Halfway through Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous novel Gilead, the narrator, John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher in Iowa, makes this observation: ‘Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behaviour, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.’ It is unusual for moral responses to be set aside in favour of aesthetic ones in a theological context, especially (one might think) where the context is Calvinist. The practice is more familiar, even if it often goes unrecognized, in literature. It is, for example, one of the sustaining tensions of Tolstoy’s work – Anna concludes that Karenin is a bad man immediately after being disgusted by his clammy hand. More directly than most fiction, Gilead portrays an individual trying to make sense of his life. This might also serve as a description of the art of autobiography, and I immediately found myself applying Ames’s remark to a clutch of autobiographies I had recently read.