“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role?”
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, 2004
A small farm town in Iowa, like Gilead, formed in the abolitionist fever of the 1850’s, for many years would have to take care of itself. There would be no national funding for a social safety net, or even for police protection or public safety. A town like that, and most America towns were like that, would have to develop and nurture a culture of self sufficiency. People would need to be self managing, self policing, self controlling. And so they were.
In Robinson’s novel, Gilead, the character John Ames is an aging (and probably dying) minister, who, in an act of love and of responsibility, is writing for his young son, explaining himself now, while alive, so that years later, his son will have a way to know his father.
In Gilead, people try to do the right thing. They pray and suffer and carry their guilty feelings, their hopes, their jealousies, their resentments, their appreciations. They strive to understand, to forgive, to tolerate. They consult their Bible, their ministers, and their consciences. They feel small, weak, sorrowful, and proud. They suffer loss and hurt. They endure. “I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it”. In disappointing times, these are people who ask themselves: What does Jesus want me to learn from this?
In this world, Jack, the difficult and not-so-good son of another preacher in town, Robert Boughton, returns home. He brings with him the uneasy memories of his past – not uneasy for him, but uneasy for everyone else. He was a thief, he skipped school, he was devious, and mean, and it never seemed to bother him. He made a hapless girl pregnant and then abandoned her. As a forgiving christian, Jack’s preacher-father assumes that his son was ‘aggrieved’ – that he had reason for his transgressions.
A perennial user of others, Jack may be back for more. With devilish intent, he may try to insinuate himself into John Ames’ family, after John is gone. We sense that he never fully felt he had gotten the best of John Ames, and he needs to, people like him are like that. We feel uneasy, for in this town, he may pull it off. John’s wife doesn’t seem wary of him. Good people are foiled by his kind. The forgiving aren’t comfortable with anger. They avoid the resentment they feel being exploited and manipulated, and so they give berth, when they shouldn’t, and Jack Boughton will take advantage of it.
There is such a thing as no conscience at all.