A couple of years ago, I read Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. I knew nothing of her work at the time--my recollection is that I selected the book at random from the "new arrivals" shelf at my local library. I loved it so much so that I emailed passionate recommendations to my family and friends, not something that I am in the practice of doing. This was strange because the book is explicitly a Christian one--the novel is in the form of a long letter written by a dying Congregationalist minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. Since I am not a Christian, I was hard put to explain my attraction to the book. In the end I put it down to my interpretation of the book as being largely about the history of white northerners' attitudes toward race--that and the fact that, as an alumnus of a congregationalist-founded college and Presbyterian Sunday School, I am familiar with and interested in the culture and theology of American Calvinism . My admiration for the book was widely shared; it won the Pulitzer Prize and our President-to-be listed it as as one his favorite books.
I've just finished reading Robinson's new novel, Home. It is also set in Gilead. And it has strong theological themes. And I love it, despite the fact that the racial/political/historical threads are much less prominent than in the earlier book.
Home is a presentation of the incidents of Gilead from another vantage point. Jack Boughton, the ne'er-do-well namesake of Gilead's narrator John Ames, has returned to town after a twenty-year absence. His father, a retired Presbyterian minister, welcomes him but cannot resist the impulse to judge him. If this brief summary brings the words "prodigal son" leaping into your consciousness, you are probably part of the audience for this book.
The novel is not particularly strong on plot, but there is a mildly surprising incident at the end. The writing is beautiful in a plain, Midwestern way that is artful without seeming self-consciously artsy. The characters are carefully drawn. The themes of family, alienation, moral responsibility, and mortality are universal, but the setting is distinctly American.
You don't need to have read Gilead to read Home, but you ought to read both because they are such good books. Home was published in the midst of the recent campaign, so I don't imagine that Barack Obama has had a chance to read it yet. I know he's busy these days, but I hope that someone will send him a copy for Christmas.