(RNS) — A good pastor is hard to find — in art, at least, if not life.
From the Archbishop in Dante’s deepest circle of hell to Moliere’s titular character in “Tartuffe or The Hypocrite”; from Dostoevsky’s infamous Grand Inquisitor to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adulterous Rev. Dimmesdale; from Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins to Charlotte Bronte’s Rev. Brocklehurst; and from Harold Frederic’s Theron Ware to Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, contemptible clergymen abound in imaginative works.
Of course, it’s a long-standing truism that immoral characters are more interesting than good ones. Thus, the portrayal of a pastor or priest who is good offers a double challenge to artists. On the other hand, a bad priest or pastor can easily offer a shortcut to “interesting.”
I was reminded of this artistic challenge recently in watching the 2015 film “Little Boy,” a World War II war-drama directed by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde. The movie — which offers, among other compelling insights, a reminder to “be careful what you pray for” — is interesting (and controversial) for a number of reasons. One element of the film that struck me was the sheer goodness of the character of Father Oliver. The Catholic priest is not only kind, but he teaches (and lives) the gospel, even in the difficult circumstances of the story.
Father Oliver’s character was refreshing simply because the odds of a man of the cloth turning out to be a good guy are slim. This realization then sent me on a journey in search of the good men of the church in great art. I’m happy to report they are out there, even if one has to look for them. (Obviously, the abundance or scarcity of such characters depends a great deal upon one’s reading and viewing diet.)
The first really good minister that comes to mind (because over on Substack, I am in the middle of a series on “The Canterbury Tales”) is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parson. Among an array of colorful characters who run the gamut from noble to detestable, the Parson is, in a word, Christ-like. He stands out in sharp contrast even to the other good pilgrims because his goodness is so unadulterated. The Parson cares for his flock, acts according to the gospel he teaches, and lives a simple life lacking all riches except those of good works.
I’ve already mentioned Austen’s Mr. Collins — obsequious, mercenary and desperately seeking a wife (any eligible woman will do). Because Collins has become Exhibit A for bad clergymen, it’s only fair to turn to Austen’s exemplary men of God as counterexamples: the leading man (or one of them) of “Sense and Sensibility,” Edward Ferrars; Henry Tilney, hero of “Northanger Abbey”; and Edmund Bertram of “Mansfield Park.” (It is heartening to recall that Austen’s real-life father was an Anglican minister known for his faithful ministry. Both Austen’s satire of the church and her praise of the same were rooted in firsthand knowledge and genuine love.)
Another positive example of a clergyman, even if his appearance in the work is brief, is Herman Melville’s Father Mapple of “Moby Dick.” Early in the novel, Father Mapple delivers a prophetic (and apt) sermon based on the Book of Jonah in which he advocates for the importance of truth and the pursuit of it (as if, perhaps, truth were a great whale). Needless to say, the sermon foreshadows events to come.
G.K. Chesterton’s affable and bright Father Brown is another good priest of literature. Father Brown solves vexing crime mysteries through his common sense and knowledge of human nature, two qualities essential, really, to any minister worthy of the call.
Bishop Myriel of “Les Misérables” embodies saving grace when he not only forgives Jean Valjean — who repays the bishop’s hospitality to a stranger by stealing from him — but also covers for Valjean’s sins, an act that later bears the fruit of Valjean’s repentance and conversion.
A more complicated but clearly good priest is Sebastian Rodrigues in Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence.” A 17th-century Jesuit priest on mission in Japan, Rodrigues earnestly tries to do good and to be faithful in impossible circumstances. His ultimate decision, like the novel itself, is clouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Nevertheless, it is clear he strives for faithfulness. What is more certain in the story, through this character, is that God’s love and salvation are greater than humanity’s worst actions.
Marilynne Robinson’s Rev. John Ames, of both “Gilead” and “Lila,” has become a much-beloved (and praised) character of contemporary American fiction. Introduced first in “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, Ames is a Congregationalist minister in Iowa near the end of his life, struggling to come to terms with his family’s and his nation’s past as he writes of both in a letter to his son. Among the novel’s literary, theological and human accomplishments, its portrayal of a good, ordinary minister — and man — proves goodness can, in fact, be interesting.
It is often said that art imitates life. But the counter saying — that life imitates art — may hold more truth.
We see ourselves in art — our good sides and our bad. Negative portrayals serve to chasten and correct, for those who are willing to be chastened and corrected. Positive examples model and inspire. We need both kinds of illustrations and all the complicated ones in between.
Pastors are no exception. Those who immerse themselves in good art, film and literature can be formed toward goodness and better fulfill their callings to help form others, too.