. His first marriage ended when his beloved wife dies in childbirth and the child dies with her, so he is not only writing this letter to his young son, he's working out all kinds of internal problems.
LLOYDYes. And it's very moving to watch, at this very slow pace, his grappling of one set of issues after another. One set is working through the complex relationships with his grandfather and his father, grieving over the life he lost when his first wife died. What he describes the 40 years of loneliness he lived until this new marriage came. He's also working out, so what has my life meant as a pastor in this tiny place? He calculates he's written something like 67,500 pages of sermons and he's wondering, what did all this add up to?
LLOYDAnd there's a real struggle, a tension in himself. Was this a life well-lived and a sense of a need for reconciliation and then, of course, the tension starts building when Jack Broughton, his godson, comes home and all of a sudden, a whole array of issues get stirred up. But also, I think simply the -- part of what's so moving as you go through it is as he's writing these pages, it's this letter to a son he'll never know grown up and wanting to pass on so much, but he's processing so much as he does it.
LLOYDHe imagines so many times connecting back -- thinking that when his son reads this, he will be in eternity and what will it be like for the two of them in relationship then. So he's working through all things about time and age and ministry and where's God in all this and how does it all add up?
HARKINSYou know, it's interesting because as you read this, you're almost ready to use the term melancholy when you talk about Reverend Ames, but I find that along the way, there are those moments where he'll make a statement or he'll have a reflection upon his own life and ministry that shows a transcendence above that. And while he talks again, you're right about the long measure of loneliness after the death of his first wife. It's almost with a -- and he even says so himself, almost a gleeful sense of youthful exuberance when he encounters his second wife and he's left literally speechless and you see those moments along the way.
HARKINSAnother thing that I think that Robinson does so well, she has this wonderful -- and I don't know if it's Midwestern humor per se, but it's absolutely nuanced and beautifully done. You know, the fact that I began reading the portion where they talk about the horse who was stuck in the tunnel that the abolitionists had dug and I'm thinking, this is awfully involved. And after about a page and a half, I didn't want the story to end.
REHM(laugh) Yeah, yeah.
HARKINSAnd again, so -- so there's a wonderful transcendence, even in the midst of what might at first measure look to be almost a melancholy rendering of one's life. But I think that the wonderful thing about this book that really is so powerful is that there's a transcendence above that and certainly -- I don't know if this ends up being a spoiler alert or not, but I'll just say certainly at the very end of the book, I find that there's just a profound sense of the transcendent overcoming, you know, the travails of life.
REHMAnd Susan, there's the wonderful gift of friendship that's also a very important part of this novel.
PAGEHis great friend, also a minister in town, who names his son after Reverend Ames, much to his distress, as it turns out. His good friend doesn't understand that the portrayal -- the picture that he paints of his friend the minister is quite wonderful. At one point, he says, he dozed off, as he tended to do during difficult conversations. Which I thought was a wonderful gift and one I'm going to try to remember.
PAGEAnd one -- the book is suffused with religion, with religious imagery, with the melancholy of facing death, but it is not a sad book, I didn't think. It had a very quite optimistic and interesting vision of heaven in his mind and it was filled with this appreciation of the ordinary things that happen in daily life.
REHMWhen you think about the naming of Jack, it came as a total surprise because his friend, as you said, another minister, but of a different domination. Our writer is a Congregationalist minister. The other, I think...
REHMPresbyterian. They had decided or said they were going to name the young baby some other name and then at baptism, they name him after his good friend. Quite a shock.
LLOYDQuite a shock. It's a strange twist and John Ames doesn't know quite what to make of that and it ends up launching this life-long, complex relationship as Jack Broughton becomes one of the prodigal sons -- there are a couple of them in the story, but someone who goes away and all through his being away and then when he comes back, John Ames himself is trying to make sense of the fact that he's linked to this young man and then this grown man and somehow, he can't get through to him and he's lost his way, so one of the ways that John Ames will see himself as -- is as the good son who never went away and he's dealing with this prodigal who lost himself badly.
REHMThe Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, he's dean of Washington National Cathedral. Also here in the studio, Susan Page of USA Today, the Reverend Derrick Harkins of 19th Street Baptist Church.
REHMAnd welcome back for this month's "Readers' Review." Our choice is Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Gilead." I have three wonderful guests here in the studio, Susan Page, many of you know who sits in for me so often. She's Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Reverend Derrick Harkins is Senior Pastor of the 19th Street Baptist Church here in Washington, which I have had the privilege of attending, and The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, he's dean of the Washington National Cathedral, the Church of the Country, which I am privileged to attend.
REHMJoin us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do join us whether you've read the book or not. The two wives of the Reverend Ames seem extraordinary different, Susan.
PAGEThe first wife really a childhood sweetheart, a great love of his life and then, as you said earlier, tragically dies in childbirth. The second wife much younger than Reverend Ames, shows up at his church one day and he notices her in the back of the room and shows up again and then doesn't show up one Sunday and he's very distressed because he's really drawn to her. But he feels...
REHMHe doesn't know why.
PAGEHe doesn't and he doesn't know what to do about it.
PAGEWorries about the difference in their ages and she finally takes steps toward him. She goes to his church every day, she starts to bring food to his house and work on his garden, as many women in the community do for their pastor, and he says to her one day, I don't know how to repay you and she says, you should marry me.
REHMQuite a moment. I should say.
LLOYD(unintelligible) forthrightness -- her forthrightness in action. And it shows this is a no-nonsense, seems to be not a highly educated woman. She's quite shy, wants to stay out of the limelight, keeps reading to learn while she's living there. Wants to catch up and be part of the conversation. A very strong woman, but coming from very limited background.
REHMBut there's a mystery going on here. What is the relationship between Jack Broughton and Reverend Ames' second wife? How did you read that?
HARKINSI was saying earlier that it threw me for a moment because I thought, well, this isn't the kind of novel where that sort of suspenseful turn of events would all of a sudden take place and I really did wonder. And what I found to be more so the case was the issue really arose in Reverend Ames mind in the sense of -- in his diminishing years, if you will. Here's this young and vigorous -- at least by way of appearances, young and vigorous man who's very close if not the same age of -- as his wife.
REHMAnd he keeps showing up at that house.
HARKINSAnd he keeps showing up. He plays catch with the son and he's there at church, et cetera. And I'm thinking that it had as much to do with Reverend Ames trying to sort out his own sense of relevance in his relationship as much as if there were any ulterior motives on the part of Jack, At least initially that's what it sort of seemed to be .
REHMHow'd you feel about it, Sam?
LLOYDI think Jack is hanging around a lot and...
REHMToo much for my taste.
LLOYDAt first you can be a little skeptical of Ames' rising concern about this. His meditation on covetousness, that thou shall not covet, the 10th Commandment, he goes to work on that in himself. But more and more, Jack's around a lot. And then there's that one amazing scene where the wife and Jack are talking back and forth and Ames is dozing off. But is he? And no one quite knows how far he's gone while this thing gets more and more direct. And then he starts to bestir himself and it all breaks off and they go away.
PAGEBut two outsiders, you know, his -- Ames' second wife and Jack, I thought maybe there was a connection there that would not be the kind of romantic or, you know, inappropriate connection that is sometimes suggested. Or maybe it's suggested -- maybe it's a reflection on us that we see that as a possibility. You hear Reverend Ames worry that Jack, who has been a mean person in the past and treated people in mean ways, cruel ways, is going to do the same to his wife and his son after he is gone. You see that as an item of...
REHMThat's his worry.
PAGE...great concern to him.
PAGEAnd the -- it's interesting. Not very much happens in this book. This book is basically inside Reverend Ames' head, but there is this story that evolves. Jack shows up, he's not mentioned 'til page 68. You're pretty well into the book before you even are aware of his existence, but the whole rest of the book is Reverend Ames -- not all of the rest of the book, but much of the rest of the book is Reverend Ames trying to come to terms with his need to forgive Jack, why he can't do so and what ultimately happens.
REHMAnd of course, we learn later in the book that Jack has impregnated a young woman, that the young woman had a child. We don't know if he wanted to marry her, we don't know if her family rejected him, we just know that there is no connection between father and child.
HARKINSYou know, it's interesting. I took note of the fact that -- and there's so many passages in this book as a pastor, that I just sort of looked at almost from a homological sense...
HARKINS…boy, this would preach wonderfully (unintelligible).
HARKINSAnd one of the pieces that really jumped out at me is -- at least in the paperback version of 129, where he talks about Abraham and Isaac and the Akedah, which is the binding of Isaac and the tensions between a father and son and how that is reconciled and not reconciled and I just thought that that was a profound theme that just continues all the way through.
HARKINSAnd even with Jack and his child, the un-reconciled nature of that relationship, you know, sort of struck me as part of that same theme whereas, you know, here he talks about that even more earlier on. And it's the same thing with his grandfather in Kansas. And, you know, so there's a real consistency about the tension between fathers and sons or offspring and whether that gets reconciled.
REHMAbsolutely. And, of course, the Reverend Ames as a young boy, when he is seven, eight, nine, goes with his father to Kansas to find the grave of the grandfather and what a story.
REHMThey have no money, they have no food, they're stopping at various houses, sometimes even stealing, Sam.
LLOYDRight. It's a strange pilgrimage and what we're seeing through the whole book is people working out their relationships with their fathers -- sons I guess. It's all sons. And so on that journey, the father was the pacifist. The grandfather was a warrior for abolition. Great tensions in there, but somehow the father has decided that part of his legacy is to go find that grandfather's grave.
LLOYDAs you say, as grueling a journey as you could imagine, as foolhardy, it seems, as you could imagine, but somehow a piece of laying that relationship to rest is going and making sure that he is well buried, wherever that is. But it seems to go on for weeks if not months. It's long.
LLOYDAnd they turn up later back and people thought they disappeared.
PAGEThere is no more vivid character in this book than the grandfather...
PAGE...who, of course, it deceased before the story begins, but she describes him at point as a wild-haired, one-eyed scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it. And after seeing his grave, he writes, it was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather's grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.
PAGEBecause this was a man who was on fire against the stain of slavery and battling it with -- as a warrior telling his parishioners that they needed to go fight this war. And that period in that part of the country in Kansas and Missouri and Iowa was a very bloody period.
REHMAnd he loses an eye in that battle and then the younger describes walking around the grandfather to, at times, be out of his vision or to be within it, right.
HARKINSYou know, it's interesting and maybe not to overwork the metaphor, but the fact that the grave is referred to as a place where somebody tried to put out a fire. I can't help but think of an altar and once again, Abraham and Isaac. And it's interesting because I wrestled with the idea, was the younger Reverend Ames' pacifism, did that translate into an ambivalence about the issue of well, at this point, no longer abolition, but certainly race and racism. And he references several instances in the book where there was obviously the burning of a church -- a black church in the community and that sort of was a question that hung out there for me.
REHMSo it took you all the way from the Civil War to just before the Civil Rights era. And at its center for everyone is this tension because we learn later that Jack marries an African-American woman and this tension continues. We've got a lot of callers. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First let's go to Ferndale, Mich. Good morning, Kim, you're on the air.
KIMOh, good morning, Diane. It's such a lovely opportunity to talk to you.
KIMI just wanted to say that "Gilead" is definitely one of the best books that I've ever read. My copy of it is dog-eared with all the passages that I felt so connected to. But I -- you know, when you go back, I think the book is primarily -- well, not primarily, but that struggle and that tension with Jack Boughton was like -- I read that and I was just -- every time he entered the picture was just -- I would tense up as I was reading it.
KIMBut then there's the companion book that she wrote, "Home," which is the same story, but told through Jack's eyes. And I didn't think that I would like it as much 'cause it seemed like it would be so repetitious. But it was a completely different book and it was all written through Jack's perspective and...
KIM...and you understand the character of Jack so much more and what drives him to do a lot of the things he does and I would really encourage your listeners if they loved "Gilead" and they haven't read "Home" to read the second companion piece 'cause they -- I just -- I was astonished at how much I really enjoyed the second book…
KIM…'cause I didn't think that I would.
REHM...guess what, Kim? We have decided for next month's "Readers' Review" to follow "Gilead" with "Home."
KIMOh, that makes me so happy (laugh).
REHMI'm so glad and I'm so glad you've enjoyed this one and recommend it so highly. I totally agree with you. Thanks for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Lovettsville, Va. Good morning, Chuck.
CHUCKGood morning and thank you very much for taking my call.
CHUCKI have not read the book, but while I was listening to your show, I was reminded of a conference that I went to last year with the Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault who wrote "The Wisdom Jesus." And we studied the gospel of Thomas and did a lot of different types approaches to Christianity.
CHUCKAnd my -- one of the points that I want to make is the clergy, almost to a person at that conference, towards the end of that conference, was pretty much in the same position that I think that Reverend Ames was, in that questioning the levity of the life that they had spent in the priesthood or in the ministry. And so my point is, you know, it's not just fiction that these thoughts enter people's minds. So that's my comment. And Cynthia Bourgeault is absolutely outstanding.
REHMThank you. Sam.
LLOYDYeah, I do think that the nature of the pastoral vocation is in there. I read it differently. I read this as a man who has loved his vocation, but part of what's so powerful is the ruminating on the complexity and the dark side of everything. I think there is a deep gratitude in him. Even the -- there's that wistful thing that he could've left to go join his parents on the Gulf Coast, but he decided to stay there and he thought he was doing it simply out of loyalty to his parents, but in fact, it was his calling. And we see, I think, a profound gratitude that pervades every page of this and a sense that my life has been a difficult complex life, but what a life.
REHMAnd let us not forget that the Reverend Ames' brother Edward chose a totally different life. In fact, went to Europe. His father thought that both young men would follow him into the ministry, but Edward, the brother, went to Europe and came back a total atheist and so disappointed his father that it broke the relationship.
HARKINSHe encounters Feuerbach and comes back a, you know, very much...
REHMTell me about Feuerbach. I've never read Feuerbach.
HARKINSIt's been ages since I've read Feuerbach. I'm gonna defer in a moment, but I'll just...
REHMI'll bet Sam can tell us.
HARKINS...I will say this, though, that I really do think again -- and for anybody to read this and think that the Reverend Ames is questioning the validity of his life, I'd say again that I think he very much sees the value and the -- he's ruminating on it. He's trying to sort out all of those precious jewels within his life that now he can reflect upon as he...
HARKINS...as he moves toward earthly mortality and so I see it as a very hopeful and an uplifting book.
REHMLet's go to Lehi, Utah. Good morning, Paul.
PAULGood morning. I have three things I'd like to mention. Number one, I think it is the best portrayal I've ever read of a clergy person. I'm a retired military chaplain as well as clergy. Secondly, I think it may be the best psychological study every written, and I'm out on a limb here, in America.
PAULThirdly, I don't know what our guests might say, but it occurred to me as I wept into the last pages that in a sense, there's only one character in the book and that is the Reverend Ames and all the other characters are, in fact, parts of himself, which is what makes it, to me, a psychological study. Jack is one, his wife is one, even the six-year-old boy and even the ancestral characters.
REHMFascinating analysis and certainly something for all of us to think about. We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd we're back with this month's "Readers' Review," Marilynne Robinson's beautiful novel "Gilead." It not only won the National Book Award, it was award the Pulitzer Prize. She followed it up with a book called "Home," which we're going to follow up with ourselves next month.
REHMHere in the studio, Derrick Harkins, Senior Pastor of The 19th Street Baptist Church here in Washington, The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, dean of the Washington Cathedral and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Our last caller made three points. The first that he thought this was the best portrayal of clergy he had ever read. I'd be interested in your thoughts, Derrick Harkins.
HARKINSI love the fact that he speaks to the -- and I think maybe the word loneliness was used before, but the sense of solitude that oftentimes accompanies ministry and yet at the same time, how in that solitude he found a measure of fulfillment. I think it's a wonderfully respectful book with regard to the clergy because it's not cloying. And the theology that Robinson raises is incredibly profound and it drove me to Wikipedia to find out...
HARKINS...if she had had any background herself because she does some of the most profound exegesis.
REHMShe did a lot of studying for -- before she wrote this book.
REHMAnd after she had gone off and done some there things. What about for you, Sam Lloyd?
LLOYDI wanted to read a very brief passage...
LLOYD...that expressed he pastor's frustrations. He talks about the difficulty of trying to get his congregation to catch the radiance in things, the vital life going on inside everything, everywhere, that life is itself the miracle, but then he says in a moment of frustration, "Television can be the worst. You can spend 40 years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten."
LLOYDWhat we get in this amazing book is as profound and beautiful a spirituality as I know. I think that she's a spiritual master here and she's giving us a spirituality that crosses the bounds from Orthodox Christianity to the spiritual, but not religious. It is a way of embracing the earthiness, the grace, the joy of the every day. And that -- and so seeing that and then seeing how it can get so corrupted by the ways Christians talk about it is one of the sources of despair for him.
REHMWith how Christians talk about it.
LLOYDHow things like radio ministries, how hard-edged absolute answer Christianity loses what he things is the essence, which is the mystery. He keeps saying, I know more than I can say and there's so much more than we will ever be able to articulate. We're in the midst of something overwhelmingly beyond us and overwhelmingly good and it's our job to try to say what bits we can to help people make their lives in the middle of that.
REHMAnd Susan, one of the other points that our caller made had to do with what he thought was the profound psychological aspect to the book.
PAGEYeah, Paul mentioned this as being -- all the characters being parts of Reverend Ames' own self. And there's a passage where Ames seems to be acknowledging that in a way, we're all made up of pieces of our family members and others who have come before us. He writes -- she writes, "In every important way, we are such secrets from each other and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations."
PAGEIt goes back, I think, to that idea of fathers and sons, of parents and children. And almost all of the characters in this book are quite three dimensional. Even the characters we see only briefly or in passing, you get a sense of them in a context through their place and time and as being -- having characteristics that are complicated.
REHMDo you know what the Reverend Ames' wife's name is?
PAGEThe first wife was Louisa, but I don't think I know the second wife's name.
REHMWe don't hear her name.
LLOYDWho is Lila? I think it's Lila.
LLOYDAnd I think the time it comes is when -- is that moment when Ames is sleeping and -- or so-called sleeping and that word gets said right there and there's an intimate moment...
LLOYD...when Jack says that to her in that room.
REHMBut we don't know the son's name.
REHMIt's interesting to have Jack be the one...
REHM...to say Lila's name, rather than to have the husband call his wife Lila. The idea of his seeing her in the back of the church the first time she walks in, why that connection, do you think? Why that connection between the Reverend Ames and Lila all the way in the back of the church?
HARKINSI think you just -- you have to take into account the idea that if one is a pastor and he's preaching and the moment is transcended, that somehow that she has whatever qualities that sort of pierced through all of that and he says as much in the context of how he's -- he encounters and then how they end up realizing the intensity of their relationship. I just -- you know, I think it's a moment that pierces through everything that he has as his identity as a -- you know, that it happens there in the context of him being a minister.
REHMAnd what is the word that Jack uses about his marriage to Lila? He says something like, you yourself have had a very unusual marriage because the Reverend Ames is thinking back on what Jack has done. The one repeating theme that keeps coming up are these sermons that are in the attic, thousands of pages of sermons, and the Rev. Ames is not sure any of these thousands of pages is worth anything. Have you ever felt that?
HARKINSWell, it goes back to how much resonates with the people who are hearing and what transforms and I think you end up being pleasantly surprised on occasion. See, I'm gonna hold onto this sense of transcend and hopefulness that somehow it does...
REHMYou've gotten through.
HARKINSIt adheres, somehow it's transformative. And again -- but you can't help but wonder, you know, do my efforts, you know, end up being as fruitful as I'd like for them to be? And I think it's a very realistic assessment on his part that there's no telling, you know, how effective and impactful my work, my ministry, my sermons, the relationships I've forged, how impactful they might ultimately be.
REHMWhat about you, Sam?
LLOYDIt's fascinating hearing this reflection. Sermons are events that happen in time and a place when words are spoken usually in a context of worship, but the minister is saying everything he or she knows to say is best, is possible and people are responding and then that piece of paper afterwards is a record of something that happened. And sometimes going back to those, you can see the spark that was in it and sometimes you wonder if there ever was a spark in it.
LLOYDBut it's -- so I think we all wonder about, so what does this stack of sermons add up to for a lifetime? And at least what I have to say is I wasn't -- I'm not writing books, I'm not even writing essays, that's a record of an effort to say something truthful to a group of people gathered to try to make sense of life in the context of this Christian story.
LLOYDAnd it was what it was and what we would talk about, the -- it's the work of the Holy Spirit in people's lives that allows them to receive this and there is a Spirit working in people in ways that I can't begin to imagine and I hope this can be part of their own growth.
REHMIs the Episcopal Church different from the Baptist Church in that what you're preaching to or on is the gospel of the day? Is there any difference?
HARKINSNot in this sense. I mean, I think the profundity of the gospel and the transcendence of that in terms of how it impacts upon people's life, that's -- that's -- you know, I mean, when you get into the weeds of particularities around, you know, doctorate and church policy, that's a different discussion. But I think, you know, what we're talking about here and what we see, especially as Reverend Ames lifts it, is again a transcendence of this truth as he understands it. I wanted to just -- you know, when we talk about that whole sense of does this all matter, does this really mean...
HARKINS...anything. At the very end of the book, he says -- and I'll just curtail the quote, but it says, "What I have to -- what have I to leave you, but the ruins of old courage and the lore of old gallantry and hope. Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again." And I think he -- what an incredible measure of trust.
HARKINSHe says, "What I've done is what I've done and I'm trusting and benevolent--" Yeah, you know, earlier on he talks about prevenient grace in that same -- you know, a little early on. But the bottom line is he's saying, you know, I've lived a life in the fullest measures that I can and I'm trusting that it will have impact and meaning, even on my seven-year-old son, whose life I will largely not see, on my wife, on all those people whose lives I've touched.
REHMAnd Susan, you must reflect in much the same way. I mean, before you came to USA Today, you wrote other articles for other newspapers. Did you ever find yourself wondering, how much of a difference can I make as a journalist?
PAGEAbsolutely. And what is persistent or enduring and what is something that will be forgotten next week? And I think one thing that as a journalist you try to do, and in many other lines of work, the deeper you go into your craft, the longer you spend at it, the more you want to do things that will be enduring as opposed to something that is here today and gone tomorrow.
PAGEAnd it's hard, I think, to make clear judgments about that yourself. It's in a -- to a degree, dependent on other people. You know, it was interesting, just after the passage that you just read is the very close of the book where he says, "I'll pray that you --" to his son, "I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I'll pray and then I'll sleep." That's the very simple, profound ending of the book.
REHMDid it make you cry?
PAGEParts of the book made me cry, yes, and especially the sense of wanting to protect his child and being unable to do so. We're all unable to protect our children, but especially as he looks to his death while his child is still so young.
REHMAnd wondering even as he's trying so hard to come to some sort of forgiveness, reconciliation with Jack, wondering at the same time how much of his wife's life is Jack going to be involved in. Did you find yourself wondering that?
PAGEYou know, I wondered that until the very end where we find out that Jack, in fact, is in another relationship that means the world to him and that he's unable to live fully because of the continuing strains and injustices of race. And at that point, Jack becomes suddenly a much more sympathetic figure than he's been before then and it casts his relationship with Reverend Ames' wife, I think, in a somewhat different light.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now, to Jacksonville, Fla, to Mark. Good morning, you're on the air.
MARKThis is amazing. I've listened to your show for years, never called, but I'm a Presbyterian minister. I'm what they call a tentmaker these days and I pastor a small church in north central Florida and I can understand the main character's questioning about the effectiveness of ministry and so on and so forth. And I empathize with that because I guess I wonder about the reality of being able to fulfill the call that I think most clergy people feel or Christians feel, you know. The idea is to change the world and it's a mighty tall order.
REHM(laugh) It sure is. Sam, do you feel that that's your challenge?
LLOYDI think that is the vision behind all ministry, is to make it become more of what it was made to be, but one of the things I love about this book is Ames brings it down to the concrete. What he's trying to get people to do is open their eyes and see the miracle going on around them. And moment by moment -- a brief passage I would read is toward the end, too. It's trying to get people to see whether it's looking at a lovely couple that gets caught in the rain and the raindrops fall on them...
LLOYD...or these kids throwing a ball back and forth and he just sits there and says, "I can't believe I'm in a world like this. I've got to keep noticing these things." But then he -- but then he says this, and I think this is the spiritual power of the book, "It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life and then it sinks back into itself and to look at it -- and to look at it, no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light.
LLOYDThe Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than things seem to apply. Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only who could have the courage to see it."
REHMAnd isn't it interesting that the grandfather has only one eye.
LLOYDYou know, I hadn't thought that. That is right.
REHMBecause she does talk about vision...
REHM...a great deal and the ability to not only see, but to understand. And here we have a man with one eye. I love this discussion. I love this book. The book we've been talking about, Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The Reverend Derrick Harkins, Susan Page, The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, thank you all so much.
LLOYDThank you very much.
REHMAnd next month we will follow this with Marilynne Robinson's novel "Home." Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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