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Where the religious and the secular swirl together

By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 247 pp., $25

''I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do," Marilynne Robinson wrote in her 1998 ''The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought." ''I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it."

And why shouldn't she hope her art will engage us? When Robinson's original and mature first book ''Housekeeping" was published in 1980, it found a vast and dedicated following eager to acknowledge it as that rarest thing: a work of inspired genius.

She has written in the intervening years two books of essays but has waited 25 years to publish another work of fiction. ''Gilead" is set as an epistolary novel written by a dying 74-year-old Congregationalist minister, John Ames. The extended letter is addressed to John Ames's son, who is turning 7, to be read as ''your begats" when this unnamed boy is older. We need also to keep in mind, however, the epistles of St. Paul, so defining of the Christian church.

The letter here attempts what may be literarily impossible, to lay out by way of a modern parable -- written in the form of a meditation or confession or sermon -- on what it is to live in a state of Christian grace. This is how John Ames views his earthly life.

Neither anger nor conflict are chords that Ames plays, and he's come to this state of grace though his marriage to the much younger (also unnamed) mother of his son. And John Ames Boughton -- the preacher's namesake and the wayward son of his friend and neighbor -- also comes to spiritual grace through marriage.

I couldn't get at the layers of this novel until I saw it in the context of Robinson's other work. In addition to the essays mentioned above, she's published ''Mother Country," on how Britain's dumping of nuclear waste is tied to the history of class prejudice in England -- a work, justifiably called a jeremiad, that won the National Book Award in 1989.

And we cannot fully appreciate how important are the tenets of faith exposed by John Ames without knowing that Robinson credits the French theologian Jean Cauvin (whom we know as John Calvin) with the invention of modern marriage. In ''The Death of Adam," Robinson shows Jean Cauvin to be the foremost prophet of humanism whose Protestant teachings against the hierarchies of the Roman church set in motion the intellectual movements that promoted widespread literacy among the middle and lower classes, led to both the American and French revolutions, and not only freed African slaves in the United States but brought about suffrage for women. It's odd then that through our culture's reverse historicism, the term ''Calvinism" has come to mean ''moralistic repression."

Indeed John Ames sounds like Marilynne Robinson the essayist, who is a practicing Congregationalist and gives sermons in her church. And Ames's life has direct parallels to that of Jean Cauvin, who -- like Ames -- lost a wife and baby in childbirth, then remained unmarried for decades. Why does any of this matter when we are trying to read her novel? Robinson -- a self-avowed contrarian -- has the habit of sending her reader to primary texts, be it scripture or the ''Institutes" of Jean Cauvin.

Ames's letter to his son also explores the historical remnants of American slavery. The book is set in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956, but the story ranges over the father and grandfather of John Ames and the history of abolition in the Midwest. Though the novel offers portraits of two sublime marriages, that of Jack Boughton is compromised by this society's inability -- nearly a hundred years after the Civil War -- to provide blacks many forms of civil equality: here the right to marry whites.

So ''Gilead's" balm works for Reverend Ames and not the prodigal son, who loves a black woman. ''A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all," John Ames writes. ''It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas {hellip} a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest. There must have been a hundred towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now."

To read ''Housekeeping," we need the Deluge of the Old Testament just as we need the apocalypse found in John's ''Revelations." For ''Gilead" we must remember Jeremiah as the prophet who rages at the Egyptians, saying they must now seek balm for their wounds in only that which truly heals. We may read this book as a sermon.

It occurs to me that the angry polemics of the books of nonfiction and the gentle instruction of John Ames have more in common with the literary tradition of Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson than of Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the young novelist who wrote ''Housekeeping."

And though this book may not appeal to all readers, American culture is enriched by having the whole range of Marilynne Robinson's work. We need to remember John Ames's teaching: that grace is to be answered with gratitude.

Jane Vandenburgh is the author of ''Failure to Zigzag" and ''The Physics of Sunset."

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