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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.
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 ).
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….
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.