Friday, May 20, 2005

The Balm in Gilead

The key to crossing the divide, I think, is to leave the sidelines. To forsake the jolly company of the peanut gallery. To get off the freeway and out of your car. To seek conversations instead of fights. To question your own assumptions, especially when tempted to question the motives of others. To accept that "smart and unreflective" is good working definition of "arrogant asshole," and it just might as well apply to you as to the other guy.

To get to know the other.

Of course you'll be disappointed sometimes. Bamboozled. Insulted. But sometimes not.

You can have these conversations in bars, particularly if you've passed the age of testosterone or pulchritude, but the discourse tends to devolve after a few drinks. A more reliable way is to read a good book that opens up a mind and worldview for you. And there are far fewer repercussions if you take it to bed with you.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, won the National Book Critics' Award for fiction and made numerous best lists, but it may not have crept onto your reading list. Its conceit of an elderly Iowa preacher leaving behind an account of himself to his young son doesn't grab the same attention as, say, Dan Brown's version of religious intrigue. See this review for a good summary.

But for the unchurched and the anti-evangelical, it's a moving reminder that not all Christians are fanatics out to repress whomever they can't convert. And that religious thought has much to recommend it, especially as presented here, filtered through a life instead of an institution.

The Rev. John Ames recounts family history to his son, mixing it with meditations on faith, trust, friendship, love and the pleasures of just being alive. Ames's grandfather was dedicated abolitionist, his father a determined pacifist, and Ames himself rather middling at everything — but profoundly, humanly so.

He writes:

"This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, what is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impluse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.

"I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own failure to live up to it recently..."

And indeed, one theme of the book deals with overcoming mistrust and misperception.

The passage is a fair representation of the way the narrator wanders and wends — from ponderous throat clearing, as if to embark on a really tedious lecture, to beautifully encapsulating an article of faith, to wry self-abnegation.

Stuff this rich you just can't find in the bars or in the blogs.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home