This book dug up a lot of feelings, so get ready for a bit of autobiography.
I grew up religious in the evangelical persuasion. For many years, until my early 20s, I was a True Believer: pious, traditional, and convinced that we were both right and righteous. I memorized all the verses to all the hymns. I read theology books way past my grade level. I studied the minor prophets. I was the AWANA poster child.
And then I grew up a little and started learning how to see the gray between the black and white, started realizing that many of my former heroes were little more than charlatans, and that many things I’d been taught were the gospel truth simply couldn’t survive the light of day or the scrutiny of reason. I grew increasingly disgusted with politicians masquerading as men of God–and vice versa–because it was so obviously the opposite of what I had been taught and what I loved. The shift in the culture was gradual, sure, but I witnessed it first-hand. Why did they make us memorize the fruit of the spirit when all these Great Christian Politicians so rarely display them? When did the sermons about battles and “culture wars” start outnumbering the sermons about patience and kindness? At what point did “modesty” stop referring to wealth and start referring to skirt length? I can’t tell you a date, but I remember a time before the conversation changed. (At least, in my little corner of the world!)
Long story short: my straight and narrow path got broader and windier and I struggled, and still do, to hold on to that deep sense of mystery, reverence, and thoughtfulness that I remember from the religion of my youth. I only occasionally call myself a Christian. Many people who seemed to love this book and recommended it to me grew up in similar environments, so I expected this to be a sort of well-written musings about the nature of God or something, perhaps something written to convince the wanderer to wander right back into the fold.
Instead, unlike any other book I can think of, it somehow stirred up that old, deep sense of mystery. It was like catching a whiff of my mother’s perfume, or coming across an old photo I’d forgotten about. It was a little bit alarming.
This is not a plot-driven book, so the premise is basic: John Ames, an old preacher with a heart condition, knows his time on this earth is coming to an end, so he writes a series of letters about his life and his family’s history for his seven-year-old son to read when he’s grown.
Our narrator is rather plodding, as I suppose you are allowed to be when you’re 70, recounting his life and times and the family history that his son will carry on: his grandfather’s and father’s falling out over the rightness/righteousness of war, his decision to stay in Gilead and preach, his musings on how many thousands of sermons he’s preached in his life, and their effect on his small congregation. His recollection of meeting and loving his wife, the joys and hardships of having a child in old age, the bitterness of his namesake’s poor decisions, his struggles with forgiveness and charity, his constant prayer and solid faith. And his subtle refrain throughout the story: life is a priceless gift; beauty is all around you; kindness and love can change lives.
I can see how someone wouldn’t enjoy this book. It’s a bit rambling. The narrator repeats himself and spends a lot of time in his own head. The “hook” is sometimes hard to find, and sometimes hard to remember. But I loved it because the tone, the words, the pensiveness reminded me of my very youthful faith: difficult, mysterious, persistent, hardy, thirsty, and, most of all, real.
It was like a delicious minty sorbet palate cleanser after a steady diet of Pat Robertson hamburgers.