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Here’s an invitation to join in on a fun challenge—help design a new course.

Fun for me, anyway. No, it’s not fun devising all the boilerplate that’s required to send past the gatekeeper bureaucracy, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in re Student Learning Outcomes, assessment protocols (what are the first three letters of “assessment,” anyway?), entailed library resources, curricular fit and redundancy tests, etc., etc. But once all that’s done, you can think and plan, run some mind experiments, dream a little bit. It’s intellectually creative, and the one thing a teacher must absolutely have to avoid occupational death is intellectual creativity.

One of my favorite parts of this process is to come up with the reading list. This requires a lot of sleuthing around to see what books are in print, at what price, how long they run, and how that might lay up against the students’ time. Then there are the higher-level concerns about adequately serving the menu of topics the course must cover, striking a balance in voices and points of view, and including some variety in genres and format.

So here’s the challenge. What would you assign for a three-week concentrated course on “The Minister in Fiction and Film”? Your students are a group of seminarians pursuing both MDiv and ThM degrees: that is, some pre-professional, some thinking about academic careers. This being the January term, they’ll be taking just this one course but also expecting (and deserving) something different from usual heavy lifting in their theology, biblical studies, and Christian ethics courses. Same concerns but on a different approach and in a different light. Hence, taking a page from Robert Coles who taught (or tried to teach) Harvard Law and MBA students ethics via classic literature, we’ll look into the religious life, personal and professional, via films and novels.

Constraints and considerations

1. We have fifteen class days but should reserve the last for a final writing assignment and the middle day of Week 2 for a breather. Day 1 we’ll introduce the course but, there having been no assigned reading, we’ll screen and discuss a film. That leaves twelve days, so six books and six more movies, one of each every other day.
2. We need variety. First, of locales. Not too many quaint little towns with a well-esteemed pastor moving with disarming humor across challenges personal, ethical, social, institutional, and romantic. We’ll need some big-city pieces for sure. Either way, some should be set in the USA, maybe some in the UK to avail ourselves of BBC’s riches; but also—given the student body—some Korean and Chinese situations, please. Racial and gender diversity in characters and authors too. And let’s not be too presentist; some classics might help stretch minds and tastes.
3. Obviously, stories set around regular parish clergy are eligible, but so are those featuring chaplains, missionaries, monks and nuns and traveling self-appointed evangelists. Or counter-evangelists. (I’m lookin’ at you, Hazel Motes.)
4. Not too much soul-crushing heaviness, however. I spent a long grey Michigan January in college watching Bergman films. Talk about your bleak midwinter! This means that Scorcese’s Silence will not be on offer. Maybe the Endo novel on which it’s based, but probably not that either.

Ok, clear? Ready? Whaddya think?

Here’s what I have penciled in so far, with help from the truly remarkable storehouse that is the mind of fellow-Twelver Jennifer Holberg.

Films

1. The Apostle. Not least cuz it’s Robert Duvall’s life project and incredible star-turn. Some considerations of theodicy, too, with real good coming out of terrible evil. Southern, recent, Pentecostal.
2. Dead Man Walking (1995). Susan Sarandon as a nun intervening with a death-row inmate (Sean Penn). No conventional happy ending but a sere redemptive one.
3. First Reformed (2018). How can you not show a Paul Schrader Oscar nominee at a Christian Reformed school? Plus, per Schrader’s own testimony, you’re channeling the tribute that his model Robert Bresson paid in 1951 to George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest (1937). Kinda three for the price of one.
4. Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) starring Ingrid Bergman as an English woman rejected for missionary service in China who works instead at jobs of humble service, then undertakes to lead a hundred orphaned children to safety amid the Japanese invasion. Based on a real-life case, but I still want to hear her say, “Here’s looking at you, kids.” (For the cinematically illiterate, see Bogart, Humphrey, to Bergman in Casablanca [1942]).

Three more slots here. I’m thinking about the current A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Fred Rogers as America’s chaplain?); One Foot in Heaven (1941) starring Frederic March as a Midwestern Methodist pastor bounced around from town to town; Wise Blood (1979), John Huston’s production of Flannery O’Connor first novel (Hazel Motes, again); or The Preacher’s Wife (1996), starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in an African-American remake of the 1947 The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant and Loretta Young. An angel is sent down to help a New York City pastor struggling with his parish and his wife, only she finds said angel to be more than just spiritual. Maybe good comic relief on a Friday afternoon after a long week….

Suggestions?

Novels

1. Gilead (2006), by Marilynne Robinson. Probably for a Monday morning so folks have a whole weekend to savor this masterpiece sentence by sentence. Plus the author is a forthright Calvinist and a Midwesterner, like her main character.
2. The Power and the Glory (1940). Archetype of the whiskey priest doing God’s work despite himself and the hierarchy. Roman Catholic, 1930s anticlerical Mexico; British author.
3. Just read Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me (2007), following the struggles of a widowed pastor in small-town Maine. Very accessible writing that is acute on the social as well as the psychological. Too similar a situation to Gilead? Alternatively, there’s Saving Grace (1995) by Lee Smith, one of my favorite authors, but its crazy Southern Pentecostal itinerant evangelist, big on snake-handling, may be too reminiscent of Wise Blood and The Apostle.
4. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), by James Baldwin. One day in the life of a 14-year old kid trying to forge his identity in the face of an overbearing black Pentecostal preacher step-father. Heavily autobiographical depiction of Harlem in the 1930s. One of my formative college reads.
5. The Martyred (2011), by Richard Kim. An investigation of the mass murder of North Korean ministers during the Korean War starts to raise questions of whether they were indeed martyrs; opens up issues of faithfulness and truthfulness amid oppression and propaganda on all sides.

Room for one more here. Maybe a Victorian classic (The Warden, by Trollope)? One of the Canterbury Tales? Speaking of Christian Reformed, Peter DeVries’s Mackerel Plaza (1958)? But the liberal Protestantism parodied there is so passé; what we really need is a novel or film that well and truly sends up the megachurch. Know of a good one?

Little of this is set in stone, gentle reader, so please recommend substitutions as well as nominees for the empty slots. I hope you enjoy this noodling around as much as I have. And get to thinking more about the endless round of challenges, opportunities, expectations, and assumed skill set that clergy face. Maybe say thanks next Sunday.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

49 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Two of my favorites:
    Book: The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. Her depiction of an Anglican parish priest in the fen country is golden. That quite apart from all the detail on Change-Ringing, the research for which should have earned her a doctorate, one reviewer wrote.
    Movie: On the Waterfront, for the priest played by Karl Malden. Reprised, for a short scene, in the first season of the West Wing, when Karl Malden hears President Bartlet’s confession.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      I should add that in the first part of the Nine Tailors, you think the parish priest is almost silly, but during the crisis of the flood, he becomes a Noah, a savior of his people.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Having watched A River Runs Through It a second time, I am less taken with the father as a fair presentation of a Presbyterian minister.

  • Mark Ennis says:

    How about the chaplain in Casualties of War who speaks with the Michael J. Fox character?

  • Ruth says:

    How about some episodes of a TV show for one of the film slots? The Vicar of Dibley and Rev are both series set in the UK. Vicar of Dibley features a female priest in the countryside and Rev features a male priest in urban London. They both have a variety of congregants with seemingly unbelievable issues, until you listen to the true stories pastors have about situations they’ve faced.

    As an ordained woman (in the CRC), I would highly recommend that at least one selection features an ordained woman! There are not as many options, though.

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    For fun, The Vicar of Nibbleswicke by Roald Dahl.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I know it is a little outside what you are doing – but for hilarity, Auberon Waugh’s “Consider the Lilies” and “The Book of Bebb” by Buechner. Oh, and on a more serious note, how about Father Mapples in “Moby Dick”? His sermon is rich and so integrated to the story and the mood.

  • Anne Weirich says:

    I know you dismissed the quaint, but the Mitford series truly reflects the way small town rural ministry can stretch our capacity for compassion. Especially the ones wheee the clergyman embraces those difficult to love. As a small town pastor I’ve often used my memory of them as a well from which to draw patience for life in the fishbowl.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Puritan New England setting, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” comes to mind. In many ways I think he’s still an unfortunate archetype in Calvinist thought and heritage.

  • Ruth says:

    How about “Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens” (c. 1973; German Democratic Republic)? A look at the life of a Christian living in 1950 East Germany.

  • Jill Fenske says:

    Have them read Endo’s Silence. The book, as is generally the case, is better than the film. It is a book whose theme of what it looks like to be faithful in the world, and an interesting take on “contextualizing” ministry, that I return to often in my ministry. Please, please reconsider this amazing novel.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      I agree that the film severely fails the book.

      • John F Schuurman says:

        Disagree. Films adapted from books and the books they are adapted from are two very different things. The one take s 90-120 minutes the other a day or two. Silence is arguably the greatest film from one of the greatest filmmakers in cinnema. Let the movie be a movie.

        • Daniel J Meeter says:

          I understand the difference between a book and movie. That’s not why I fault the movie. I fault the movie because the lead is so weak, lacks complexity in his portrayal, and short-changes Father. His inaccurate physical appearance doesn’t help. The Grand Inquisitor was excellent, though.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country has as main character a minister seeking his lost and condemned son, and forgiveness, in apartheid-era South Africa. Strong supporting minister character also, who gives us the mantra “I am a weak and sinful man—but God has put his hand on me, that is all.” Several film editions, including one with James Earl Jones as minister and Richard Harris as a grieving father. The story was also made into a musical (!) “Lost in the Stars” (Maxwell Anderson, 1949) which had a bit of revival back in the Mandela days.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I was going to mention “Silence” too Jill. I am continually haunted by the martyrdom of the Jesuits. Glad you did.

  • Carl Fictorie says:

    Back in high school in Canada, we read a novel about a depression era preacher in a crisis of faith. I recall it being an odd read (for a teenage Dutch kid isolated in a CRC subculture), but bits stuck with me. One item that did not stick was title and author. After a little looking, I am pretty sure it was Sinclair Lewis’ “As for Me and My House”. It’s not uplifting, and as I recall there’s no miraculous turnaround at the end; which is perhaps why it has stuck with me. I suggest it partly because I remember it and it may fit your criteria, but also because it is distinctly Canadian (rural Saskatchewan).

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Oh no! I am afraid this is going to be endless. I am afraid thinking about this I won’t get any work done this morning thinking about this! That’s YOUR fault. How about John Updike, “In the Beauty of the Lilies”?

    And then there is PLatinga’s book on reading for preaching, then there is…..and then there is…..

  • From the Catholic side, you might consider, “The Devil’s Advocate” by Morris West (film adaptation 1977). Father Blaise Meredith, who is dying of cancer, is sent from Rome to Calabria to investigate claims of sainthood for Giacomo Nerone, a mysterious local hero. Father Meredith struggles to verify the legend of Nerone while forming relationships for the first time in his life, just as his life slips away. Powerful and provocative: reminding us” that goodness ultimately prevails over despair.” (reviewed by the Eastern Ave. CRC book club)

  • Michael Bootsma says:

    Glittering Images by Susan Howatch

  • Justin Vos says:

    Although bleak, “The Mission” is an interesting portrayal of colonial missionaries. Secondly, “The End of the Spear” could open up interesting conversations about evangelical missionaries in the 20th century. It also would allow for a discussion of recent evangelical film culture (pureflix etc.).

  • carl kammeraad says:

    Jim, I would surely turn to the Starbridge series, eight novels which lay bare the lives of a succession of twentieth century Anglican Clergymen, written by English author Susan Howatch. I was hooked upon reading the first one, Glittering Images, and would highly recommend that title for your course.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Highbrow: Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov. His serenity, grace, and patience while dealing with total whack-jobs sets a good example.

    Middlebrow: the conventional portrayal of Friar Tuck. Likes to have fun, drinks and eats for enjoyment, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Also, not afraid to Stick it to the Man.

    Lowbrow: Reverend Cleophus James in The Blues Brothers. Indisputably the best sixty second sermon ever. If “the jingle-jangle of a thousand lost souls” doesn’t make you see the Light, nothing will. And the resulting song (and dance) of thankfulness should be played on continuous loop at the next Calvin University Symposium of Worship.

  • carl kammeraad says:

    In addition to Susan Howatch, “Glittering Images”, how about “Father Elijah-an Apocalypse” by Michael D O’Brien. The storyline is compelling and presents a deep look into sacramental Catholicism, the human face of evil, and the Pontiff’s global authority.
    “Our hero, Father Elijah, is a Carmelite monk, his past forged in the fires of brutal suffering. As David Schafer, a holocaust survivor and promising Israeli statesman-attorney, he experiences even more tragedy. But he finds redemption in Christianity, becoming a monk and priest. He takes the name Elijah and lives a life of prayer in a monastery near Jerusalem. As the story opens he is called out of his seclusion and into the world by the Pope. His mission? To convert the President of Europe, thought to be the Anti-Christ.” a review by Christine Sunderland

  • Daniel Bos says:

    How about ” Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery” by Richard Lischer, It’s a memoir, but it reads like a novel. A newly PhD’d Lutheran goes to a small town pastorate in New Cana, Illinois. Fascinating. Raises a weeks worth of theological and pastoral questions that never come up in class with the charm and humor of Garrison Keillor.

  • Van Rathbun says:

    “The Bells of St. Mary” with Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby.
    I’d stick with Bing in “Going My Way”
    “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Clarence Odbody as the bumbling angel/pastor
    Round it off with Spencer Tracy and the ever young Mickey Rooney in the 1938 classic “Boys Town”

    • Charles Mast says:

      “All Saints” starring John Corbett and Cora Buono. Based on a true story of a white Episcopal church in Smyrna TN that was dying and was revitalized by its acceptance of Burmese Karen refugees and how together they saved the church, used its property for a truck farm that they worked together and helped the larger community accept the Karen refugees. A movie that speaks to the need for Christians to be sacrifically involved in loving and accepting the stranger and the refugee.

    • Lori Witt says:

      I second these suggestions! 🙂

  • George E says:

    Battle Hymn, 1957, Rock Hudson plays Dean Hess, the pastor turned pilot who rescued a few hundred orphans in Korea.

  • Helen P says:

    As a lay person I would suggest a gem I just saw called “Sisters of War.” It’s based on a true story of a group of Australian nuns and nurses taken prisoner by the Japanese during WWII.
    I would echo using “Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” introduced to me by my 8th grade English teacher…along with “Nine Tailors,” by Dorothy Sayers.

  • Beth Postema says:

    For your Canadian students, perhaps the 1991 film Black Robe with Lothaire Bluteau as a Jesuit missionary to the Huron?

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Lots of good ideas – impetus to reread some of these that I know and read others that I have not yet read. Nobody has yet put in a plug for Elmer Gantry (both book and film). I realize Sinclair Lewis isn’t so popular anymore but it is interesting to put his satire from the 1920’s into the context of our day.

    • Lori Witt says:

      If you used Elmer Gantry, you could even get in some discussion of the “megachurch” or televangelists, even though the book pre-dates our contemporary mega-churches and TV. His Aimee Semple McPherson-like lover has a mass following.

  • Sophie Mathonnet-Vanderwell says:

    This is not about a minster per se….but about a Benedictine prioress….but I would recommend In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.

  • RLG says:

    A great contemporary best-seller would be “Educated” by Tara Westover. It addresses the issue of freedom, whether being bound by internal chains (such as a narrow Mormon upbringing) or the external chains that can keep us from higher possibilities in life. A great read with much depth and soul searching.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’m overwhelmed by lots of great watches and reads, some of which I’ve encountered, many more I need to read. I’ll risk a side door into a critique of religion and capitalism … “There Will Be Blood.” It is a long way from whimsical, and I’m not sure I could watch it a second time after the first. I’m also not sure who comes off worse, capitalism/business or religion in making its bed with capital, but it certainly would offer a rich discussion for the modern church (in many of its forms) and our relationship to power.

  • Mike Weber says:

    How about Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. It’s not so much earth shattering but a quiet depiction of faithfulness, set in New Mexico. I also found Susan Howatch’s books excellent

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    I would suggest Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, which has a wonderful priest character and depicts quite a bit about the complications of Nigerian Christianity. Protagonist is a young girl. This is a quick, beautiful read, lots to talk about. Would fit well into your schedule.
    For pure fun and for an example of a woman clergyperson depicted, how about a mystery? The protagonist of Julia Spencer Fleming’s Claire Ferguson series is an Episcopal priest (woman) who is also a veteran. She’s a good priest AND solves murder mysteries with the police chief. Takes place in upstate New York. Fleming’s depiction of terrible weather will assure your students–in Michigan in January–that they are not alone.

  • Mike Kugler says:

    Ignazio Silone’s _Bread and Wine_ depicts an embittered Italian communist, dying of tuberculosis, returning to his wee mountain village do die. To sneak into Italy, he disguises himself as a priest. He then becomes the one authentic voice of the Gospel in a Church compromised by acquiescence to Mussolini’s regime. I teach the novel often, and it is as powerful a picture of the foolish power of the Good News as it is a critique of the Fascist state. Rolf Hochhuth’s play _The Deputy_ pits a Catholic priest against a Mengele-like character debating God’s power and mercy (and Papal complicity) in a Nazi death camp. A few years ago John Michael McDonagh directed _Calvary_, in which Brendan Gleeson plays a priest threatened with death by an unknown man who years earlier had been sexually abused by a priest. Of course there’s Miller’s _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ If you like, you can go really wacky with Park Chan-wook’s 2009 horror movie _Thirst_, about a vampiric Catholic priest.

  • Phyllis Palsma says:

    Susan Howatch’s trilogy “Glittering Images” etc. Gail Godwin – “Father Melancholy’s Daughter” and “Evensong”. As a resource, you might want to check out Douglas Alan Walrath’s book “Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction.” I attended one of his presentations on this book several years ago and remember it as fascinating and informative.

  • William Mills says:

    For a raw and real TV show depicting clergy I highly recommend “The Rev” about an Anglican vicar in East London, very raw and very real. Three seasons, Hulu I think runs it. I wish they made more seasons. The story lines are very true to life and very funny too.

  • Peter Noteboom says:

    Film: Oscar Romero

    Book: I heard the owl call my name

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    What a great course idea!

    I’d also recommend Susan Howatch’s Glittering Images and the second in the serious, Glamorous Powers. Both explore clergy self-deception.

    The Vicar of Dibley is fabulous and a light-hearted counter to some of the heavier themes.

    The priest figure in The Thornbirds still fascinates me. Obviously you can’t show all eight hours of the miniseries, and he is only one figure in the larger book. But the way he wrestles with love and power is significant.

    Two non-clergy possibilities. The movie Heartbreak Ridge is about a pacifist who served as a medic in WWII I think. He took a lot of grief and abuse for his religious beliefs. And the novel, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue was a fascinating story about an 11 year old girl who miraculously did not eat, and the priest, nun, and nurse who tried to evaluate whether this was a legitimate miracle or a scam.

    Have fun!

  • Stephen Staggs says:

    1) Natalie Zemon Davis’ WOMEN ON THE MARGINS: THREE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY LIVES (1995)

    Davis’ tells the story of three “ministers” who, in their own unique ways, spread the Good News: one, a Jew from the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony, Glikl bas Judah Leib; the second, Marie de L’Incarnation, an Ursuline nun from Tours who helped found the Ursuline Monastery of Quebec in New France and helped spread Catholicism among the Montagnais, Algonquins, Hurons, and Iroquois in New France; and, third, Maria Sibylla Merian who was born in Frankfurt in 1647. Her stepfather was a student of a still life painter who trained Merian. As an adolescent Merian began collecting insects. In 1675 Merian published her first book of natural illustrations and, four years later, published the first volume of a two-volume series on caterpillars, which included 50 plates engraved and etched by Merian. In 1685, traveled to Friesland with her mother, husband, and children and joined a Labadist community there. In 1691, Merian moved to Amsterdam with her two daughters. A year later her husband divorced her. Then, in 1699, the Amsterdam city council granted Merian permission to travel to Suriname along with her younger daughter in order to study and illustrate “new” species of insects. Six years later Merian published the METAMPORPHOSIS INSECTORUM SURINAMENSIUM (Amsterdam, 1705), which was published in Latin, Dutch, German, and French. When asked, Merian said the intent of her work was to display the majesty and creative power of the Lord to the world.

    2) Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART

    Achebe’s novel chronicles pre-colonial life in the southeastern part of what is present-day Nigeria and the subsequent arrival of the British, including two British missionaries who take different approaches in their attempts to convert the Ibo people. In so doing, Achebe challenges the racism of the “white, Western world.” What’s more, it is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It has been translated into 50 languages, sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and is widely studied around the world (Appiah, “Introduction” in EVERYMAN’S LIBRARY). In short, it should be essential reading for seminarians pursuing both MDiv and ThM degrees.

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Definitely Oscar Romero, a great movie about a great man. It’s in English, so no te preocupes/ don’t worry. The movie presents the acute dilemma of following the Gospel or appeasing a cruel and oppressive government and military. Can the Gospel ever be a-political?

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