Tuesday, September 25, 2007

God Drunk

The novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is pretty great. (She also wrote one of my other favorite novels: Housekeeping.)

The voice in Gilead is wonderfully convincing. The narrator is a minister in his 70’s who’s got a bad heart and is writing to his 7 year old son who will never probably be able to know his father really, know what his father was like. So the minister starts telling his life story which involves telling about his father who was also a minister and his grandfather who was also a minister, one who rode with the abolitionist John Brown. The book is a sort of history of religion in America across the last 150 years, talking about Karl Barth and Sartre, and talking about how God gave the American people visions back then to encourage us to break the chains that bound the Africans to the mud of slavery.

And this novel also gives a beautiful evocation of life in Kansas and Iowa since the middle of the 19th century. Robinson, who's from small town Idaho I believe, really knows how to write down what it's like to live the kind of quiet life you get in places like Charleston, Illinois, a town I lived in for 25 years. The minister's son in the novel is 7 years old in 1956. So, for me, there are also lots of charming moments that remind me of my growing up. The boy’s watching the Cisco Kid (one of my favorites) on a tiny TV set, going to movie theaters to see movies about US Marshalls in wide brimmed sombreros rounding up bad guys riding hard-tracking mustangs, etc. It does take me back.

I like the history and the prairieness and the popular culture references a lot, but I’m not sure what I make of the novel finally. It is so Christian, so God taken and God drunk. I figure that maybe Robinson is arguing that Christianity should return itself to the sort of humility it had at some point in the past when it was beset by existentialism. But I’m not sure if Christianity ever had that sort of humility. I know that the Catholicism I knew in the 50’s was never humble. It was pretty muscular. The Pope was a sort of ecclesiastical Uncle Sam rolling his sleeves back to punch the God-cursing Commie specter of Joe Stalin in the nose.

Are there any humble religions? I know there are humble people inside (and outside) religions, but humble religions? Self effacing religions? Head bowing religions?

I'm not sure.

(That's a picture of Marilynne Robinson back in 2005 when she won the Pulitzer for Gilead. If you want to read some reviews of the book, you can click on the link on the right margin of this page, toward the bottom.)


Manfred said...

I don't think the American people needed "visions" to realize slavery was wrong. If this guy's heart is so bad, how did he manage to have a son in his sixties?

eva said...

John, You might be interested in reading Brian McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy. His new book, Everything Must Change is out now, but I haven't read it. Anyway, it's an interesting take on where/how Christianity went wrong. Sorry I missed you when you were in town. My dad had to be taken to the hospital that day. Hope the reading went well. --Eva

John Guzlowski said...

Eva, thanks for the McLaren recommendation. I'm always interested in reading about religion.

I recently read Garry Wills's WHAT JESUS MEANT and liked reading about how he reads the New Testament. He believes it's been corrupted by various interpretors, but finally believes he has to believe in Jesus.

Here's a piece from the Publisher's Weekly blurb at the amazon site:

Christianity has been twisted and warped to such an extent that not even Jesus would recognize it now. This is Wills's thesis in his stimulating, fresh look into the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. The now-ubiquitous phrase, "What Would Jesus Do?" encouraged Wills, professor of history at Northwestern University and prolific writer on contemporary religion, to take a closer look at how the Christian message has been used and abused in recent times. Wills believes that most Christians don't understand Jesus' startlingly radical message, so they should not claim to have knowledge of how he would act today. People of all political persuasions have used Jesus' words to rationalize a domesticated, flaccid Christianity that upholds the status quo, or, worse yet, supports discrimination toward those who are on the margins. This attitude, according to Wills, completely misses the truth that Jesus "walks through social barriers and taboos as if they were cobwebs." Readers who are familiar with Wills's writing know that he is not shy about critiquing organized religion, and they will not be disappointed. Although his arguments lean toward hyperbole at times, at its core this book invites Christians toward more honest reflection on the life and message of the one they call "Savior."

John Guzlowski said...

I got this response to my remarks about religions not being humble from my Charleston, Illinois, friend Lisa Childress, and she said I could post it here:

I think maybe, in the first century after the establishment of Christianity, that the religion was humble. Certainly it was scared, since it was being persecuted. And the monastic movement of the 3rd or 4th century was an attempt to return to that beginning state of humility and prayer, which seems to me to pretty much corroborate your statement that the religion was, early on, pretty aggressive. I blame Constantine for much of this. Not for outlawing the persecution, but for making Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. It is pretty much a given that if you give power, power will be taken. After it became the emperor’s darling, Christianity became a magnet for the ambitious, who saw the way to curry favor with the Emperor.

And it’s all been downhill since. You are right that there are many humble and sincere people who practice Christianity, as there are in any religion (Islam, for example), but the power structure is corrupt. The pedophile scandals are a perfect example of the kind of decay that has set in since the beginning.

And, lest we forget, Hitler was raised Roman Catholic, at a time when the Mass was heavily anti-Semitic. So, it’s a long, sordid story. But we should remember that the people are the Church, not the hierarchy and certainly not the buildings.

Manfred said...

There's so much to be said, both for and against religion, but almost nothing can legitimately be said against people who live humble lives, always trying to be their best toward others.

Manfred said...

Spinoza was referred to as a "God intoxicated man." If religion is the opium of the masses, what is the opium of Communism? The religion of the elite?

John Guzlowski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.