The Religious and the Secular Could Be Friends

If they read Marilynne Robinsons Gilead

I hesitate to say this, not being raised to praise like this, but Robinson's novel seems wiseto me. "There is nothing more astonishing than a human face," she has Ames write: "Any human face is a claim on you because you can't help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it." (It's as if Ames were channeling Rembrandt.) On the commandment against coveting: "The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly." On the love his son has for his mother: "When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself." And of the grace of forgiveness: "To be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that wealso can forgive, restore and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves." The novel in the end is about the sacredness of the human face, of the mysteries of coveting, of the even greater mysteries of love and forgiveness. And the book's triumph is that Robinson's attitude toward her novel is like Ames' toward his narrative: "For me, writing has always felt like praying. . . . You feel like you are with someone. I feel I am with you now." Gileadis a novel of extraordinary spiritual intimacy, and that's not a red- or blue-state thing: it's an American thing that goes back to Hawthorne, Whitman and Dickinson, to Cather and Eliot. May the seeds she drops here go deep into religious and secular soil alike.

GILEAD: A NOVEL BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON; FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX. HARDCOVER, 256 PAGES, $25.

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