Casting about for summer reading? If a work of fiction is on your summer reading list you may encounter a fictional priest, pastor or holy person in the narrative.
Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, the subject of last week’s column, is the jumping off place for this week, too. This work about vanishing village life includes an endearing portrait of the village parson:
“Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
And e’en his failings leaned to Virtues’ side;
But in his duty prompt at every call,
He watched and wept, he prayed and felt for all;
Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,
And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray
E’en children followed with endearing wile,
And plucked his gown, to share the good man’s smile.”
Goldsmith’s pastor speaks the truth with steady zeal, serves the citizens of his parish and gives no thought to promotions in the church hierarchy.
If, however, you’re looking for men of the cloth who are dastardly, confused or full of goodness in spite of themselves the choices are numerous. In his “The Diary of a Country Priest.” Georges Bernanos creates an anxious, guilty, ailing and alienated holy man. The great British novelist Graham Greene, many of whose novels are filled with musings on good, evil and the church, portrays a whiskey priest in “The Power and the Glory.” For years I made a point of reading one Graham Greene novel each year, never disappointed with the way he wrestles with the oft elusive and surprising evidence of God’s grace. Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry” may have reached the nadir of the fictional portrayal of a greedy, hypocritical clergyman beset with dreams of power and lust.
One can also find plenty of novels to balance the ledger. Author Jan Karon has written a series of immensely popular novels set in the fictional North Carolina town of Mitford and featuring a realistic portrait of a small town Episcopal priest. Victor Hugo’s immensely popular “Les Miserables” includes the masterful portrait of a noble French Catholic Bishop Bienvenue, whose goodness, mercy and forgiveness slowly transforms protagonist Jean Val Jean. Going further back one can read in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel of chivalry “Ivanhoe,” of the lusty forest monk Friar Tuck, a man endowed with enormous appetites, great strength, respect for justice and cavalier disdain towards the institutional church. One of the greatest historical novels ever written in Italy, “The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni,” is a powerful love story between the peasants Renzo and Lucia set in the 1600s with a cast of characters that includes the church and its priests painted both sympathetically and scornfully.
I have read each of the above works (except Karon) and highly recommend them all. One book I have not read is South Georgia native and United Methodist pastor G. Lee Ramsey’s “Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction.” It’s on my list and I wish I had written it. Happy reading!
Creede Hinshaw of Macon is a retired Methodist minster.