Tag Archives: Classics

Mortifying the Fear of Academic Books

Academic books filled with silver-dollar words can come across as literary bullies, taunting you, sitting there perched on your desk, nightstand, and bookshelves. These books wear a costume, posing in the same square form as your favorite reads—the novels, the uplifting devotionals, the Pulitzer biographies. They share the outward look and texture as a can’t-put-it-down story, but they are not the same. If some books are a stroll in the park wrapped in a summery cool breeze, academic treatises can be a ponderous trudge through a bog, uphill, at night, in the rain, alone.

divinity-libraryBut the trudge is an illusion, a feeling, an attitude, and a state of mind. You created it, and you can exercise a surprising amount of control over it in the long run. The skills that built and stacked internal walls meant to protect your own ego against the barrage of heavy, theological terms are the same skills that can sack those walls and command those technical terms for your spiritual benefit.

Tackle the Tomes

It takes a fresh look at theology and an intentional shift in your reading style to tackle thick tomes. For the shift to be effective, you’ll need to put your favorite novels on Mars and your academic, theological books on Venus. They’re not the same thing, though their similar appearance tries to tell you otherwise.

Stories are meant to be read at page one and continued until you see “THE END,” followed by tears, laughs, or a sigh. (Tears, laughs, and sighs can also accompany academic works, but for different reasons.) There are plot points, irony, foreshadowing, and other things you learned in high school English class. Academic works, on the other hand, are meant to be used and abused. Don’t worry about hurting the author’s feelings. He used and abused other books when he was researching, because he had a goal to achieve, namely, this book you are now attempting to crack.

Your Choice

Most of us are under no official orders to read. Reading is voluntary, chosen with either helpful motives or less-than-helpful motives. Picking up a book because you think you should won’t fill up your motivation tank. Duty alone rarely spurs us on. At times dutiful reading is necessary, but for non-students the choice of which book to pick up is yours and yours alone. You can opt in any time and opt out just as quickly, and a big part of your mind knows this as you sit—judge, jury, and at times executioner for your current read.

The decision to read or not to read creates a sense of freedom, which is a good thing, but eventually you’ll need to land on a particular book. Reading heavy theology calls for a purpose if it is to last, a map of sorts before making the intellectual climb. Maybe your pastor mentioned swirling debates over which books of the Bible should be included in the canon, and you want to follow the conversation. Pick up Canon Revisited by Michael Kruger. Maybe someone at work threw a leading scientist’s resume’ at you, championing his atheism. Check out Redeeming Science (for free here) by Vern Poythress. What if your college Bible study is studying Ephesians, and within the first five verses of the first chapter when “predestined” is mentioned, someone says, “I don’t believe in predestination”? (This happened to me.) Travel back a few centuries and pick up John Owen’s The Gospel Defended. Or a dozen other works I could mention for each of these scenarios. The immediate goal is a reasonable, working knowledge of a topic you want to know more about, and the ultimate goal is simply to know more about the God you worship and his world.

Wet Blankets?

There is a persistent, parasitic myth buzzing around that academic theological books are wet blankets for your devotional life, or your relationship with Jesus, or something. The source of these myths is typically those who out of principle do not lift books that require cerebral weight training. You won’t hear the same anti-theology myth coming from someone who has popped out on the other side of a dense library. If I’m looking for advice on whether a particular mountain is worth the climb, I’ll ask someone who has already been there, not someone who has never packed for the hike, whose opinion rests on hearsay and speculation. The same principle applies to just about anything that requires effort, including dense theological works.

If you can clear the fog of fear and hesitation hovering over academic books, you might find an unexpected depth and richness between the pages. Heavy theological reading will never take the place of a heart-gripping novel or a devotional full of soaring words of worship. But a rich read can often add color, dimension, and vibrancy to your Christian walk and give those devotionals a few more volts.

Wisdom Through Suffering in The Death of Ivan Ilych

Editors’ note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in The Death of Ivan Ilych, you can the first and second installments from Leland Ryken. This week, Ryken suggests reading chapters 5-12.


While chapter 4 has already portrayed the onset of Ivan’s serious illness, the new development that enters with chapter 5 (and that will persist to the end of the story) is the premise that Ivan is a dying man. The main action is twofold: (1) the indifference and deceptiveness of Ivan’s family and acquaintances regarding his illness, and (2) the thoughts and feelings that run through Ivan’s mind as he suffers physical and mental anguish and seeks to understand the meaning of his past and future. The exception to the prevailing indifference of the world is Ivan’s butler, Gerasim, who shares Ivan’s suffering, who “alone did not lie,” and who holds Ivan’s legs on his shoulders to ease the pain.

As Ivan ponders the meaning of his life and approaching death, he comes to the shocking conclusion that his life of conformity had been a sham and that “there was nothing to defend” in regard to it. On his deathbed Ivan moves beyond this conviction of his lost condition to a state of salvation. This is handled with literary indirectness and subtlety, and by means of symbolism, but it is unmistakable. Ivan falls through the black sack that had impeded his progress and enters into light and joy, finally declaring “death is finished. It is no more.”

Death-Denying Culture

The main interest of the second half of the story is the moral and spiritual progress of the protagonist, ending with his physical death and spiritual regeneration. But before we chart that progress, we need to register something that remains constant. The falsity, deceptiveness, and insensitivity of Ivan’s family and acquaintances are a background chorus to everything Ivan experiences. Tolstoy keeps coming back to the way in which Ivan’s society does not “get it” in regard to human suffering, illness, and dying.

The story accomplishes several things with this technique. One thrust is satiric, as Tolstoy makes a scathing indictment of modern society. The object of satiric attack is the way in which people deny the reality of death, both in regard to themselves and also to the dying. As always with satire, as readers we see the folly of what is portrayed, and we are invited to avoid the same folly in our own lives.

Additionally, the deceptiveness of people in their interactions with Ivan is a leading ingredient in his suffering. We read, for example, that “this deception tortured him.” And again, “This falsity around him . . . did more than anything else to poison his last days.” Ivan comes to hate his family members because they ignore him and even pretend that he is not dying.

The servant Gerasim stands as a foil to the other characters. He does not pretend that Ivan is not dying. He does not avoid contact with Ivan. In fact, he holds Ivan’s legs up on his shoulders “easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych.” It is in the nature of storytelling that the writer puts examples before us—positive examples to emulate and negative examples to avoid.

For reflection or discussion: We can profitably ask three questions regarding the deceptiveness of the death-dying culture portrayed in this story: (1) how do we see the same thing in our own culture, (2) how do we see the impulse within ourselves, and (3) what do we resolve to do about the situation?

Psychology of Facing Death

Truthfulness to human experience is one of the great contributions of literature. The classical tradition spoke of literature as an imitation of life. Other eras (as well as Shakespeare in a famous speech by Hamlet) called it “holding the mirror up to nature.”

One of the things that makes The Death of Ivan Ilych so riveting is that it takes us through the thoughts and feelings that surge through all of us when we have a physical ailment. We can credit Tolstoy with “getting it right.” One strand is the fluctuations that tyrannize Ivan’s thought life. For example, “Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages.” When the doctor says in reply to a question from Ivan that there was a possibility of recovery, Ivan experiences a “gleam of hope” that “did not last long.” We also read that since the onset of Ivan’s illness his life “had been divided between two contrary and alternating moods”—despair and intense “observation of the functioning of his organs.”

Tolstoy also does a masterful job of capturing the psychology of living with anguish (in this case awareness of dying) that becomes a constant mental preoccupation. At one point death becomes a personified “It” that stands before Ivan incessantly. In another memorable image, death becomes a “narrow, black sack” into which Ivan is being pushed. There are moments when Ivan “wept like a child.” This is what it is like to live with a tyrannizing problem.

Part of the psychology that the story portrays consists of the voices that arise within Ivan. We read that “it was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.” The voice asks, for example, “What do you want?” Ivan replies, “To live and not to suffer.” And so forth.

A further dimension of the psychology of suffering that Tolstoy portrays is the impulse to blame God. At one point we read that Ivan “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.” He also asks of God, “Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?”

For reflection or discussion: What strikes you as skillful about Tolstoy’s portrayal of the psychology of suffering and dying? How does that portrayal correspond to some of your own experiences?

Conviction of Sin

The theme of wisdom through suffering has held an esteemed place in serious imaginative literature from the Book of Job and ancient Greek tragedy through King Lear to a modern work like The Death of Ivan Ilych. Additionally, no matter how moved we are by Tolstoy’s handling of social critique and psychological analysis (as discussed above), the central aspect of this story is the spiritual journey of the protagonist. That journey falls into two distinct phases, and these correspond to what theologians call the order of salvation.

Like Job, Ivan seeks to understand the meaning of his suffering. At one point he asks, “Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror?” And later, “Why these sufferings?” And again, “If I could only understand what it is all for.” Ivan becomes a latter-day Socrates in his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.

The first step toward answering the “why” question is Ivan’s decision to cast a retrospective look at his life. Early in that thought process, having told his inner voice that he wants “to live and not to suffer,” the inner voice asks, “To live? How?” Ivan replies, “Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.” This provides the impetus for him to look back on his “pleasant” life.

Ivan quickly comes to the conclusion that his shallow life was “worthless.” In fact, “the longer it lasted the more deadly it became.” Of course the complacency of his social setting makes it hard for Ivan to admit this: “‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?'”

The conviction keeps growing that “what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.” This prompts Ivan to “pass his life in review in quite a new way.” His conclusion: the life he had lived “was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.”

This conviction of sin remains with Ivan right up to the moment of his conversion on the verge of his death. Ivan “realized that he was lost” [a theology-laden word]. In this awareness, he experiences the sensation of being forced into a black sack, struggling “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” [and we should note the theological nuance of the word save]. Ivan feels unable “to get right into it [i.e., the black sack],” and the double meaning of the word right should not escape us: Ivan cannot go into the afterlife “right.”

For reflection or discussion: The foregoing quick trip through Ivan’s growing awareness that he is a lost soul does not do justice to the detail with which Tolstoy chronicles Ivan’s coming to an awareness of the failure of the life he has lived. As you peruse the text, what for you are the important landmarks in Ivan’s growing conviction of sin? The biggest obstacle to Ivan’s achieving salvation is “his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life . . . prevented his moving forward.” How have you observed the same phenomenon in your own life or in the lives of acquaintances?


Ivan’s moment of conversion is handled in a thoroughly literary way, that is, by indirection, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. It is certainly not preachy or overly explicit. This is to Tolstoy’s credit, and the fact that some (not all) secular readers do not see the Christian nature of the experience should not deter us in the least from celebrating the Christian conclusion to the story.

To begin, the image of being forced into the black sack of death and of not able to get into it “right” has by now taken on a life of its own in the story. That is all the preparation we need in order to understand the moment of transformation when Ivan “fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.” Key biblical verses provide a good context for this symbolic use of light (e.g., Matthew 4:16; John 3:21 and 8:12; 1 John 1: 5, 7).

The very next sentence compares what has just happened to the experience of someone on a train who thinks he is going backward when he really going forward “and becomes aware of the real direction.” Ivan has changed spiritual direction. We might imagine Jesus saying parabolically, “The kingdom of heaven in like a man riding in a railway carriage. . . .” There is also the symbolism of Ivan’s screaming in pain for three days, “during which time did not exist for him.” Falling through the sack occurs “at the end of the third day, two hours before his death.”

The conversion motifs keep tumbling out. At the very moment that Ivan “fell through and caught sight of the light, . . . it was revealed to him [note the theological overtones] that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” Earlier he had hated his family, but now he “felt sorry for both his son and his wife.” He tries to say “forgive me” but instead says “forgo, but he is not troubled by this because he knows “that He [capitalized] whose understanding mattered would understand.”

Ivan experiences the sensation of losing a burden, “dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides.” He “sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because there was no death.” “In place of death there was light. ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly explained aloud. ‘What joy!'” The rebirth is instantaneous (“all this happened in a single instant”) and its effect permanent (“and the meaning of that instant did not change”). Someone near Ivan says, “It is finished,” and Ivan repeats the words “in his soul.” “Death is finished,” Ivan says; “it is no more,” in obvious reference to Revelation 21:4 (see also 2 Timothy 1:10 and John 5:24).

For reflection or discussion: The foregoing commentary says enough to make the case for the Christian meaning of the story’s conclusion, but it does not exhaust the nuances Tolstoy packed into the last three pages; what do you see in addition? Chapter 1 says regarding the look on the deceased Ivan’s face conveys that “what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly”; how does the last chapter explain that statement? It is the task of Christian storytellers and poets to “sing a new song”—to express the timeless truths of the Christian faith with fresh vision or new effect; how does Tolstoy’s story do this for you?

Terrible Conformity and The Death of Ivan Ilych

Editors’ note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in The Death of Ivan Ilych, read Leland Ryken’s first installment. This week, Ryken suggests reading chapters 2-4.


As narrated in this novella, the life of Ivan falls into two eras—life before his accident, and life after that accident. Chapters 2-4 tell the story of life before the accident (with chapter 4 serving as a transition as it records the onset of Ivan’s illness, while stopping short of identifying the illness as terminal). The keynote of Ivan’s life before his accident is summarized in the first sentence of chapter 2: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” It is terrible in its superficiality.

Ivan’s childhood and early professional life are spent in social conformity. His marriage, too, is “thoroughly correct,” “easy and decorous.” When his wife becomes irritable and family life demanding, Ivan retreats into his professional life. He unexpectedly gets a promotion, and he “was completely happy.” Then Ivan becomes preoccupied with decorating his house, which represents a further stage of dehumanizing in his life. One day while decorating his house Ivan bruises himself when he missteps on a ladder. This becomes the turning point of his life, as it leads to an undiagnosed illness and then to deteriorating health. Chapter 4 tells of the growing pain in Ivan’s side, of futile visits to doctors, of the gradual isolation of Ivan in his private world of illness.

Life of Conformity

Chapters 2-4 trace a sequence of phases through which Ivan’s life passes, so we should follow the contour that the story lays down. The keynote for all three chapters is sounded at the outset, with its equation of Ivan’s “ordinary” life and the fact that it is “therefore most terrible.” Exactly what makes Ivan’s life terrible? The verdict is voiced by the narrator, and if we follow the cues laid down in the text itself, we will see the ways in which Ivan’s life is terrible—not externally, but morally and spiritually.

Externally, Ivan’s life is not terrible, and we can profitably begin by tracing the things that make his external life successful, as narrated in the first half of chapter 2. It is a life in which conformity triumphs. Already as a schoolboy Ivan fit in completely. Upon graduating from law school, Ivan receives “an easy and agreeable” position. His life flows “pleasantly and decorously.” When he transfers to a new town, he “settled down very pleasantly.” He married “a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman.”

The sheer accumulation of details would itself lead us to protest against the superficiality and banality of such a life, but Tolstoy does not put the entire burden of interpretation on us as readers. He creates a narrator to serve as a tour guide through the story. As the vocabulary of conformity noted in the previous paragraph accumulates, we catch a distinct note of scorn toward what is being portrayed. When the element of conformity is highlighted to this extent, we cannot help but see that it is being mocked.

This relates to the rhetoric of narrative—the techniques of persuasion by which a story gets us to assess characters and events in the manner desired by the storyteller. Selectivity of material is one of these rhetorical strategies. What a storyteller chooses to include influences what we see and how we see it. Tolstoy chose to include details that add up to a life of conformity in which the protagonist does all the “right” things as prescribed by social norms.

For reflection or discussion: Literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves; it is also a window through which we look at life around us. Both of these are profitable premises from which to assimilate the first half of chapter 2. Where do you see your own lifestyle and inner inclinations laid out to view in the account of Ivan’s life of conformity? At what points are you reminded of what you see in your society or neighborhood or circle of friends? How does the story bring conviction?

Protecting Life from Unpleasantness

The first phase of Ivan’s life, from infancy through early marriage, is a life of ease. Of course this life is a spiritual void—a life without meaning. Additionally, Ivan himself is a moral nonentity, totally self-absorbed. This self-absorption is threatened when Ivan’s wife becomes pregnant, and thereupon Ivan enters a new phase. The story is orchestrated in such a way as to lead us to see the strategies by which people manage to escape involvement with human suffering.

The first thing Ivan does is lose himself in his professional work. Correspondingly, his marriage and domestic life become a mere social convenience, not a high value. His work becomes a “separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction.” Ivan becomes an organization man.

The second half of chapter 2 is conducted in such a way as to show that Ivan manages to shield himself from human suffering. When he receives a promotion and moves to a new town, the higher cost of living cancels the higher salary, his wife does not like the place, and two of their children die. Ivan simply spends “less and less time with his family.” The “whole interest of his life” centers in his job. Everything considered, Ivan manages to sidestep suffering and finds that “life continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly and properly.”

Tolstoy has constructed his story in such a way that only dying will bring his protagonist to a state of awareness regarding the true issues of life. Until Ivan reaches that point, a series of intermediary and potential impetuses to awareness enter Ivan’s life. In the second half of chapter 2, that impetus is domestic disappointment. But Ivan comes up with a defense mechanism against that disappointment. A key statement is that domestic life became something “in which [his] sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing.”

For reflection or discussion: We should continue to operate on the premise that literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves and a window through which we see life around us. How is the second half of chapter 2 true to life as you know it?

Another Narrow Escape

In the first half of chapter 3, another form of suffering enters Ivan’s life, accompanied by another possible occasion for Ivan to face life’s true issues. Ivan’s income is inadequate and his marriage unfulfilling. He becomes depressed and takes a leave of absence from work. It appears that he may need to embrace human suffering and learn from it.

But then the unexpected happens. By chance, Ivan lands an improved job. Having escaped suffering yet again, “Ivan Ilych was completely happy.” His life and marriage reach a new level of triviality when furnishing the new home becomes the passion of his life. Even his official work “interested him less than he had expected.” In short, Ivan has become interested in things rather than people. “Life was growing fuller,” the narrator tells us in mockery. Again, “Everything was as it should be.” At one point the narrator tells us that Ivan’s “chief pleasure was giving little dinners to which he invited men and women of good social position,” and a few paragraphs later that his “greatest pleasure was playing bridge.”

In either case, we are to understand that Ivan is living life at the level of complete triviality and social convention. Tolstoy is adept at giving us aphoristic sentences that sum up various phases of his story and the broader issues of the story as a whole. Chapter 3 ends with one of these sentences: “So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly.” As readers we are expected to supply what is omitted from that progress report, namely, that Ivan and his wife are totally superficial people, cut off from essential humanity. Ultimately their physical prosperity makes this type of life possible.

As we end chapter 3, we can profitably sum up what the story has presented up to that point. First, we have observed a life of complete social and moral conformity. Second, we have seen Ivan avoid family involvement and suffering through work. Third, we have viewed a life materialistic triviality, with devotion to physical things and the home prominent on the list of priorities.

For reflection or discussion: This story provides an anatomy of how many (most?) people in the affluent West (and perhaps worldwide) live. What are the keynotes of that lifestyle? In what ways is it your own lifestyle? By God’s grace, to what extent have you avoided it?

Turning Point

The story gradually leads us to wonder what will bring Ivan to a state of moral and spiritual awareness. The answer comes in a seemingly trivial event that nonetheless becomes the pivot on which Ivan’s whole life turns. In the middle of chapter 3, we read in passing about a bruise that Ivan sustained when he slipped on a ladder while decorating his house. The very triviality is ironically important: just as Ivan’s life has revolved around the shallow trivialities of life, so his injury is undistinguished (a slip on step ladder).

To heighten this effect, the ladder incident is tucked into the middle of a chapter devoted to chronicling how Ivan managed to do everything in life “easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically.” However, a new note is sounded as we move into chapter 4.

This chapter is mainly devoted to the progress of Ivan’s illness. Earlier Ivan had distanced himself from his wife’s physical difficulties, and now she turns the tables on him. We read that “the more she pitied herself the more she hated her husband.” She demands that Ivan go “to see a celebrated doctor.” “He went,” and with disappointing results. The doctor treats Ivan as he himself treats people in the law courts—as a professional case. The doctor is preoccupied with figuring out the physical cause of Ivan’s pain and ignores Ivan’s anguish: “It was not a question of Ivan Ilych’s life or death, but one between a floating kidney and appendicitis.”

One of the great triumphs of Tolstoy’s story now enters aggressively. It is the literary technique known as psychological realism and consists of our entering the character’s thought process. An early example occurs in chapter 4 with the account of what goes through Ivan’s mind on the journey from the doctor’s office to his home. We read that “all the way home he was going over what the doctor had said.” He tries to translate the medical terminology into answers to his questions, “Is my condition bad? Is it very bad? Or is there as yet nothing much wrong?”

In addition to this uncertainty and anguish, Ivan finds himself ignored by and isolated from the people around him. His wife impatiently listens to his account of his visit to the doctor, finding the report “tedious.” Her advice: “Mind now to take your medicine regularly.” As Ivan himself becomes convinced that “something terrible” is taking place inside of him, “those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual.”

As Ivan’s physical state deteriorates, his mental anguish increases. So does his isolation from those around him. Again a summary statement at the end of chapter 4 packs the punch: “And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.”

For reflection or discussion: It is hard to beat this story for its truthfulness to life. For example: when have you or a family member or friend faced Ivan’s situation of a physical ailment for which there is no medical help or even diagnosis? How does the suffering of Ivan in regard to that correspond to experiences in your own life? Suffering is what forces Ivan to probe beneath the pleasant surface of life; has this been your experience?


The overall shape of this story resembles Shakespeare’s play King Lear so closely that one wonders whether it was in Tolstoy’s mind as he composed his novella. Both stories revolve around the tragic theme of wisdom through suffering.

While that is common to all literary tragedies, the following paradigm is not. Both King Lear and The Death of Ivan Ilych first divest the hero of all external privileges that had given meaning to life. With space thus cleared, the second half of both works traces the hero’s moral and spiritual progress forced by intense suffering.

Life Without Meaning: The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Gospel Coalition invites you to join Leland Ryken in reading and discussing Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych. To learn more about our series on Commending the Classics, see earlier reader guides from Leland Ryken on Albert Calmus’s The Stranger and ”Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Phil Ryken on Marilynne Robinson‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, along with Kathleen Nielson on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.


I first read and studied this novella as a sophomore in college. It was my first intense adult encounter with literature. Being a work of Christian fiction, Tolstoy’s story also gave me a vision for the integration of literature and Christianity that never left me. I am happy to report that this great Christian classic still appears in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, where I encountered it in college.

In my last posting on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” I claimed that while Hawthorne’s religious views are important, his short story is universal in its issues and does not require being contextualized in the broader landscape of Hawthorne’s religious views. The same thing is true of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy is an important figure in any history of modern Christian thought and practice, but knowing about his unorthodox Christian faith is not a prerequisite to understanding his masterpiece on suffering and death. I will therefore concentrate on the story itself, with minimal reference to Tolstoy’s tortured religious life.

Leo Tolstoy was a Russian who lived from 1828 to 1910. His biography reads like an adventure story and a tragedy. At the approximate age of 50, Tolstoy reached a point of extreme despair about life. He resolved his despair in what can loosely be called a Christian conversion. The Death of Ivan Ilych was Tolstoy’s first major fictional work published after his conversion and belongs to a group of works in which Tolstoy explained his religious views.

Brief Facts on The Death of Ivan Ilych

  • Date of writing: 1884-1886 (Tolstoy worked on his masterpiece over a two-year span and made numerous references to the composition of it in his correspondence)
  • Date of publication: 1886
  • Language: Russian
  • Best-known English translation: by Aylmer Maude; the translation used in this discussion guide
  • Approximate number of pages: 60
  • Format: 12 chapters (representing a symbolic completeness, corresponding to how Ivan’s life ended in such a way that “what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly”)
  • Genres: novella (short fiction, but longer than a short story); realism; satire; semi-autobiographical fiction (inasmuch as the spiritual progress of the protagonist is modeled on the spiritual conversion of the author); the literature of dying
  • Setting of the action: multiple, inasmuch as the story encompasses the entire life of the protagonist, but mainly St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia in Tolstoy’s day
  • Chronology of the plot: the story begins with the death of the protagonist at the age of 45 and then (starting with chapter 2) moves back to the beginning of Ivan’s life
  • Style: simple and matter-of-fact prose (reminiscent of biblical narrative)
  • Point of view: the story is told by a reliable narrator who knows everything (including what characters are thinking) and relentlessly forces us as readers to get beneath the surface level of life
  • Inferred purpose of Tolstoy: to jolt readers out of living by the shallow norms of modern society and to lead them to face the serious and unavoidable issues of life and death
  • Double plot: the story of external action (the level at which most characters in the story live) and the story of Ivan’s internal life

Mirror of Modern Life

The Death of Ivan Ilych is a picture of the values by which many (and perhaps most) people live. It is a life without meaning. We need to note a great divide that runs through the story, however. With two exceptions, the characters who inhabit the world of the story are content with the trivial and materialistic life. This includes Ivan before he injured himself and embarked on the process of dying. But the story also pictures an alternative to life without meaning. As a result of his suffering, Ivan repudiates the values of materialism to embrace something more human, more moral, and more spiritual. The ultimate breakthrough comes when he is converted on his deathbed.

One of the great strengths of this story is its satiric portrayal and exposé of modern life. The features of modern society that we confront as we read include the following:

  • the triviality of the things that occupy people’s daily lives
  • preoccupation with material things
  • worship of success and prosperity
  • social climbing
  • careerism
  • self-centeredness
  • breakdown of families
  • social conformity
  • sexual permissiveness
  • denial of death
  • trust in medical technology, and a sense of betrayal when doctors cannot heal a patient

The mere portrayal of these familiar facets of modern life would itself be powerful and convicting, but Tolstoy’s master stroke is his narrator. The narrator describes external and internal events in such a way as to heap scorn on the spectacle of living by the norms listed above. One of the best tips for reading is thus to regard the narrator’s voice as a helpful tour guide that prompts us to respond correctly to the data that is presented.

Death Is Announced

This discussion guide will divide the story into three disproportionate units. This week’s posting will limit itself to the opening chapter. There is no reason not to read more than the opening chapter in connection with this week’s posting, since the opening chapter achieves its full meaning when we have the whole story in our awareness.

Tolstoy himself highlighted the opening chapter as a freestanding unit by devoting it to the death of Ivan Ilych and the responses this death elicits (and fails to elicit) in Ivan’s family and colleagues. Only afterward does Tolstoy take us to the beginning Ivan’s life. It is as though we cannot understand Ivan’s life without first understanding his death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying correctly observes that structurally this story privileges Ivan’s death over his life. By the time we end the story, this perspective will seem entirely logical to us.

Additionally, the opening chapter is the portal through which we enter story, so we should view it as our introduction to what will follow. One commentator claims that as a prelude to the story, the first chapter is designed in such a way as to implicate the reader in sharing the wrong responses made by the characters in the story.

Plot summary of chapter 1: During an interval in a trial in the law courts, someone announces to the assembled lawyers that their colleague Ivan Ilych has died. Immediately the colleagues begin thinking in terms of how the death will benefit their career climb, and then they take stock of the tiresome demands of visiting the widow to pay their condolences. We make the visit to the widow with a specific colleague named Peter Ivanovich. During his visit, Peter learns the details about Ivan’s suffering and death. Yet he manages to distance himself from everything that might bring him to perception, including an awareness that death will come to him, too. All responses (including the widow’s) remain on the surface level, and Peter leaves feeling lucky when he gets to his scheduled card game only a little late.

Narrative World of the Story

We need to begin by accepting that Tolstoy intended something definite by rearranging the chronology of his story in such a way as to begin with the last event in Ivan’s life, namely, his death. One commentator believes this strategy puts us as readers into the story. As various characters respond to the death, we share their inner thoughts. Those thoughts are selfish, unfeeling, distanced, death-denying. We are right there to share Peter Ivanovich’s irritation at the inconvenience of a colleague’s death.

The opening pages of any fictional story are designed to initiate us into the narrative world that we enter when we commit ourselves to read the story. There can be no doubt that this is what Tolstoy accomplishes by beginning with the announcement of Ivan Ilych’s death. Merely by recording what characters thought by way of response to Ivan’s death, Tolstoy has plunged us into the world of the story by a kind of shorthand method. Our response to what we observe is double—shock at the attitudes displayed in various characters and at the same time awareness that these are the same thoughts to which we are at least tempted when confronted with the inconvenience and demands occasioned by someone’s death. This story is like the Bible in its manner of convicting us.

For reflection or discussion: Since this is our initiation into the world of the story, we need to note the essential features of that world. What leaps out most obviously? How do the features of modern life listed above already establish themselves in our awareness? How do your own experiences and observations confirm the accuracy of the portrait that chapter 1 paints? Taken a step further, how does the narrator’s voice get us to evaluate these features? At what points in the account are we particularly aware of the shallowness and deceitfulness of social conventions?

Foreshadowing Things to Come

Initiation is one of the two main items of narrative business that Tolstoy achieves in his opening chapter. The other is a skillfully managed strategy of foreshadowing. The opening chapter is a “teaser” that makes us curious about the rest of the story. Four things in particular are foreshadowed.

The first is embodied in a statement that describes the look on the face of the deceased Ivan: “The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.” We will not learn what this means until the last chapter, where even the word rightly will explode with meaning. What is here a foreshadowing will be echoed in our memory when this key sentence is explained.

A second piece of foreshadowing is the information that the widow imparts to Peter Ivanovich regarding Ivan’s suffering. We learn that Ivan’s suffering was so terrible that he screamed for (a symbolic) three days before his death. Again we are teased into wanting more information.

Third, the ease with which Peter Ivanovich and Ivan’s widow manage to sidestep the reality of death foreshadows a leading motif in the story as a whole. In the opening chapter, Peter is only momentarily struck by the possibility that what had happened to Ivan Ilych could happen to him. The widow’s response to Ivan’s suffering is the self-centered statement, “I cannot understand how I bore it.”

Finally, in view of what we later come to know about Ivan’s servant, Gerasim, we can view our introduction to him in the opening chapter as a foreshadowing. As Gerasim performs his servant’s duties, we catch a glimpse of someone who understands what is happening in life. In contrast to Peter’s and the widow’s denial of death, Gerasim says forthrightly that death “is God’s will. We shall all come to it some day.”

For reflection or discussion: The skillful use of foreshadowing in chapter 1 is something that subsequent chapters will bring to fruition. Other techniques, though, can be relished in the opening chapter itself. For example, part of the triumph of this novella is its exploiting the literary technique of realism. Writers of realism love the apparently random and trivial detail that make a story lifelike. The pouffe [cushioned chair or couch] with its unwieldy springs takes on a life of its own in the scene set in Ivan’s house. What other realistic touches strike you as cleverly managed by Tolstoy? More generally, knowing that Tolstoy worked on this 60-page novella for two years, what evidence do you see of careful craftsmanship?

Summary: The opening chapter is a detailed dramatization of how the death of Ivan Ilych fails to affect his family and acquaintances. By contrast, the story will eventually record how the death does affect Ivan. The story as a whole is arranged in such a way as to encourage us as readers to share Ivan’s insight into suffering and death, and to rise above the imperceptiveness of his (and our) society.

Searching for Gospel-Centered Theology Before the Reformation

In recent years there has been a marked movement of evangelical converts to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This trend has included not just younger, untrained evangelicals, but established pastors and professors and even one president of the Evangelical Theological Society. While the causes for this phenomenon are doubtless complex and different in each individual case, one frequently cited reason is the sense of historical rootedness these traditions offer. Thus at the website Why I’m Catholic, one former Baptist chronicles his conversion to Roman Catholicism in terms of his parallel discovery of church history; at Called to Communion, one former Presbyterian equates his acceptance of Roman Catholicism with an acceptance of “historic Christianity”; and at Journey to Orthodoxy, one former Anglican describes how blessed he feels to be worshiping in direct succession with the apostles through the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox church.

Within Protestantism also there’s a migration toward more historically rooted traditions (especially Anglicanism, the so-called via media) and more liturgical, historically conscious expressions of worship and spirituality. For devotional reading, most of my younger Protestant friends love Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ but wouldn’t be caught dead with a John Eldredge book. Hymn writing is on the rise, and many evangelicals are suddenly interested in the liturgical calendar.

What’s causing this shift? While leaving room for the complex theological issues inevitably at play, I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We’re aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it’s driving many of us out of evangelicalism.

At 29 years old, I can relate to this feeling of being lost in the world without a context by which to interpret it. But I don’t think we need to abandon evangelicalism to find a sense of historical placement. In fact, I believe this thirst for rootedness can be fully satisfied within a Protestant and evangelical framework. You can be catholic without becoming Catholic, and orthodox without becoming Orthodox. As we promote “gospel-centered ministry for the next generation,” we must make clear there’s nothing inconsistent with being both evangelical and ancient, “gospel centered” and “historically rooted.” The reason is simple: gospel-centeredness is itself historically rooted. In fact, it’s as ancient as the gospel itself.

Evangelicals and Pre-Reformation Church History

How many Christians between the apostle John and Martin Luther do you think today’s average American evangelical can name? It seems we contemporary evangelicals have a tendency to neglect this span of church history, acting as if the important stuff basically skipped from the 1st to the 16th century. Yes, we acknowledge the importance of Augustine (especially his Confessions). And there were some key battles about Christology and Trinitarianism early on, and some courageous martyrs somewhere back there, too. Sometimes we’ll even enjoy a John Chrysostom sermon or Bernard of Clairvaux poem. But all too often we give the impression that our real tradition is roughly 500 years old—with a few scattered precursors, perhaps—rather than one solid, 2,000-year-old tradition. And there are huge stretches of time to which we have no conscious connection. What would it have been like to be a Christian in the 9th century, for example? Did gospel-centeredness (the reality, not the word) exist then? How does the ministry approach we champion today relate to the entire history of the church?

If we contemporary Protestants have sometimes failed to explore these questions, it isn’t an error we learned from the first Protestants. Nor is it intrinsic to Protestantism. In fact, the Reformers took pains to emphasize they were seeking to reform the church, not recreate it, and that the true gospel had never entirely vanished from the earth. Even the most strident critics of Roman Catholic theology (like Luther, or later Turretin) insisted that during seasons of great corruption and decadence God had always preserved a regenerate people (though Luther, in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, speculated that at times it had perhaps dwindled down to a few maidservants). And when Roman Catholic theologians appealed to Augustine and the church fathers to vindicate the tenets of the Counter-Reformation, John Calvin didn’t respond by saying, “Who cares about Augustine and the fathers? They’re nothing.” Instead he became a diligent student of the church fathers, seeking to establish points of continuity between Reformation theology and patristic theology. Sola scriptura meant Scripture alone is the supreme authority—not that Scripture alone is valuable.

Owning the Family Photo Album

I’m a Protestant, and I believe Reformation theology protects the gospel. But I also believe it’s possible to be robustly Protestant and vitally connected to, say, medieval Christianity. The church didn’t completely sink during the eras of castles and cathedrals, monks and monasteries, bows and arrows, and knights in shining armor—only to suddenly re-emerge with Luther’s 95 theses. No, there’s a solid and steady chunk of Christianity subsisting right alongside Caedmon and Charlemagne and Chaucer. And since through many advances and retreats, corruptions and renewals, Jesus has always been building his church (Matt. 16:18; cf. Isa. 42:4), we can stand to learn from medieval theology. It can serve as a resource for ministry in our post-Christian, wandering culture.

To be sure, it’s possible—and dangerous—to so emphasize “mere Christianity” that we lose our Protestant distinctives. But it’s also possible to so bask in our particular denominational enclave that we lose touch with the entire Christian tradition. We contemporary Protestants need a balanced historical identity. We need to engage with both the last 500 years and also the previous 1,500, recognizing areas of discontinuity as well as encouraging points of overlap. As an African Christian in the patristic era remarked, “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself.”

I think this statement captures exactly what our attitude should be in engaging pre-Reformation church history: this is part of my heritage, my identity. The image I think of is a family photo album. In any such album there may be pictures that embarrass us, and we may be more proud to be related to one great uncle than to another. But warts, blemishes, and all, my family is still my family—and it would be foolish to cut myself off. After all, I wouldn’t even be here without them.

Where to Begin?

If we want to increase our awareness of our pre-Reformation roots, where should we begin? The first six chapters of Mark Noll’s Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity serve a great starting point in terms of secondary literature, but let me here mention three primary texts. These are all classic works of theology I believe deserve a wider readership among contemporary Protestants.

1. Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy

Despite being one of the most influential books throughout church history, this work has been almost forgotten in recent centuries. Of it C. S. Lewis remarked: “Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. . . . To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.” Written in alternating poetry and prose while Boethius was awaiting execution in AD 524, The Consolation explores themes of suffering and divine providence. Boethius’s treatment of the classic difficulty of divine foreknowledge and human free will in Book 5 alone makes the volume worth reading.

2. Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule

Calvin called Gregory (c. 540-604) the last good pope. This book is a classic of pastoral theology; every minister should consider reading it. Gregory’s thesis is that pastoral ministry requires a delicate balance of inner and outer qualities—theory and practice, contemplation and activity, administration and asceticism, otherworldly holiness and earthly wisdom. This is a helpful reminder since pastors tend to gravitate toward one of these realms more than the other. A good edition can be found in St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Popular Patristics series, which in general is a great resource for becoming acquainted with early Christian thought.

3. Anselm’s Proslogion

Although famous for its “ontological argument” for God’s existence, this volume’s rich theology and impassioned prayers make it a nourishing and edifying read as well. My doctoral research concerns St. Anselm’s doctrine of heaven in chapters 24-25, and my delight and amazement with this book is the chief cause of this article. If anyone doubts the value of reading pre-Reformation theology, all I can say is, find a good translation of the first chapter of Proslogion, and tolle lege!

Prodigal Grace for a Dying Pastor

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 149-215 of Gilead. See also:


One of the great loves of Robert Boughton’s life—and also his greatest grief—is his son Jack. Here Gilead author Marilynne Robinson views a familiar character-type from a fresh vantage point. We do not see the prodigal son from the perspective of his father, but of his father’s best friend. John Ames, too, has a fatherly role in Jack’s life (the young man is his godson), but he stands more in the position of the older brother (see Luke 15:11ff.). Ames describes himself as the good son who never left his father’s house, “one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained” (see Luke 15:7).

The Older Brother

Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Ames resents Jack’s careless immorality. “I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment,” he says, “without ever giving anyone any grounds for hope.” For as long as Ames can remember, there has been something “devilish” about the boy’s petty thefts and other sly transgressions. His juvenile pranks were not fun-loving, but mean-spirited.

But Jack’s greatest sin of all was to father the child of a poor country girl out of wedlock, and then to neglect the child, who died of a common infection. The guilty charity of the rest of the Boughton family came too late to save her. “It was just terrible what happened to her,” Ames says, “and that’s a fact.”

At one level, the Reverend Ames believes that “the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression.” This principle is deeply rooted in Robinson’s own commitment to Calvinism, as expressed through her essays in The Death of Adam (New York: Picador, 2000) and other places. She writes, “We are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace.”

John Ames believes in sin and grace as much as Robinson does. He believes further that Boughton’s love for his wayward son—”the most beloved”—exemplifies Christ-like compassion. Yet he is also angered by the extravagance of his friend’s fatherly affection, which he regards as overindulgence.

Given the chance, Boughton would pardon every last one of his son’s transgressions, past, present, and future. Ames finds it hard not to resent this grace, even though he knows his feelings are at odds with his theology:

I have said at least once a week my whole adult life that there is an absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving. Still, when I see this same disjunction between human parents and children, it always irritates me.

Ames’s struggle to reconcile the true gravity of human sin with the free grace of God’s forgiveness is complicated by his unique role in Jack’s life. The boy was born long before Ames had a son of his own, and as a gift of Christian friendship, Boughton named him John Ames. Jack is Ames’s namesake, his alter ego; indeed, he is “another self, a more cherished self.”

Yet when Ames performed Jack’s baptism, he found his heart strangely cold towards the child. To his own guilt and shame, he has always found it hard to love his godson the way that his friend intended, or the way he knows a godly pastor should. He regards his namesake as possibly dangerous (where will Jack’s growing friendship with Lila and Robby lead?) and probably dishonorable—someone who will “never really repent and never really reform.”

“I don’t forgive him,” Ames says. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

The Younger Brother

Like the Reverend Ames, Jack Boughton fears that he is beyond forgiveness. Although he is an agnostic (“a state of categorical unbelief,” he calls it: “I don’t even believe God doesn’t exist”), Jack still wonders whether there is any grace for him. This is the personal issue that lies behind the philosophical question he asks about predestination in one of the book’s central dialogues: “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?”

Ames and Boughton both err in taking this question as primarily theological rather than intensely pastoral. But Jack is really asking about himself: can he be saved, or is he beyond any hope of redemption? Surprisingly, it is Lila—not the ministers—who understands the real question and gives the most helpful response: “A person can change. Everything can change.”

The Father’s Blessing

If the Reverend Ames fails to give Jack the spiritual help he needs, it is not without misgivings. He believes he is called to save the prodigal son and give him grace, that “ecstatic fire,” but he is struggling within his soul: “I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor.”

Ames begins to wish that somehow he could make up for the boy’s cold baptism, that he could “put my hand on his brow and calm away all the guilt.” Given the circumstances, he does the only thing he knows how to do and prays for Jack, asking God for the wisdom to care for him as a good shepherd.

These prayers are answered in the novel’s climactic scene, which brings the balm to Gilead. After revealing that he has a “colored” wife and son, Jack decides to leave Gilead for good, even though it means abandoning his father in his dying days—a sin Ames knows that “only his father would forgive him for.” The Reverend Ames meets Jack at the bus station and asks to bless him, to pray for God’s protection and pronounce a final benediction: “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.”

These are loving words of the prodigal grace that God lavishes on all his prodigal sons. They are words of blessing for both men—for John Ames as well as John Ames Boughton, the Older Brother and the Younger Brother. For the Reverend Ames to utter these words on behalf of his namesake is worth seminary and ordination and all his years in ministry. It is also the final preparation he needs to die a peaceable death.

For reflection or discussion: All of the father-son relationships in Gilead are marked by some form of estrangement or abandonment. According to the Reverend Ames, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” This is true for Ames himself, whose father cannot understand why he stays in Gilead, and whose son is too young to comprehend most of what his father wants to communicate.

How has your relationship with your father (or some other family member) hindered your spiritual progress or helped you understand the grace of God? How can a father lavish grace on his children without excusing their sins or becoming overindulgent? Who are some of the prodigal sons and daughters on your prayer list? Where have you seen God’s grace at work to restore children who have wandered away from him?

Dying with a Quiet Heart

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 217-247 of GileadSee also:


From the beginning of his letter, John Ames has known that soon he will have to leave behind his church, his family, and his life itself. Marilynne Robinson deftly shows us signs of the patriarch’s imminent mortality, through his growing need for sleep, through other physical symptoms, and through the solicitous concern of people waiting for him to die. Ames has even begun to write his funeral sermon, hoping to save old Boughton the trouble.

With death approaching, Ames reminisces about the past, which he describes honestly and poignantly without lapsing into undue sentimentality. He speaks of his love for his wife, the gracious gift of a son, and many other pleasures, including the joys and blessings of pastoral ministry. “Oh, I will miss the world!” he says. “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration,” as the “Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance.”

The Reverend Ames also has more than a few regrets, as any minister does—”the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many.” He often wonders whether any of his sermons “were worth anything” and fears that he has been “boring a lot of people for a long time.” He wishes, in fact, that his old sermon notes (an image of his own mortality) will be burned. He has often “known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view.”

Ames also regrets his failure, at times, to offer the best spiritual counsel: “I still wake up at night, thinking, That’s what I should have said!” But his biggest regret, by far, is to leave behind his wife and son. Sadly, he will not be able to provide for their needs, or to share life with them as they grow up and grow old.

The Last Testament

In dealing with these regrets, Ames sees two choices: “(1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord.” Hoping to die “with a quiet heart,” he chooses to place his ministry, his family, and his own life into God’s hands. Rather than foolishly imagining that his congregation will be unable to manage without him, he preaches that Christ himself will be the pastor of his people. As for his son, he practices what he earlier preached from the story of Abraham and Ishmael, that “any father must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God.”

Thus ends the life of a faithful minister, who tried to keep the gospel before him as a standard for life and preaching, and who remained loyal to his calling in a single church for nearly 50 years. Gilead is the town where he was born, and also the town from which he will leave for home. “I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love,” Ames writes near the end of his letter. “I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.”

After that final conflagration, there will still be more stories to tell. Robinson uses a beautiful analogy to describe the narratives of the life to come: “In eternity this world will be Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

For reflection or discussion: Christ calls every one of his followers not simply to live well, but also to die well, with “a quiet heart.” Who are the pastors, ministry leaders, and other Christian servants that you have seen finish strong in life and ministry? What habits or commitments enabled them to persevere? In what ways are you passing on a legacy of faith to others? How are you preparing to finish well? 

The Challenges Every Pastor Faces

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 86 to 149 of Gilead. See also:


One of Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary accomplishments in Gilead is to establish, as a woman, a plausible narrative voice for a man. Further, as a layperson, she manages to capture with remarkable authenticity the interior life of a man who serves in pastoral ministry.

The Reverend Ames is honest about the challenges of ministry, familiar to any pastor. He complains about church meetings (“just a few people came, and absolutely nothing was accomplished”). He confesses how hard it is to love his sheep (“After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it”).

At the same time, Ames knows that his parishioners treat him differently, giving him more respect than he deserves—a “kindly imagining” that is hard for him to disillusion. He also laments the relentless approach of next week’s sermon (“it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night. You just finish preparing for one week and it’s already the next week”).

The Difference a Minister Makes

With these inevitable challenges come many opportunities for personal ministry. The same people who suddenly change the subject when they see the minister coming, Ames says, will “come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things”—the dread, the guilt, and the loneliness that lie under the surface of life.

In each pastoral encounter, Ames has sought to discern what the Lord is asking of him “in this moment, in this situation.” Even if he has to deal with someone who is difficult, that person is “an emissary sent from the Lord,” who affords him “the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me.”

Over the course of a lifetime in ministry, addressing a wide range of spiritual needs, the Reverend Ames has learned that trying to prove the existence of God is an ineffective strategy for dealing with spiritual doubt. “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense,” he believes. In fact, “the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it” because “there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.”

He has also learned how to answer the questions that people have thought about the torment of hell, which he believes the Bible characterizes primarily as separation from God: “If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”

Ames has also learned the value of friendship for ministry. He is blessed to have Robert Boughton as his oldest, dearest friend and closest colleague in ministry. Having grown up together in Gilead, the two men now serve as pastors of the town’s leading churches. They do not work in isolation, but share ideas, discuss their sermons, and pray for one another’s families.

For reflection or discussion: What are the hardest challenges you face as you serve God in the church? What are the most important lessons that you have learned about ministry—the first lessons you would pass along to someone who is just starting out? What are the most common questions that people ask about God? How have you learned to answer them, or not to answer them? What patterns of relationship and accountability support your ministry? What relationships do you still need to put into place?

Positive Portrayal of the Pastorate

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading 39 to 86 of Gilead. See also:


Gilead is an epistolary novel, written by a pastor in his 70s to a son who is too young to receive all the wisdom an old man wants to share. So the Reverend Ames writes his son a long letter that includes important episodes in family history, summaries of important sermons, practical admonitions for daily life, digressions on topics of theological interest, and many expressions of personal affection.

Ames writes to share with the young son of his old age “things I would have told you if you had grown up with me,” with the goal of leaving “a reasonably candid testament to my better self.”

The minister is not without his faults, of course, including some he openly acknowledges (like his covetousness, or his difficulties in loving the people he is called to pastor), and some that are apparent only to the reader (his racism, for example, as revealed in his casual dismissal of a black congregation that left Gilead after its building was damaged by arson).

But Ames also bears witness to his “better self.” He is an admirable man whose ministry upholds many of the highest ideals of gospel ministry. Thus Gilead presents one of the more positive portrayals of pastoral ministry in literature.

Ministry and the Means of Grace

Ames’s pastorate is a ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. He views ministry first in terms of preaching. Early in the novel we learn that he has kept all of his old sermon notes up in the attic. “Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes,” he says. Ames estimates that at a rate of at least 50 sermons a year for 45 years, there must be 2,250 sermons in all. Written out in full, they amount to more than 67,000 pages, which he guesses is as much as Augustine or Calvin wrote. With a sense of legitimate satisfaction, not ungodly pride, Ames can testify that each of these sermons was preached with genuine conviction, for he believed that “a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation.”

At appropriate points in his letter, the minister recounts the main argument from one of his sermons. From these homiletical digests, we sense his relish for working with the details of a biblical text, as well as his tendency to interpret Scripture partly through the lens of experience and reflection.

Ames is a minister of the sacrament as well as the Word. His sense of sacramental mystery was awakened in childhood when his father brought him an ash-covered biscuit out of the ruins of a church that had been struck by lightning—an incident he regards as his first communion. He later came to regard the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a witness to the unity of the body of Christ, showing that the church anywhere is part of the church everywhere. Since he has spent virtually his whole life in a cultural backwater, his experience of the church is sheltered and parochial . . . “unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, as I deeply believe.”

Images of baptism recur throughout Gilead. Water itself seems miraculous to Ames, and key episodes in the novel occur while it is raining, or with some other glistening affusion. Ames remembers the baptism of Lila, who later became his wife, with a sense of mystery and sacred wonder (“What have I done? What does it mean?”). He also remembers the many newborns he baptized, “that feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand—how I have loved this life.” He regards baptism as a real blessing, in which water establishes an electric connection between the pastor and his parishioner, operating as “a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”

Pastor at Prayer

As much as anything else, Ames’s ministry is a life of prayer. “I pray all the time,” he claims, and this proves not to be an idle boast. Gilead is suffused with petitionary prayer. Pastoring through two World Wars and one Great Depression, Ames often prayed over the “dreadful things” his people were facing. Various sections of the letter end by mentioning matters that call for more prayer, and the minister sometimes leaves off his letter writing to go and pray.

At night Ames walks the streets of Gilead and prays for people in their homes: “I’d imagine peace they didn’t expect and couldn’t account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I’d go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight.” The pastor’s prayers are a means of grace for the people of God. His last words (also the closing line of the novel), form an appropriate epitaph: “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

For reflection or discussion: The Word, the sacraments, and prayer are fundamental to the ministry of any church. What relative priority do these practices have in your own congregation? What experiences in life or worship have helped you come to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? How has participation in ministry helped you grow in the life of prayer?

Getting the Gist of Gilead

Editors’ Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken’s first installment, “A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry.” This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 17 to 39 of Gilead.


The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943), is a richly textured exploration of family life and pastoral ministry in small town America.  Here are a few basic facts about the book:

Publication date: 2004

Genres/categories: fictional autobiography, epistolary novel, small town fiction, farewell address, sermon, fatherly instruction, diary or journal

Setting: Gilead, Iowa, in the summer of 1956; most of the action occurs in the manse of the town’s Congregational church

Main characters:  John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister who has stayed in his hometown for virtually his entire life; Ames’s young wife, Lila, whom he married in later years, and their 6-year old son, Robby; Ames’s best friend, Robert Boughton, who is the pastor of Gilead’s Presbyterian church; Boughton’s beloved son and Ames’s namesake, John Ames Boughton, the antihero whose failings and spiritual struggles occasion most of the book’s central conflicts

Companion novel: in 2008 Marilynne Robinson published Home, which tells about many of the same events from the perspective of John Ames Boughton’s sister, Glory

Plot Synopsis

At age 76, the Reverend John Ames III knows his heart is failing. Anxious to pass on a legacy of faith to his only son—a legacy his son is too young to receive—Ames begins to “write his begats” and to recount lessons learned from a life in ministry. His genealogy includes a fiery, visionary abolitionist preacher (Ames’s grandfather), a pacifist minister who rebelled against his father’s militant Christianity (Ames’s father), and a brilliant scholar whose theology was liberalized by graduate studies in Germany (Ames’s brother Edward).

The family history is overtaken by the unexpected arrival of John Ames Boughton, age 43, who has been away from Gilead for 20 years. Jack, as he is called, is the proverbial prodigal son (also Ames’s godson). Though loved beyond anything he deserves, Jack has humiliated his family in the past by (among other things) fathering the child of a local farm girl.

Jack Boughton returns to Gilead with another secret, which he discloses only to Ames: a common-law wife and son (“colored”) in Mississippi. Ames wrestles with his aggravation over Jack’s misconduct and with his own sense of guilt for not loving his godson or giving him the pastoral direction he needs and almost seems to desire. Does God still have grace for this wayward son?

Ways of Reading Gilead

As mentioned before, this series takes a thematic approach to Gilead. Rather than working sequentially and systematically through the book, future installments will briefly explore some of its central themes.

At this early stage, it may be helpful to suggest several different ways of reading Gilead. The novel is partly the story of a November/May romance between an aging minister and a much younger woman who wanders into his church and then into his heart. It is also the story of a father’s love for his only son, who is still too young to understand everything he needs to know about life. Then, too, it is a story about growing old and dying, leaving family behind for the glory beyond.

At a broader level, Robinson’s book can also be read as an imaginative retelling of the history of Protestant Christianity in the United States, with members of the Ames family standing in for major traditions and character types of American religion after the Puritans. The blazing, one-eyed, gun-toting abolitionist John Ames is a visionary prophet in the tradition of John Brown, preaching the sons of his church off to fight for the Union, and then after the Civil War proclaiming the righteous purity of their sacrifice. His namesake becomes a pacifist, claiming that fighting such wars has “nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing.”

The oldest son of the next generation is named “Edwards,” after America’s greatest theologian (Jonathan Edwards). But he drops the terminal “s” in college, a small but telling indication that he is moving farther away from Puritan theology. Edward goes to study theology in Gottingen, where he falls under the sway of liberalism and abandons Christian orthodoxy. As a matter of conscience, Edward cannot even say grace at the family dinner table when he returns home for vacation.

The son who remains at home all his life—at home both in the humble town of Gilead and in the practice of old-time Protestant religion—is the Reverend John Ames, III. Though he is well aware of various intellectual attacks against Christianity, he steadfastly perseveres to the end of his ministry, leaving behind a legacy of faith. Writing with a constant awareness of his own mortality, in Gilead Ames says farewell to the life, the family, and the ministry he loves.