Friday, 4 May 2012

God of Righteousness: How Good People Affect Us

by Marilynne Robinson

   My brother complains that I cannot like a book unless a panel of experts say it is any good. In truth, I do tend to choose the books I read according to prize-winning status. I search through printed lists from the Pulitzer, Booker, Orange, and Costa, hunting for these titles amongst the endangered shelves of local libraries. I salivate when a new shortlist comes out. Unlike the Pavlovian dog, however, my salivation has not been strengthened by regular reinforcement. I tend to find these prize-winning novels to po-mo for their own good. Occasionally though (as with last year's Booker winning The Sense of Ending by Julian Barnes), I come across something really rewarding, and none has better conditioned me than Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

     The Pulitzer prize-winning Gilead is an epic letter by John Ames, a Midwestern preacher in the last stages of his life, writing to the young offspring from his second marriage. John Ames is a good man; no question about that. He is very much a person whose life has been dedicated to Christ; he knows the value of prayer and silence. 

   Now, the question needs asking: can the life of such a good man be interesting? Normally, we fill our books and films with nasty characters who we believe are more fun, more informative, and more aesthetically pleasing. Immoralism holds that an art work's aesthetic value maybe improved by having a normally unsympathetic bad guy as a main character of a piece because the presentation of a radical different world view offers a more exciting and vivid aesthetic experience. I'd like to look at this from a moral perspective. A possible function of art is that it helps us stretch the capabilities of sympathy. If we come to sympathise with a character we normally would not feel for, then we improve our moral aptitude, as, at least in David Hume's ethics, sympathy is the moral instrument. If we can sympathise with someone, if we can feel with them, then we understand the pain of our wrong actions and, therefore, are less likely to commit such acts. One without sympathy, the psychopath, then is incapable of moral action because he cannot sense the pain or pleasure that his actions might inflict on the other. 

   How does this discussion relate to Gilead? Well, Robinson gives us the opposite from what the immoralist would call an interesting character, a highly moral protagonist. Yet this does not destroy one's interest in the book, in fact, it feels like such a new perspective in contemporary writing that its freshness is electrifying. Using immoralist aesthetics to understand this, we can say, perhaps, that the default world view of your average Western book reader might be immoral, or at least, amoral. Therefore, books with immoral/amoral characters only reinforce their world views and do not expand their aesthetic and moral horizons. A moral character, on the other hand, is different from most of the people a reader might meet, in life and in art; Ames' world view is now the more exotic. Therefore, seeing the world from Ames's perspective is a real revolution for our minds and hearts because it shows that a good saintly life is possible, something we are rarely allowed to believe these days. 

    That's not to say that John Ames is a perfect person; that's not realistic.  The most profound part of the story is his problematic relationship with his black sheep son. It's a spin on the prodigal son tale and asks, "How can we love people who fall so short of the goodness we know is in them?" What makes Ames so interesting as a character is that he is both good shepherd and pharisee. He does love, but he also judges, yet he knows his judging is not what Christ asks of him. For many a believer, this dilemma is one that is an everyday experience. 

    When thinking of my loved ones, I often say to God, "Lord, they can be so much better than this, if they let You love them. Why are they doing this to themselves?" And then I see the plank in my own eye, and I understand. But the pain of seeing our loved ones damaging themselves is, to me, almost unbearable. This is when we can understand why John Ames prays so much. We all need prayer to love properly, that's a given. Sometimes when the pain of love for imperfect people, including ourselves, is too much, we need to rest in the only love that offers us peace.

Read it if: you want to read a book with genuine insights about prayer, or if you are trying to work out how to be a good parent.

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