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Vocational Wisdom in Gilead

Vocational Wisdom in Gilead: An Interview with Dr. Christina Bieber Lake and Dr. Becky Eggimann

November 7, 2017

Wheaton College has selected Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, as the Core Book this year—that is, the book we read together to “foster a shared experience across the campus community” around themes from the Christ at the Core general education curriculum. Many Wheaton professors from across the disciplines will reference or assign the book (whole or excerpts) in their classes this year, and various complementary events have been planned, including a campus visit from the author this coming spring. Opus Assistant Director Ben Norquist  recently interviewed Dr. Christina Bieber Lake, Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English, and Dr. Becky Eggimann, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair, on how Gilead speaks wisdom to our vocational lives.

BN: To get us started, what do you see as the heart of Gilead? What moment or image emerged most strongly for you as summing up the best that the story offers?

CBL:Gilead is fundamentally a story that reveals the aptness and importance of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son in all our lives. As Henri Nouwen has explained, we have all played the different roles in the parable at various times in our lives, but the point is for us to learn how to become more like the father. John Ames, the aging pastor writing a letter to his son, grows into that role even more profoundly when he is able to work through his fears and bless Jack, the prodigal son of his friend and fellow pastor, Boughton.

BE: I think that perhaps the heart of this novel is simply a life well-lived. What’s interesting is the ordinariness of that life. John Ames has lived his entire existence in the same unremarkable prairie town in an unremarkable state (apologies to Iowa) with no obvious achievements to celebrate nor reasons to take note of him at all. Yet his reflections on the world around him and the life he’s lived are so full of wisdom and unexpectedly profound truthiness that you’re almost shocked into paying attention

And paying attention is one of the themes that has been most important to me as I read Gilead. This book makes the case that one of the ways to live a good life is to pay close attention to it—that even an ordinary life is worthy of such attention. Towards the beginning of the book (p. 27-28), Ames is describing an ordinary day doing an ordinary thing—walking to work—when he was surprised by a moment of transcendent beauty.

"There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. . . . [I]t is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. . . . This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it."

This short excerpt contains, for me, a celebration of the liberal arts and is an example of how a liberal arts education can contribute to the pursuit of a good life. Within it, we find beauty (for the humanities and the arts), relationship (for the social sciences), and creation (for the natural sciences) all coming together to make a moment impossibly full of meaning, one well worth paying attention to. Take away any one element (the sun, the water, the exuberance, the feigned disgust) and the experience is less transcendent, less remarkable. But these elements, because of their sheer ordinariness, exist in everything we do, and any moment has the potential to be like this one. If we’re paying attention.

BN: What does Gilead offer us as we try to help students prepare for lives of faithfulness?

CBL: Ames is able to become more like the father in the prodigal son narrative because of a lifetime of discipline and faithfulness. His narrative teaches us how real spiritual growth takes time, commitment, and community. We cannot become like the father until we are deeply aware that we have received just as much unmerited favor as the prodigal son does in the parable.

BE: I think Gilead offers a fresh look at the goodness of God, especially his gifts of beauty and blessing, and invites us to see those gifts again in places we might have missed them. Lately, given the events of our world, it seems much easier to see all of the ways that we fail to love one another or to be overwhelmed by suffering and evil than to see the glory or goodness of God at all, let alone in our ordinary lives. This happens throughout the book, both in the relationships between the characters and in the relationship of the characters to the land they live on.

BN: The experience of aging serves as a backdrop to this story about a father sharing with his young son his accumulated wisdom for a life of meaningful service. How do you see the theme of aging interacting with that of vocation in Gilead?

BE: For starters, John Ames seems to question whether or not his life was one of meaningful service. And yet, the stories he tells—giving of himself and his possessions to help his congregation through many difficult times, listening to their stories and questions, burning a particular sermon because it wasn’t suited to his congregation at the time despite his own passionate belief in its contents, staying in Gilead when he might have left, the blessing of Jack Boughton—alongside the evidence of his legacy in the way others talk about him and interact with him, all point to the obvious conclusion that his service was very meaningful to lots of people.

For me, this raises questions of how much we can ever truly know or understand the meaning or impact of our own work. Living into a vocation seems to be very much an act of faith. We follow a calling we trust is from the Lord and do our best to remain faithful, but ultimately it is God who works in and through us and only God can really judge the meaning of our service. Our responsibility, beyond doing the best work we can, might be simply to trust that our heavenly Father, through the grace of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, will take our small, often flawed, very ordinary offerings and make them into something worthy of his kingdom.

CBL: Our culture is not particularly good at aging well, seeing the value of our elders, or even thinking about our lives as the culmination of years of tiny decisions we have made, not just momentous conversion moments. We need the slow pace of Gilead as a novel to correct that kind of thinking as much as we need the wisdom that it imparts. We will never know how much winning a small battle of faithfulness today will shape us into people who can better serve the God of love tomorrow, who can extend grace to others, who can continue to allow the Holy Spirit to shape us. 

BN: If you plan to use Gilead in your teaching this year, what pieces or aspects of the world of Gilead do you hope your students explore, and what legacy do you see Gilead leaving for them?

BE: As a scientist, the most important contribution Gilead can make to my classes is the call to pay attention and the fresh insight into the beauty and goodness of the world God made. The legacy would be, I hope, the conviction that close attention will be rewarded with new insights and moments of wonder.

CBL: I want students to understand that our Christian heritage provides an infinitely better vision for the good life than does our technologically advanced consumer culture. For Robinson, hope for human change is not found in technological solutions to problems but in the old-fashioned word “sanctification”: that John Ames would be transformed, slowly, haltingly, and imperfectly (in this life) into someone who looks more and more like Christ. The first step toward the good life is to revitalize the recognition that persons must be on the way to something.

BN: What insights in Gilead could be useful to your own vocational journey?

BE: Reading Gilead has been an experience of happy discovery and re-discovery, seeing anew, because of the ways John Ames is attentive to his world, but it has also been restorative, even peaceful, renewing my affection for God. I have been reminded of God’s presence with, provision for, and love of humanity. Ames seems to understand human life as a marvelous gift, sacred even. Here’s Ames’s take on our earthly existence (from p. 57):

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. . . . In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, the ballad they sing in the streets.

Gilead reminds me that our lives speak of God. As human beings, created in the image of God, our lives tell the story of creation, fall, and redemption over and over again. There are many ways to have a good life, John Ames says. My vocation in the sciences, with its disciplined “seeing” of the material aspects of our lives, is one of those ways.

CBL: I can’t imagine anything more important in one’s own vocational journey than truly understanding the depth of the grace of God in all our lives. He is the one who gathers up the pieces that seem to not make any sense to us at the time, and weaves them into a narrative that only he can see wholly. In my own vocation as a scholar and teacher, I had to learn that the perfect is the enemy of the good. I am one person. What God cares about is not my accomplishments but my loving faithfulness along the way. Gilead was one of the novels that helped me to really understand that truth.