Tag Archives: Gilead

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.

Gilead: A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry

The Gospel Coalition invites you to join Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College and Council member of TGC, in reading and discussing Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. 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, along with Kathleen Nielson on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. And if you’d like to hear more from Philip Ryken on arts and literature, join him in Orlando next month as he leads a workshop at TGC’s National Conference on “How Pastors Can Encourage Artistic Gifts.”


I can’t remember who recommended Gilead to me, but I fell in love with the book right away. It was partly the writing, of course, because Marilynne Robinson is among the world’s most gifted authors. Gilead “is so serenely beautiful,” wrote one reviewer, “and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched by grace just to read it.”

I was also captivated by the novel’s premise. Gilead is a fictional memoir in which a dying pastor writes a long epistle to his young son, telling the story of his ancestors, reflecting on his calling as a minister, and sharing the lifetime of fatherly advice he knows he will not be around to give the child he loves. The result is an intimate portrait of a life in ministry that captures the joys as well as the struggles of the pastorate.

Pastors in the Classics

Around the same time that I first read Gilead, I had lunch with a seminary student who had spent part of his summer reading novels his grandfather recommended that every young pastor should read. They were all books that featured a pastor, a priest, or a preacher as the protagonist. Elmer Gantry was on the list, I remember, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and maybe The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos.

The conversation excited me because it brought together two of my great loves in life: good literature and pastoral ministry. Quickly I started thinking of other outstanding books that fell into the same category: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene; Frederick Buechner’s Godric, John Buchan’s Witch Wood; and Shusaku Endo’s Silence. I noticed that these books came from all over the world: America, England, Scotland, France, Mexico, Japan, South Africa. I also recognized that they offered a wide variety of perspectives on the pastorate.

Soon I was dreaming about a practical course that used classics of world literature to help seminary students understand their calling to gospel ministry. What better (or more enjoyable) way to prepare for the pastorate than to read and discuss great stories from great books?

Eventually I taught my dream course to a small doctor of ministry seminar at Westminster Theological Seminary, calling it something like “Pastoral Ministry in World Literature.” Later I collaborated with my father, Leland Ryken, and my friend Todd Wilson to write a short book about some of these novels, called Pastors in the Classics.

With this short series of articles—partly drawn from my book chapter on Gilead—I return to one of my favorite novels from the list. I do so in the hope that reading this exceptional book will encourage you to read other similar books.

Ministers You Meet

It is vitally important for pastors and other Christians who serve in any form of gospel ministry to read good literature. My list of reasons for saying this is long, but here is one of the most important: great literature nourishes the soul. As Charles Osgood wrote in his book Poetry as a Means of Grace, the literature we read “extends the range of vision, intellectual, moral, spiritual; it expands the compass of our sympathy; it sharpens our discernment; it corrects our appraisal of all things.”

Great works of literature that feature pastors (or priests) as protagonists have the power to do exactly these things for people in ministry. They expand our vision of the pastorate. They raise and help us resolve moral issues that come up in the course of ministry. They grow our heart for people in need. They expose areas of temptation and even correct aspects of our ministry that are not fully pleasing to God.

Pastoral novels do all this by giving us compelling portraits of ministry through the lives of the preachers who serve as their main characters. These characters come in several main types. There are faithful shepherds—not as many as one might hope, but some. More commonly, the minister at the center of the story is an out-and-out sinner. A notable example is the preacher who commits adultery near the beginning of The Scarlet Letter. But Arthur Dimmesdale is merely the first in a long line of depraved clergy to appear in the pages of American literature. Whether greed, or lust, or hypocrisy, one can virtually trace the moral decline of American culture through the ministers that populate its literature.

Then there are the comic figures—the ministers who serve as objects of mirth. Today we are familiar with such characters from the inept, effete clergy who typically appear in movies and television sitcoms. But having fun at the expense of ministers is a longstanding tradition in American letters. A striking example from the 19th century is the fancifully named Reverend Cream Cheese (in Irving Browne’s drama Our Best Society), the lineal descendant of the French-Hugueonot preacher Crème de la Crème who succeeds Dr. Polysyllable in the pulpit!

Happily, many of the best clerical novels feature a minister in full. They portray a pastor or priest faithful to God’s call while at the same time wrestling with real issues in ministry and displaying genuine character flaws. The ministers in these novels illustrate what Barbara Brown Taylor learned from one of her mentors:

Being ordained is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly, allowing other people to learn whatever they can from watching you rise and fall. You probably won’t be much worse than other people, and you certainly won’t be any better, but you will have to let people look at you. You will have to let them see you as you are.

Getting Started

The protagonist in Gilead—the Reverend John Ames—does not serve God perfectly, but he does serve God visibly. Marilynne Robinson’s multi-dimensional portrait of this honorable minister enables us to see him as he is. We see both his passion for proclaiming the gospel and his keen disappointment in knowing that his preaching never does full justice to the Word of God. We see his kind sympathy for the people God has called him to serve, but also the deep struggle he faces in ministering to a hard-to-love, wayward parishioner. John Ames shows us, therefore, what is best and hardest in pastoral ministry.

This introduction is an invitation to learn from Ames’s life and ministry by reading Gilead, in which Marilynne Robinson gives the minister his compelling voice. In keeping with its literary form—the fictive memoir—Gilead is written without any chapters. It presents the stream of a man’s consciousness rather than a tightly constructed plot. Rather than working through Gilead sequentially or episodically, therefore, future installments will explore various themes from the novel.

The novel’s structure makes it difficult to know how to break Gilead up the reading into suitable portions. Perhaps the best suggestion for this first installment is to read at least up to page 17.  Soon you may be so captivated by Robinson’s writing that you will find it hard to put the book down.