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Monday, April 28, 2008

RevGalBookPals: The Testament of Gideon Mack

The subject of this month’s book discussion is The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, and your hosts for today’s discussion are Presbyterian Gal and Quotidian Grace.

Gideon Mack is a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian in the US) pastor who doesn't believe in God. His "testament" recounts his troubled life and ultimate encounter with the Devil, who rescued him from what should have been a fatal accident.

The novel has several memorable and well-drawn characters including Gideon's stern minister father, his abjectly subservient mother, his good friend and fellow atheist Catherine Craigie whose funeral service featured the Mexican song La Cucaracha, his friend and fellow minister Lorna who suffers unrequited love for Gideon, and of course the Devil himself dressed in black slacks and black polo shirt.

Although the story takes a very long time to get to Gideon’s accident and meeting with the devil, we found ourselves caught up in the tale from the beginning: how he grew up, came to be a minister without believing in God, met his wife and loved her friend more, and his friendship with Catherine and Lorna. James Robertson created a character who was so, by nature, unlikeable, then wrote about him sympathetically enough for the reader to like him.

Fractured relationships are one of the themes of the novel. His interactions with his mom and dad and the various characters important to him explained his disconnect with God. Though we wished the story included more of his conversations with the devil, which were thought-provoking.

What I (Presbyterian Gal) found most compelling about the book is how Gideon Mack loved those around him in spite of the profoundly compromised relationships they had. And at the end, when it turns out he may have lied in his own manuscript (regarding the affair with Elsie), the final message of the book for me, is driven home, which I liken to the last stanza of my personal all time favorite song: “Life is but a dream”.

While I (Quotidian Grace) was impressed with the way James Robertson explores the difference between faith and belief, salvation and redemption, and revelation and madness in the story.

And now it’s time for your opinion! Here are a few questions to get the discussion started:

~Did you like Gideon Mack?

~Did you identify with any of the characters?

~What did you find to be Gideon’s most defining moment?

~If you were in Gideon’s “trainers” (shoes), what would you have asked the devil?

~Where do you think Gideon disappeared to in the end?

~ How believable did you find the character of the Devil?

~ What was your response to the Devil’s “healing” of Gideon’s broken leg?

~Did Robertson’s portrayal of the Devil remind you of other depictions of the Devil in literature?

~What does the novel say about Christianity in Scotland, and do you see any similarity with between the Church of Scotland and Christian denominations in the United States?

Add your thoughts on these questions, or make any other comment you would like about the book in the comments! We look forward to checking in on the discussion throughout the day.


  1. Confession time. I ordered this book. It arrived - but it's buried somewhere (I expect) under my thesis and I haven't read it.

    and I'm cross with myself and feel I let you down too.

    I will read it though - and actually I've been wondering if it's good to have questions like these a week or so before we actually discuss the book because it gives us a kick up the backside to dust down the book.

    I love the idea of Rev Gals discussing books and I really don't know why I've found it so hard recently.

    sorry again :(

  2. Lorna,

    Thanks for your thoughts. You make a good point and I'll take it back to the board and RGBP contributors.

    We knew a number of people ordered the book, or had it on their sidebars as something they were reading, so we expected some discussion.

    But maybe there needs to be a reminder a week in advance as you suggest.

  3. Well, please remember that even those leading the discussions are volunteers. I know that I haven't always been in a position to post questions in advance, for instance, so that would knock me out of leading a discussion. I must apologize for the fact that this month's discussion is not listed in the sidebar. I thought I had updated but apparently had not.
    Mea culpa.

  4. And I brought the most delicious donuts!

    Oh well.

    It was a really good book. Thought provoking in addition to being a well written and developed story.

  5. I only just got this from the library (had to wait for it...) so haven't read it yet. I'm lame and I apologize. But it sounds so great from the questions QG and Presbygal posted that I am picking it up next!

  6. The donuts were delicious, PG!

    But now it's five o'clock somewhere (like here) and so I'm popping the cork on an unpretentious but delicious little pinot noir.

    Join me?


  7. And here it's now 4:15 PDT. Just the right time for a toast!

  8. ok, here's my story. I've been sick so far twice since about Easter. I had to speed read our church book club book (Atonement), and my plan was to speedread this one (finish) after that. and I just couldn't get done. And this morning I thought, I'll speedread finish today! and still....

    but I am liking it so far, and I'm just having a hard time pacing myself...

    I agree with songbird that posting questions in advance would be hard, since everyone is a volunteer.

    And I can't use the excuse that I didn't know, although it did sneak up on me, I didn't get the book as soon as I should have.

  9. oh, and like lorna, I do like the idea, and I'm just having a hard time pacing myself lately...

    also, I do need to get the books from the Library more often

  10. I read it! I just haven't been over here all day. (Can you FEATURE it!?)

    I loved Gideon. I loved the way he did Catherine's funeral as she wished. I was distressed for him not to believe in God. I kept thinking the Devil would turn out to be God in the end. But, no.

    I was troubled by the book and put it away. Re-read it a few weeks later. Books that trouble me are some of the best ones. I am still working on it.

  11. I read the book a few months ago and found it to be disturbing, but memorable. I loaned it to my son, who liked it, but I've never gotten it back to refresh my memory. I thought it was funny when he was told that God hadn't been seen for awhile. Though I don't believe that either.

  12. I am so sorry, I meant to get in on this discussion, however life has a way of getting your way sometimes.

    None the less, I am here now. When I first started reading the book, I wasn't sure I would or could read it all the way through. I thought you all had made a mistake or something in choosing it. I found myself feeling repulsed and yet drawn to it. I couldn't put it down even though there were times I thought, i am just going to quit reading it. I was angry, offended, and provoked.

    On to your questions. I did not like Gideon Mack in the long run. And yet I was drawn to his charachter and could identify with him.

    Defining moment? How about moments. His life with his mom and dad defined him, and that moment of being caught lying and his father forced him to watch tv. There are more.

    I think he jumped.

    I am going to have to stop now and come back later to finish this. I am too tired right now.

  13. I too had hoped to share in a discussion of this book. I have been carrying it around for 3 weeks, but never made it further than 100 pages in because of a heavy workload this month.
    So far, I think it was a great pick, and I will finish it.

  14. "Well, please remember that even those leading the discussions are volunteers."

    point taken.


    it seems from the comments that a few of us will only now start reading the book so the questions here have given us that kick up the backside :)

    - may I make a suggestion? Could we get back to this discussion in a few weeks? (grin) ... (reading the book is probably the main point of this RevGals feature - but that said - the discussions have been great earlier and the few comments from people who have read the book have really got me wondering about it!)

    if we continue to discuss this in a few weeks... the rest of us might have caught up by then.

    (wondering - technically - could the post -with comments - be reposted then ?- otherwise it's buried deep within the archives!)

    Anyway I'm ptting the book high on my TBR (to be read) pile ...

    and invite you all to rejoice with me -I'm skipping off to get my thesis bound today. And tomorrow's a holiday - yippee :)

    Thanks to all who host the book discussions! I have really enjoyed them so far - even when I haven't read the book - because hearing the different insights and opinions is a lot of fun! (and eye opening) and what's more I've really enjoyed seeing what books have been chosen.

    Lorna xx

  15. Lorna, maybe we can put a link to this discussion. I thought I would get back to the discussion, but work has happened.

    I do want to say, I am going to recommend this to my clergy peers, and DS's and Bishop. I think we all come into ministry with some doubts, and lots of questions and unsurity. But what happens when we don't have faith? How is it we become then "blind guides". How is it when we have no one to share with or explore those doubts with that we get stuck? We never take that leap of faith. There are times I still have questions or get sent into the depths of the faith struggle. Where do I come out? Where do I stand? I can only imagine that with Gideon Mack, that he saw God like his dad, and even his dad as God. His leap of faith was after the one sure thing, the one light of grace, the one who loved him even though he didn't let himself love her. Too bad he lept to the wrong person. It frankly could happen to any of us.

    It is a phenomenal book, worth reading. I was surprised. More later. I think having this has been a plus to the revgalblogpals, and even if I don't get the book done or join in discussion, I have it in my to be read file too. Thanks to our volunteers.


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