I have been part of a women’s book club for more than 20 years. It began with women from the neighborhood and, even though some of us have moved out of the original neighborhood, our group is still going strong.
Some of the women in our club are active church members, while others do not place a high priority on faith, and still others are downright antagonistic toward orthodox Christianity, especially the evangelical variety. With such diversity in faith perspectives, we tend to select more literary works of contemporary, secular fiction rather than what might be categorized as “Christian fiction.” So when I acted as the moderator on the night our book club discussed the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.
As a Christian who has read other fictional portrayals that perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Christian faith and life, I found Gilead to be a breath of fresh air. A beautifully written and critically acclaimed book, Gilead tells the story of John Ames, an elderly pastor from the small, rural town of Gilead, Iowa, who is dying from heart disease. A believable lead character who is clearly a Christian and yet who doesn’t make me cringe, John Ames has spent his whole life working out his salvation, continuing to believe and minister to his congregation with integrity even when he isn’t sure about some things. Now in his old age, he is confident enough about his relationship with God not to be afraid to leave a written legacy for his son that includes his questions and doubts.
When discussing the “matter of belief,” John advises, “Don’t look for proofs. . . .They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. . . It was Coleridge who said, ‘Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,’ or words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure the doubts and questions are your own….” Given my own Christian experience, that seems a profoundly true observation about the nature of the faith journey.
But that night, as our book club discussed the novel, some women objected—not to the style and artistry of the book, but to the overt Christian faith of the main character. Though most of them could appreciate the book’s creativity, those who were inclined to be antagonistic toward Christianity had a hard time getting past the content.
I needed to think quickly about how I would respond, not only as the discussion leader, but also as a Christian. I chose simply to talk about my personal response—how John Ames’ journey of faith rang true to my own experience—how his wonderings about life, theology, and belief felt real—how his Christian faith seemed genuine.
I don’t think anyone’s mind was changed at book club that night, but at least I knew they were reacting to a realistic portrayal of Christian faith and not a caricature. I didn’t need to be embarrassed by the book or by my faith; I simply needed to speak honestly out of my own faith experience. And I was glad to be able to do so that night at book club.