Fictional preachers offer perspective on vocation

From Hazel Motes to John Ames, fictional pastors can coax and even shock Christian leaders to fresh perceptions, writes G. Lee Ramsey.

It is a line that would make many Christian leaders sit up and take notice: “If you’ve been redeemed, I wouldn’t want to be,” blurts Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood.”

Motes' pronouncement jumpstarts the imagination and causes us to take stock of our own lives. Are we skimming along the surface of Christian faithfulness and leadership? Driving on cruise control? Is there any spark within our work that makes any difference at all? As one of my students said upon first encountering Motes, “Shoot, if I was half as excited about proclaiming Jesus Christ as Hazel Motes is about denying him, my county would be on fire for the Lord!” Fictional ministers such as Motes can awaken Christian leaders to fresh perceptions of our vocations and renewed commitment to the practices that guide our work.

Some fictional pastors were created by their authors to wake up the complacent Christian leader or poke a stick in the eye of moribund institutions. Some writers, with good reason, lambaste the church and its leadership. A character Rita Mae Brown’s novel “Bingo” says, for example, “If God is so smart, you’d think he’d hire better help.” Satire has its place, reminding us of how short we fall from realizing our own ideals. Yet satire is not the only way fiction writers deal with Christian leaders.

In researching my book, “Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction,” I discovered a colorful array of characters who speak vital words to the church today. Many of the best fictional ministers are theologically savvy practitioners of Christian ministry. These include Gail Godwin’s liturgically grounded Episcopal priest, the Rev. Margaret Bonner in “Evensong;” Clyde Edgerton’s word-intoxicated Pentecostal evangelist, the Rev. L. Ray Flowers in “Lunch at the Piccadilly;” Martin Clark’s always-reforming Baptist minister, the Rev. Joel King in “Plain Heathen Mischief;” and William Hoffman’s prayerfully exasperated Presbyterian pastor in “A Question of Rain.”

When we extend the circle beyond Southern fiction, we discover the pull of clergy characters of many other writers, such as Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead” and “Home”), Alice Munro (“Pictures of the Ice”) and Tobias Wolff (“The Missing Person”). These fictional ministers come at us with such creative force and depth of perception that they coax and sometimes shock us into our own vocational skins.

Of course, fiction writers do not tell their stories primarily to instruct the church or its leaders. As artists, they write because of their own desire (some would say “calling”) to create. As writer Doris Betts says, “I am not selling God wrapped in my plain brown stories.” Fair enough.

But the novelist or short story writer who creates ministers, or who explores congregational life in fictional form, does cast light upon the character of the Christian leader and the practices that mark our work. Fiction has a moral dimension that moves beyond creativity or entertainment. As one of the 20th century’s most creative writers, John Gardner, puts it, “True art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.” When we read good fiction, just as when we read Scripture, we not only risk but hope that our encounter with the story and its characters will change us. Fiction can renew our minds, enlarge our worlds, deepen our capacities for human understanding and stir our compassion.

Recently I read a set of short stories with a group of ministers. One evening we read two stories: “The Retreat,” by Bobbie Ann Mason, and “Design,” by Richard Bausch. “The Retreat” tracks a United Methodist minister and his wife whose marriage is unraveling because the minister has become consumed by his role “like a junkie supporting a habit.”

“Design” contrasts two pastors. One is the lively, engaged Baptist minister, the Rev. Tarmigian, who has served a congregation in a small Virginia town so long that he calls himself “Reverend Fixture.” The other is the morose, self absorbed, young Catholic priest, Father Russell, who “uses his vocation as a form of refuge.”

Ten ministers in contemporary fiction

  1. Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor
  2. Byron Egan in “Yonder Stands Your Orphan” by Barry Hannah
  3. John Ames and Robert Boughton in “Gilead” and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson
  4. Alonzo Hickman in “Juneteenth” by Ralph Ellison
  5. L. Ray Flowers in “Lunch at the Piccadilly” by Clyde Edgerton
  6. Margaret Bonner in “Evensong” by Gail Godwin
  7. Phillip Martin in “In My Father’s House” by Ernest Gaines
  8. Virgil Shepherd in “Saving Grace” by Lee Smith
  9. Paul Cowan “The Sharp Teeth of Love” by Doris Betts
  10. Rev. Emmett in “Saint Maybe” by Anne Tyler

Several group members sheepishly confessed that the negative portrayals struck close to home. They admitted to hiding behind their clerical robes. Unhealthy absorption in their work eroded marital commitment. These moments of honesty among ministers are invaluable. On the other side of such truthfulness lies the possibility of change.

The conversation really caught fire when we took a look at the character of Tarmigian. Under orders from God, he lives for the sake of the community. Over the course of the story, Tarmigian shows Father Russell and the town how Christians live and die. His regular practices are simple and sustaining: daily prayer and study, physical exercise, constancy, humor, compassion, hospitality and friendship. And when death comes knocking, the minister greets it as “nothing out of the ordinary” for one who lives by the power of the resurrection.

Tarmigian radiates a humble, yet confident, image of a ministry where the grace of God shines through the cracks of life. One pastor in the reading group summed up the effect that the fictional Tarmigian was having upon us all by saying, “He helps me remember what my vocation is all about.” Imagine that.

Clergy and church leaders can speak out of novels and short stories into our real lives. They can show us “the reality of the temptations which assail the servants of God and the greatness of the grace which overcomes them,” as Horton Davies, the scholar of religious history, said years ago. Such is the power of fictional ministers, smartly imagined and artfully rendered. Like Scripture, these fictional pastors come to us as gift and invitation to grow in grace towards the fullness of the new creation offered by Jesus Christ.