“The ministers of recent fiction are the groping, fallible, doubting men …”

During the twentieth century the image of the clergyman in fiction has changed. Once seen as a crusader, he has now become a doubter. Once a comforter, he is now an accommodator. His problems have changed from external ones involving society at large to internal conflicts of values and belief.

In his wide-ranging study entitled The Failure of Theology in Modern Literature, John Killinger observes that the clergy, “far from standing like lonely figures in the ship’s prow, have tended to be found in far greater abundance on the poop deck.” And perhaps to a certain extent—in The Mackerel Plaza, for example, or earlier on an even more crass level in Elmer Gantry—his caricature has been valid. Further, such debunking extends to Casey in The Grapes of Wrath and to Brush in Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination.

Several recent works have broadened this view. While they have not attempted to restore the minister to the prow supposedly commanded by his Victorian grandfather—that would be artistically dishonest—at least they portray him as a fighting man. Yet it is an inner anguish rather than an outside secular force that drives him so hard. He suffers everything from doubt and self-delusion to constipation and spinal decay, and he is never sure enough of his own position to be able to lead anyone else to glory along the paths of righteousness. Tension, not triumph, is his hallmark.

Struggling, yet also soiled, neurotic, and ultimately ineffective—this is the way modern authors tend to portray the man of the cloth. There are exceptions, of course, such as formula stories like The Stained Glass Jungle, sentimental novels like In His Steps, and the products of Roman Catholic novelists like Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor. But the following four books—three novels and a play—may be considered representative of the trend of dozens of portraits of the clerical character.

Holy Masquerade portrays a pastor who is obviously contemporary. His problems are set in the world that surrounds us all. The Spire reveals a cathedral dean whose conflicts are current though his disguise is medieval. Symbolized in his struggle is the unending battle within man’s own nature. Luther interprets a real historical character through the psychological point of view of the twentieth century. The distance between the monk of Reformation history and the man of the Broadway play is a good gauge of how far the clergyman has come in the fiction of the last several generations. And The Last Temptation of Christ gives us “the ultimate clergyman” in the person of Jesus himself, again as viewed through the screen of a modern consciousness that cannot endorse orthodoxy as the answer to the problem of belief. In all four cases the “minister” is shaped out of the clay of daily life and revealed as a man like other men.

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The center of their common problem lies in the question that Klara Svenson, wife of a Swedish pastor, presses on her indecisive husband in the moving but little-known Holy Masquerade (for an excerpt from this book, see the December 3 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY). “Would you be different,” she asks, “if you were not a Christian?” Instead of answering, he argues that this is “not relevant” to their theological argument (“but his face got red and he spilled ashes on the floor”), and he counterattacks by charging her with having the sort of romantic nature that refuses to confront the moral ambiguities of modern life. We soon learn, though, that even with all the jargon-studded intellectual skirmishes he stumbles through, his own brand of Christianity never approaches the power and excitement of the New Testament Church, and that in its failure to be relevant to his own experience it has thrown him into the organizational whirlpool whose end is spiritual and moral annihilation.

Olov Hartman’s indictment here follows a trail that was blazed many years ago and is now well worn. Earlier writers have often portrayed the clergy as “businessmen with apostolic credentials” like Albert, who is more devoted to preparing records for “the Central Statistical Bureau” than to praying with a dying woman afraid to face the prospects of hell. And the guilt of pulpit politics that makes our ministers “veer in the opposite direction” when they “feel heat” has similarly become an all-too-familiar tale.

As we read the jottings of Klara’s Lenten diary, we feel a fresh anguish with one yearning to see the Word made flesh, asking the Church to give her something “to believe in or doubt in”—but at least something definite. But the only answer the compromising Albert can show her is his own hypocrisy as an “ordinary” man having “to live and teach like a spiritually minded person.” He hasn’t even the vigorous honesty of Eccles, the minister in John Updike’s Rabbit Run, who with all of his doubts is still on a valid search and “wants to be told … that he’s not lying to all those people every Sunday.”

Mirrored in the deterioration of the Svensons’ marriage as well as in Klara’s mind is what she calls the schizophrenia of the Church—its holy masquerade. Neither cold nor hot, its nominal sort of Christianity is an odd mixture of sacred trappings over a secular base. And it offers no one any assurance, since “first there must be clarity; otherwise comfort is of no avail.”

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In the “theological fog” that obscures Pastor Svenson’s life and spreads to envelop his entire rural parish, Christianity is ineffective because it is hollow. Doubt has replaced faith in the minister’s study and cold form has replaced holy fire in the sanctuary. It is ironic that the only time the church becomes “fired up,” the entire empty structure is reduced to ashes.

Less modern in its setting but more inclusive in the force of its theme is William Golding’s The Spire. None of his five novels has drawn a specific portrait of our times; yet like each one before it, this latest work reveals unavoidable moral implications for its characters. In it Golding turns to a cathedral in medieval England (the town is historically Salisbury) whose dean, an intricately developed character named Jocelin, has seen a vision: he must erect a four-hundred foot spire atop his church as a visible monument to God, “since the children of men require a thing to look at.”

In spite of the uncertain footing below, little by little the spire climbs. Yet not all is being done to the glory of God. On the contrary, the rising tower destroys immeasurably more than it creates. From the very beginning the services of the church are disrupted by dust and dirt and the profanity of the workmen, until finally they are discontinued entirely. In place of worship comes chaos: the disintegration of an old friendship between Jocelin and his confessor, the horrors of violent death, the profaning of the cathedral halls into a house of adultery. “Only the alehouses prospered.”

True, the growing spire seems for a time to be achieving some good. If nothing else, it is a visible signpost whose presence changes the wagon routes men have taken across the hills for generations in their trips to town. Yet it never really penetrates deeply enough to straighten the paths of any of their lives, and at best its benefits are superficial. It is simply “Jocelin’s folly.”

Ever upward, meanwhile, climbs the needle of the spire until finally it reaches its peak. It sways in the winds of the storms and makes the pillars supporting it bend and “sing” with its weight—but it stands. Yet by the end of the novel even Jocelin, by this time physically broken and mentally delirious, expects it to crash down at any moment to destroy the church and all that lies in its shadow. With difficulty he asks, “Fallen?” and the answer comes back quietly, “Not yet.”

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It might have seemed better if the spire had fallen, for then at least there would have been the finality of a fruitless vision. Hartman, for example, gives us a church in ruins as poetic justice for its pastor’s failings. But Golding leaves us instead with a monument to destruction—a destruction all the more poignant because we have participated in its development. We have climbed the tower ladders with the hod-carriers and wiped the dust from our eyes and faces. We have doubted with the builders and hoped with Jocelin. But ultimately we have seen our faith dried up. We have seen that the dean himself—even more than his church—was without any real supporting foundation. Observing the human ruin that accompanies his grand vision, we question the divinity of his inspiration and agree ruefully as he confesses, “I injure everyone I touch, particularly those I love.”

Man is depraved; this has been Golding’s recurring thesis ever since Lord of the Flies. But where does such a person turn? The Church has all the evils of men, including in its clergy an inordinately huge measure of pride. (One is reminded, too, that those who fall into savagery in his earliest novel are choirboys.) “Say what you like; he’s proud,” remarks one of the deacons about Jocelin. “And ignorant,” adds another. But “he thinks he is a saint!” This is his predicament and the theme of the novel. The corrosive pride of a man who begins by thinking he is doing God’s work culminates in the ruin of himself and those about him. Early in the book he says, “I am about my Father’s business,” and Golding writes that in the closing moment “the final tremor of his lips … might be interpreted as a cry of God! God! God!” But there is no record in the text that he ever receives any reply of assurance before he dies, a broken spirit.

Still more provocative, and more compelling as a literary work, is John Osborne’s brilliant drama Luther. There is no fable here; the man on the stage is real, his agonizing unmistakable. But the Luther of the play is far removed from the Dr. Luther who influenced more people across Europe than any other modern man except perhaps Karl Marx.

Without apology, history has been distorted. Yet Osborne’s Luther is not an ideal to be worshiped by Protestants, not an abstract to be studied by Catholics, not just a name to be remembered by historians. Instead he is a genius who is never sure of himself, a man tormented and tortured, often wracked with physical pain, more than slightly neurotic, and always bothered by extreme constipation. True, he is courageous and brilliant, but he reveals neither nobility nor grace. Nor certainty.

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Acts I and II move from the noisy showmanship of Tetzel’s sale of indulgences (“I can even pardon you for sins you haven’t committed, but which, however, you intend to commit!”) to Luther’s savage ridicule of fake relics (“empty things for empty men”). And there is the strong scene at the Diet of Worms where Luther makes his famous speech: “I cannot and will not recant.… Here I stand; God help me; I can do no more. Amen.”

But the concluding and disquieting focus of the play shifts away from the fiery Luther in his pulpit to the tender and domestic Luther in his home. He is no longer the man who defied kings and popes. The first clash of the Reformation is over and a new Germany has been created. But inside him there is no change; nothing has been resolved. Luther is still uncertain, and in a scene where an old friend asks him, “Were you sure?” he answers, weakly, “No.”

In the final lines he is talking of heaven to his young son and reading the promises of the New Testament. Yet the best he can say—and on this note the curtain falls—is, “Let’s just hope so.…” There is hope, but even for Martin Luther, the great catalyst of reformation, there is no final certainty. Nor was there any for Jocelin, dean of an English cathedral, or for Albert, pastor of a Swedish church.

Listen to the music the orchestra has been playing. “Ein’ feste Burg.…” How false the words sound after seeing the doubts of their actor-author. “God’s truth abideth still.…” Perhaps for the hymnwriter in 1529, but not for the contemporary Luther on a New York stage. “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.…” Almost an epitaph for Jocelin. “And He must win the battle.…” Well, maybe in sixteenth-century Germany, but not today.

In three works we have seen torment unresolved and Christianity ineffective. Each clergyman, unable to sink the taproot of his own faith, is unable to meet the needs of others. Svenson destroys a marriage and ignores a congregation. Jocelin defiles a church to build his dreams in discord and distress. And Luther cannot offer even his small child more than an uncertain hope. Supernaturalism is gone, and in its place is an earthbound tragic struggle for God.

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It is against such a background that we now see Jesus, the man of Nazareth. Far from the description of the Scriptures and even farther from the pious image that he has sometimes been given, Kazantzakis’s Jesus knows the fires of lust and the chokings of doubt. “I am wrestling,” the youthful carpenter cries out. He is compelled by temptations—to be a man like other men, to withdraw into spiritual isolation, “to settle down to a life of happiness with his beloved Mary Magdalene,” to abandon his struggle with God. There is grandeur in his battle between flesh and spirit, and his representation of the human predicament is vivid and intense. But it is not so easy to say he is sacred or a part of the Godhead.

Such a portrait is, clearly enough, a heresy to the orthodox, who have opposed it as “blasphemous” and “a mass of monstrous distortions.” Yet the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is at least in part the victor where each of the men considered before has been a failure. The reasons are simple and direct: Jesus took the long road all the way to the Cross; the others stopped short. Jesus conquered his doubts; the others yielded to theirs, or were consumed by them, or were blocked by them.

Kazantzakis explains that he wrote this book “because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles. I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, or death—because all three can be conquered; all three have been conquered.” Yet these very same words help to explain why such a Jesus has not satisfied the struggle of those clergymen whom we have already seen. As the novelist himself points out, this Jesus is “a model who blazes our trail,” not the saving Christ. He cannot offer the promise of abundant life to any who would call themselves Christian, since in his final act he loses his own life. For though he dies on the Cross “because he loves the whole world,” we come to the end of the last page before the Resurrection is reached. We are left viewing a dead man instead of a risen Lord.

“Behold, old things have passed away and all things are become new,” says the New Testament text. And so it is with the fictional ministers of the Church. The old faith in a supernatural and redemptive Saviour is gone, and with it the dogmatic certainty and the old victory. In place of the affirmation of the past, however, is a struggle to find a new validity and a contemporary relevance in the example of the man who said, “I am the way.… Follow me.”

The ministers of recent fiction are the groping, fallible, doubting men of the twentieth century—men in the midst of the modern predicament. Their problems are those of an age of secularism and science that seeks a new Reformation on its own terms. Thus far, however, their search has not been very successful. They continue on as divines in doubt.

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