Listen To Article

My last post about the minister in film and fiction really sparked some interest. Thanks to everyone for your suggestions – we all have a lot more books to read and movies to watch! I’ll devote this post yet to the topic before returning in the future to my usual fare. Let’s just call it the return of the repressed English major long harbored in a historian’s soul.

A number of you recommended Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series, and if I could throw all other considerations to the winds, we would devote the whole course to those six novels. Their length and thematic weight would make for one intense January of reading, but Howatch’s interweaving of theology, history, psychology, and church politics in the lives of vividly realized characters is unparalleled in my experience. As I read Howatch back when, I recognized people from my own life, and I was so glad she brought the greedier ones to shame—and the good ones, like your humble author, to their due reward.

I’d like to read through the Starbridge series again, but my wife, in downsizing our possessions for moving to a smaller house, Marie-Kondo’d my copies to a thrift store. To spark my own joy, I’ve turned to a (pale) American version of Howatch, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mystery-adventure-romance series starring Episcopal rector Clare Ferguson and sheriff Russ Van Alstyne in an upstate New York town. I admit to reading all eight of these titles twice, maybe because that cost less effort than reading through Howatch’s six just once. But if Spencer-Fleming offers up thinner fare, she does move her plots right along. Alas, plot developments aren’t integrated very deeply into everyday clerical life beyond tiresome committee meetings and come-to-Jesus (sort of) sessions between Clare and the bishop’s watchdog. She is great with church staff and on hospital visits, but I’d like to watch her prep and preach a sermon. How Calvinist of me….

Recommendations from you that I’m definitely going to take up. (1) Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. Loved it as a mystery but the priest’s role didn’t really register the first time; good excuse to read it again. (2) I’ve always meant to get to Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine: Communist cloaked as Catholic priest living out the true message of the gospel—an interesting proposal. (3) I am reconsidering using Endo’s Silence, but the book, not the film. Repeat: the movie is just too bleak. (4) Speaking of silence, Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede sounds compelling—convent life against the backdrop of England passing through no end of turbulence post-World War II. (5) Yes to women clergy on the American side; my current front-runner is Margaret Bonner in Gail Godwin’s Evensong. Bonner is an Episcopal priest up in the Carolina mountains who is circled by three other ministers, one of them a self-appointed female evangelist who is bedeviling (be-angeling?) the town. (6) On the Canadian side, it was Sinclair Ross (not Lewis) who, in As for Me and My House, wrote up the other side of prairie religion than the one popularized by Garrison Keillor. Yes, (7) the course does have one slot for small-town comedy orbiting around the faithful pastor’s service—perhaps the second installment in Jan Karon’s Mitford series. Finally, (8) thanks for the titles set in the majority world—an embarrassment of riches.

My quest has taken me to the library as well, there to find a whole shelf of relevant secondary works. You can read analyses of clergy in the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen or George Eliot, of the various “religious” in The Canterbury Tales, of pastors in male-authored African-American fiction, and of The Wayward Preacher in the Literature of African American Women. Little did I know (as first-year history students like to write) before delving into this topic that there exists a whole literature centered on First Ladies of African-American churches done wrong by their too-charismatic pastor husbands. Just enter “African American clergy fiction” on Amazon and spiral down the “customers also bought” rabbit hole. This particular genre appears to be of classic bodice-ripper quality, but that’s not the only reason not to assign an example to a largely white group of students. The more complex weave of Ernest Gaines’s In My Father’s House will do instead.

Perhaps due to the solemnity of their subject, scholars have come up with nifty titles for their work. An Eerdmans anthology presents its characters as Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Perverse, while a study of “the minister in Southern fiction” is entitled Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves. The table of contents therein lays out a very useful menu of representative types: one chapter each for the minster as preacher, evangelist, pastor, priest, prophet, and member of the community; another for the combination of con-man, seducer, and thief; another on the array of church politician, institutional salesman, and company manager; and one more for the misfit and mystic. That does about cover the waterfront.

Speaking of covering the waterfront, I’ve come upon two books that try to give an overview of the field in a manner accessible for general readers. (We’re talking strictly clergy and religious professionals here. For more general religious themes and characters on the movie side, you can’t go wrong with Roy Anker’s penetrating essays on individual works in Catching Light and Of Pilgrims and Fire.) Pastors in the Classics comes from evangelical Chicago-land, having been co-authored by Wheaton College president Philip Ryken, his father Leland Ryken, long-time professor or English there, and Todd Wilson, a pastor in Oak Park. The book’s purpose, as its subtitle indicates, is to teach “timeless lessons on life and ministry from world literature,” and its exposition along with its questions for discussion do take care to mark out the straight path which white evangelicals ought to walk. Among the twelve novels chosen for close scrutiny, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country is the sole entry to feature a cleric of color. Better diversity shows up in the 50+ works that get thumbnail sketches. If Anglo-American classics dominate both lists and the tone is a bit prim at times, the book often enough takes the reader below the surface of things into some real insights and nuance.

I was hopeful that way about The Collar by Sue Sorensen, which branches out beyond fiction to cover film and television series as well. The author offers a promising typology: on the upside, the minister as hero and sufferer, counselor and confessor, and crime detective; on the downside (all her labels): passion, failure, disaster, and frustration. Sorensen typically treats a half dozen works under each heading with a dozen more individual pieces featured in “interludes” between chapters. She has a bonus chapter each on Canadian subjects and clergy wives and daughters. The book balances nicely between breadth of coverage and depth of analysis, but two brief allusions make me uneasy about its quality. Sorensen “hesitatingly” describes Howatch’s Starbridge series as “clever but disturbing novels” that might amount to “clergy porn”—but then again, she’s not been able to get through more than one of them! Then there’s her dismissal of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Minister’s Wooing, one of the ablest explorations of Edwardsean theology ever written, as “overcooked nonsense.” Perhaps this author is the intellectual lightweight? Nice catalog, anyway.

Ok, enough. I’ll try to get back to being a historian next time, having enjoyed this foray into literature under my guild’s license to colonize the materials of every other discipline. It takes us servants of the real queen of the sciences to bring the most out of them, no?

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.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply