"Images of Protestant Clergy in American Novels”
Peter S. Raible
Berry Street Essay, 1978
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
June 19, 1978
In an opening chapter of Moby Dick, somber seamen sit in a New Bedford chapel shaped as a ship. They wait upon Father Mapple to conduct the service. This cleric is popular among seafarers because he had been a sailor before changing to the ministry. When Father Mapple appears he climbs into his stairless pulpit by means of a swinging ship’s ladder, and then once ensconced, the preacher turns round to pull the ladder into the pulpit behind him. He stands aloof and impregnable in his aerie sanctuary.
The high, set apart pulpit graphically portrays for Herman Melville the cleric’s spiritual removal from the trammel of time and the vicissitudes of the everyday events. Father Mapple proceeds to discourse on God’s judgment with the preacher as the grand spokesman for God. He is a man familiar with the sea but raised up to be an exalted, respected, fear provoking proclaimer of eternal truths, far removed from the sorry lot of the seamen on the pews below. Melville eloquently ends the description:
…for the pulpit is ever the earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear, the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrathes is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, this world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow (25, page 57).
In such lofty words Melville portrays an image of clergy which was already dying in his day. When Moby Dick appeared in the middle of the last century the Father Mapples were already antiques, relics of another day.
In the Roman Catholic tradition the priest administers the sacraments and celebrates the mass, finding prime purpose at the altar in consecrating the holy host. The Protestant Reformation demanded not priests but ministers. The minister was charged with pastoral care but his primacy in public was proclaiming God’s word. As more radical Protestant groups abandoned liturgical worship with its richness of familiar forms, prayers, art, and music, the more preaching became central.
Soon that posed the issue of what was the font of preaching. One side held for preaching founded on learning, it should grow out of the depths of study. The other side saw preaching as a stripping away process in which by fervor the Holy Spirit could become manifest. Before 1750, the emotive preacher, George Whitefield, was thundering against the educated and refined New England clergy calling them, "dumb dogs, half devils, and half beasts, spiritually blind, and leading people to hell” (quoted in 44, page 384). This division over the true nature of preaching pervades Protestantism to our day and influences sharply fictional views of clergy.
Despite this fundamental division Protestants agreed that the central meaning of ministry was not conferred by ordination. Ministry was not being consecrated into the priesthood. The pre-eminence of the Protestant minister rested upon talent, be it either in learning or in exuberance. In New England, certainly before 1750, there was no doubt that scholarship was the status symbol of the ministry. The cleric was, indeed, the parson—the person—the first and foremost individual in the community. He held sway not just because of moral leadership but even more from his superior education, study, and thinking, which made the minister uniquely qualified to instruct others how to live and what to believe. The prime instrument of instruction was the long and closely reasoned sermon coupled with the cleric’s daily moral supervision of the community.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the earliest novel about an American cleric, was written just before the middle of the last century and took as its setting Boston around 1650. Hawthorne describes a public processional and marks the place of the minister therein:
Next…came the young and eminently distinguished divine, from whose lips the religious discourse…was expected. His was the profession, at that era, in which intellectual ability displayed itself far more than in political life; for—leaving a higher motive out of the question—it offered inducements powerful enough, in the almost worshipping respect of the community, to win the most aspiring ambition into its service. Even political power…was within the grasp of a successful priest (19, page 227).
In 1859, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter and wife of ministers, followed her wildly successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, with the novel The Minister’s Wooing. She took as her setting Newport, Rhode Island, just after the American Revolution. Again, the pre-eminence of the clergy is beyond dispute. She wrote:
The Doctor though not popular indeed as a preacher, was a noted man in his age…the Doctor had decidedly a grand and imposing appearance. There was nothing common or insignificant about him. Indeed, it had been said that, when just after the declaration of peace he walked through the town in the commemorative procession side by side with General Washington, the minister, in the majesty of his gown, bands, cocked hat, and full flowing wig, was thought by many to be the most majestic and personable figure of the two. In those days the minister united in himself all those ideas of superior position and cultivation with which the theocratic system of the New England community had invested him (35, page 54).
Although before 1750 the first attacks were launched against the central role of the educated clergy of New England, it was only after 1800 that the majesty of the ministry began to tremble. In less than half a century the cleric was toppled from the throne of primacy. First, in religious practice, feeling became central. The popular faiths came to emphasize not intellectual creedal reasoning, but emotive, sensate religion. While the major locus of this revivalist faith was outside New England, the effect of evangelism were felt even there. Beyond the Hudson River rational religion made few inroads. Intellectual life moved into secular frames, away from the church, as in the popular public lecture. Romance, feeling, sentimentality became the popular culture. Thus, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Minister’s Wooing, the simpering climax comes when the learned minister foregoes his betrothal to the beautiful heroine, so that she may marry her true love, suddenly returned after being presumed dead at sea. The message is clear. Scholarship in the clergy is a fine quality, but it must give way before the romantic demands of feeling.
Second, after the American Revolution, state after state disestablished the church until the bastion of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts finally gave way in 1834. Deprived of tax revenues the clergy were suddenly thrown upon the largess of their adherents and the slow but relentless trend began whereby ministers were expected to curry and maintain favor with their parishioners. Ministers became less independent professionals and more and more the hirelings of particular parishes.
Third, the Industrial Revolution changed the mercantile and agricultural dominance of New England. The men of wealth and property came to be less and less persons of breadth, learning, and civility and more and more narrow men preoccupied with crass business matters. At the same time there came into being a feminine leisure class. Despite the manifold horrors of the industrial age for most women, a few at the apex of society were suddenly freed. For such women no longer did farm or family demand constant toil; business was now an exclusively male occupation and immigrant servants could provide for all domestic needs.
As the recent book, The Feminization of American Culture by Ann Douglas argues, the void was occupied by these newly liberated women. Cultural, literary, aesthetic pursuits became the preoccupation and exclusive sphere of privileged women, but there was one flaw. Women could not be sullied by public advocacy. They might write and edit; they might have elite social circles and parlor conversations; they might flock to lectures and broker popular taste, but they could not properly become public figures. Instead they were forced to seek out male advocates for their causes. As Ms. Douglas sums up:
These women did not hold offices or own businesses. They had little formal status in their culture, nor apparently did they seek it. They were not usually declared feminists or radical reformers. Increasingly exempt from the responsibilities of domestic industry, they were in a state of sociological transition. They comprised the bulk of educated churchgoers and the vast majority of the dependable reading public; in ever greater numbers they edited magazines and wrote books for other women like themselves. They were becoming the prime consumers of American culture. As such they exerted an enormous influence on the chief male purveyors of that culture, the liberal, literate ministers and popular writers who were being read (14, page 8).
Rather rapidly the educated clergy struck unholy bargain with feminine culture. The new woman would become the arbiter of culture, for they dominated the church, which was to become their institutional bastion from which to venture forth. The male minister was to become the mediator and purveyor of feminine needs, when a public spokesman was needed.
The pulpit instead of Melville’s "prow of the world” became transformed, so that it was instead a dingy pulled along in the wake of a bark under full sail—a feminine determined culture. The stern, judgmental, intellectual, masculine Puritan divine gave way to the image of the minister as a foppish, sentimental, aesthetic, all in all, a bit feminine. The minister could not be, Emerson wrote, "a man quite and whole” (14, page 20).
James Hosmer authored a novel, The Thinking Bayonet, in which the weak, pale, passive Unitarian minister is contrasted with the soldier hero and the dynamic heroine, who rides rough-shod over the masochistic little minister (20). The self-doubt among clergy became a recurrent theme in fictional accounts of ministry. It became popular to speak of the world as being composed of men, women, and ministers. John Updike in a recent novel has his minister protagonist reaffirm "ours is indeed a religion of women and slaves” (41, page 135).
Even as early as the middle of the last century, Henry James, Sr. could remark, "religion in the old virile sense has disappeared, and has been replaced by a feebled Unitarian sentimentality” (quoted in 14, page 17). Clergy and women could engage in the harmless activities of vapid religion and sentimental culture, safely removed from the mainstream of America, where the wheels of business churned and the clink of money clanged. On appropriate public occasions clerics as functionaries of women and culture could be trotted forth to give patriotic, literary, or religious utterance. Women and ministers might also be allowed bland efforts at social amelioration as long as the fundamental economic structures of America were not challenged.
In a short period of less than half a century the image of ministry radically changed. The parson as the pre-eminent leader gave way to ministry conceived as a refuge for ineffectuals and incompetents. The profession of ministry became a kind of spiritual House of Lords. Before 1850 William Ellery Channing complained fo ministers:
As a class, they are slow to give offense. Their temptation is to sacrifice much to win the affections of their people. Too many satisfy themselves with holding together a congregation by amenity of manners and by such compromises with prevalent evils as do not involve open criminality (6, page 373).
Emerson entered the lists to charge bitterly, "The clergy are as alike as peas. I cannot tell them apart…it is the old story again: once we had wooden chalices and golden priests, now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.” Lord Bryce upon visiting these shores noted the decline in political influence among the clergy after the Civil War (28, page 278). In 1883, President Charles Eliot of Harvard looked at his own Unitarian citadel and noted that educated men had become suspicious of the intellectual abilities of the clergy and this was, Eliot observed, "a potent cause of the decline of the ministry during the past forty years” (28, page 279).
The fictional accounts of Protestant clergy confirm this historical judgment of low opinion. A commentator notes the different view of various professions:
While modern novels give pride of place to the doctors, the scientists, the engineers, and even the civil servants of today…the Protestant minister and especially the Protestant missionary have not been treated with similar understanding (11, page 7).
A fictional minister complains, "He long since had reconciled himself to the lonesomeness of his calling, to the fact that he, as a preacher, would never be wholly accepted into the camaraderies of other men simply as a human being, a man of virtues and faults” (37, page 57). In another novel a veteran preacher warns a fledgling minister, "I’ll tell you…(men are) not quite sure which sex we belong to…They can see the preacher ain’t a woman. But he doesn’t…engage in…male pursuits. So what in thunderation is he?” (45, page 140). The best answer seems the adage that a minister is one set aside to prove by example that righteousness does not pay! Throughout American novels, since the Civil War, Protestant ministers are generally discounted. At worst they are charlatans. At mid-point they are ineffectual buffoons. At best they are rather wooden and prissy spiritual leaders. The exceptions to these portrayals are rare.
The contrast is sharp not only with other professions but also with priests and rabbis. Roman Catholic priests have long been popular subjects for fiction and rabbis are increasingly so. Priests are revealed as confronting many problems, particularly those relating to obedience to higher authority and chastity, but the issues are deemed worthy to struggle over and the priests usually come through as virile, masculine beings. Rabbis in fiction are invariably bright and sharp. They struggle with vocational issues and the pressures exerted upon them by their congregants, but the importance of their vocation seems sure and the problems they confront seem significant. In contrast, innumerable accounts of Protestant clergy suggest their basic ineptitude or turpitude. The possibilities for positive exploration remain virtually untapped. Few novels portray the Protestant minister with any depth or professional understanding. Even the fictional accounts, which treat the minister kindly, usually delineate a person either of moral sanctimoniousness or so role captured that he mouths constantly "a noise like a minister.”
Several categories come to mind of missed opportunities for novels about Protestant ministers. First, no novel centers on a Protestant cleric as a social reformer. The only exception is Truman Nelson’s novel on Theodore Parker, but that lightly disguised work is more biography than fiction (27). The involvement of ministers in radical groups, labor organizations, or the peace movement is ignored. The example fo the late socialist, Normal Thomas, who began his professional career as a minister, suggests the possibility in this area.
Second, no novel attempts any serious portrayal of a clerical character, who is female, despite the favorable fictional portrayals of Catholic nuns. A few female evangelists appear as thinly disguised characters or as laughable characters. In the case of The Miracle, Aimee Semple McPherson appears under her own name, which is about the only update over Elmer Gantry’s similar tale (31 and 22). No tale reveals the struggle of women to enter, gain acceptance, attain competence, and find different meanings in ministry. From Olympia Brown down to the newly ordained Episcopal female priests, women would provide good grist for exciting novels.
Third, American fiction ignores the black minister. The only sympathetic account is South African, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (30). In America, only James Baldwin has written of the black clergy. The major character of his Go Tell It on the Mountain is based on his own father, a weekend evangelical preacher without formal training. Baldwin writes of a ministerial conclave:
They seemed so lax, so nearly worldly; they were not like those holy prophets of old who grew thin and naked in the service of the Lord. These, God’s ministers, had indeed grown fat, and their dress was rich and various…They might as easily have been…highly paid circus performers, each with his own special dazzling gift…They spoke jokingly of the comparative number of souls each of them had saved, as though they were keeping score in a poolroom (1, pages 106-7).
The whole ethos of the black church in America and the ministerial leadership of the modern civil rights movement are simply ignored in novels. Martin Luther King, as well as others, would seem bold possibilities for fictional portrayal.
The dramatic possibilities for picturing Protestant ministers are overlooked. The problem is not a decline in interest, for there have been more novels written about Protestant clerics in the last decade than ever before. Most of these recent efforts, however, either lampoon the minister or deal narrowly with his professional efforts. Only a couple of novels, The Flight of Peter Fromm (17) and Exit 36 (5) grapple seriously with theological issues. The latter, written by an Episcopal priest, ranges widely theologically. It contains an exposition of Universalism in which an Episcopal priest argues in a theological seminary that universal salvation should not be aimed at individuals but "at the constitution of the universe. Then it becomes a whole truth: Nobody is outside the working of the Mystery of reconciliation” (5, page 131).
Another novel, John Updike’s A Month of Sundays (41) caricatures theology by having its ministerial protagonist sent off to a clerical rest and rehabilitation center on account of his parish peccadillos. The minister writes a not to be delivered sermon for each Sunday. One such effort, cleverly developed by Updike with Biblical text, exegesis, and commentary, much like a thoughtful sermon in a mainstream Protestant church, becomes a ringing defense of adultery. As the homiletic discourse soars toward its peroration, Updike’s minister declares:
Verily, the sacrament of marriage as instituted in its adamant impossibility by our Saviour, exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery. To the one we bring token reverence, and wooden vows; to the other a vivid reverence bred upon the carnal presence of the forbidden, and vows that rend our hearts as we stammer them. The sheets of the marriage bed are interwoven with leaden threads of eternity: the cloth of the adulterous couch with the glowing, living filaments of transience, of time itself, our element, our only element, which Christ consecrated by entering history, rather than escaping it, as did Buddha (41, page 47).
Updike knows his theology and he uses his knowledge and writing skill to parody clerics.
The fictional minister usually reveals little about the professional duties of the ministry; the major preoccupation is with church pressures and the human dynamics of clerics’ relationships with others.
The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, was as previously noted the earliest novel about an American clergyman. Whatever its literary merit the novel established a genre by revealing its Reverent Mr. Dimmesdale as a hypocrite. He allows the heroine to bear the judgment for their child conceived out of wedlock. The themes of deception and fraud occur often in novels about ministry, particularly those relating to evangelical or revivalistic preachers. In the half century since Elmer Gantry (1927) the theme of the huckster preacher has been repeated again and again (see 4, 29, 31, 41). Be he charlatan, pleasant, or demonic the itinerant evangelist is ever a phony as well as a theological ninny. Usually these are the best selling novels and they reveal clerics intent upon breaking all the mores usually associated with ministry. In Wise Blood Flannery O’Connor even attempts to parody the whole revivalist approach. She has her self-appointed preacher, Hazel Motes, proclaim:
I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about the church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption (29, page 105).
A recently published book, The Miracle, has what the novel calls "the best known evangelist in America” as its central character (41). He is a legerdemain at amorality and has an even more corrupt cleric son. The whole story conforms to the outward facts of Billy Graham’s rise to success.
We live in a time when there is a widely heralded resurgence of evangelical Christianity, yet popular fiction for fifty years has continued to lambaste such clerics as simply fleshy showmen, religious frauds, and moral shams. The penetration of this image is so pronounced that among the public at large it is widely accepted that revivalists are money grubbing deceivers. One such portrayal was powerfully present in the film based on the novel, Oh, God! (7). A strange compulsion seems at work, as if by proving ministers, in general, and moralistic evangelists, in particular, to be deceivers, cynicism could be allowed full sway. The familiar cry of a decade ago, "Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” gives way to the contemporary nostrum of simply, "Don’t trust anyone, period!” A spate of new novels are venomous attacks on churches and clerics as if there were an ongoing need to prove that nothing is worthy of respect, without taint, or truly holy. All is corrupt, even the sacred is profane, so all is allowed. This excuses our narcissism, our failure to commit to causes beyond the self, and our rank disbelief in any sustaining faith.
When we turn to the fictional portrayals of ministers in mainstream Protestant churches the pictures does not improve much over that pictured for evangelists. While establishment Protestant ministers are never consciously charlatans, as are often the fictional revivalists, they often end wallowing in moral muck. One of the better written novels on clergy is The Damnation of Theron Ware, which appeared just before the turn of the century (16). The Methodist minister, Theron Ware, is a bumptious, ignorant, self-seeking, arrogant cleric, who is deftly contrasted with the learned, genteel, understanding, man-of-the-world Catholic priest. The Reverent Mr. Ware, married though he was, soon becomes enraptured with a smart, gorgeous, savvy woman of the Catholic parish. In the process the minister reveals himself to be a complete ass, as well as plainly stupid and lacking any moral scruples. The book ends with Theron Ware leaving the ministry and headed for a new secular life, where the author declares he can be just an average man. There is the implicit suggestion in many novels that if a man has an inherent flaw the pressures of parish life will constantly widen the fissure until the character is cleft. One fictional minister muses in this manner:
Jack had once seen a news item about a minister who had blown out his brains sitting before a study desk crammed with lewd magazines and photographs: he had neither been able to get out of the armor nor to give up its iron poses. Jack had resolved at the outset that if he ever found himself in such contradictions he would leave the ministry at once. But now he knew why the man at the desk had chosen death instead (45, page 16).
The oft repeated tale is that temptation lies ever before ministers and that the more spiritually moralistic the outward appearance, the more likely the shadow side of sensual body appetites is lurking, awaiting only appropriate chance to appear.
The other kind of picture of the Protestant minister is fairly dull, a person simply attempting to be a parish parson in work-a-day, unimaginative ways (see 2, 26, 34, 36, 37, 39, 43). In such fiction the plot of the story usually has to turn on how the minister wins out against pettifogging, oppressive, or domineering congregants. However negative clerical depictions are in fiction, a yet lower level of perversity pervades the hearts of parishioners. With rare exceptions, and these exceptions serve mainly as foils, lay church leaders come through as horrors, who lead narrow existences with a strange pre-occupation for checking and controlling ministers at every juncture.
The dull, prosaic ministry finds no better portrayal than in a recent novel by Shirley Grau, Evidence of Love, where the cleric in question is Unitarian (18). This minister spends his entire professional life in a single church in a nothing city, where he is preoccupied over the years with obscure scholarly projects. His prosaic existence is so scheduled that at age twenty he could write out in his personal journal the complete timetable for his life, which in truth is upheld by his actual experience through all the following decades. As this cleric comes to retirement he can sum up his home life in these words, "we married decently, we bred, we are now about the business of getting old and dying” (18, page 87). As for his professional work the minister is pleased that he increased interest in liberal religion in his town and over the years started innovative programs in his church—a Great Books discussion, a theater group, and a Recorder Consort. The ministry comes through as prosaic, a fit habitation for a man unsuitable for the rigors of the real world. Only a sweet dolt would endure the ongoing preoccupation with the meaningless rounds of activities, which pervade a cleric’s life.
A particular concern is how novels handle Unitarian and Universalist clerics. The Universalists find mention in only one novel, Sinclair Lewis’ The God-Seeker (1949), set in the first half of the last century. A dying father is waited upon by his Calvinist son and the son’s minister. The father will have nothing to do with their exhortations to repent; in fact, the father says:
I sent for the Universalist preacher…and kind of informally joined his church…He…wanted to give me a letter of recommendation to the Almighty, because while the Universalists know there ain’t any fiery hell, they still get suspicious about the smell of smoke (23, page 12).
Later in that same book we find on the frontier, the Reverend Euripides Tattam from Harvard, patterned upon the historical character who was the first actual Unitarian minister in Minnesota. Mr. Tattam is described as a "civilized but zealous Unitarian” in contrast with a colleague who was "a zealous but civilized Presbyterian” (23, page 158). Sinclair Lewis’ Unitarian minister reveals the fatal flaw of his church, when he declares:
All associations make me feel crowded. That’s why I’m a Unitarian. Too many of our customers are too conservative and too rich—they use in investments the same dismaying common sense they use in theology—but at least our pastors meet only in occasional little flocks and chirp about nothing more doctrinal than the propriety of renting pews. I fear organization and authority (23, page 397).
Lewis comes through as mildly amused by Unitarians and one critic says of him:
…his view seems to be that Christianity is an illusion, but one which generates a morality of compassion and social reform. There is a minimum of supernaturalism and theology in Unitarianism, and a maximum of social reform, so that is the best form of the delusion (11, page 39).
The Unitarian church in fiction appears as a revolving door set between the religious and secular worlds. Unitarian ministers seem like nice persons, but their theology is pale or simply a burlesque of serious churches.
The greatest living American satirist, Peter De Vries, took on the church in The Mackarel Plaza, published just twenty years ago. While the denomination of the People’s Liberal Church served by the Reverend Andrew Mackarel is never named in the book, critics assume that the context is Unitarian. Mackarel boasts that his plant is the first "split level church in America.” When it comes to the "small worship area” De Vries caricatures beautifully:
…a free form pulpit…consists of a slab of marble set on four legs of four delicately differing fruitwoods, to symbolize the Four Gospels, and their failure to harmonize. Behind it dangles a large multi-colored mobile, its interdenominational parts swaying, as one might fancy, in perpetual reminder of the Pauline stricture against "those blown by every wind of doctrine”…People’s Liberal is a church designed to meet the needs of today, and to serve the whole man. This includes the worship of a God free of outmoded theological definition and palatable to a mind come of age in the era of Relativity (13, pages 7-8).
To which description the Reverent Mr. Mackarel adds religious aphorism, "It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us” (13, page 8). De Vries bites hard upon fluffy humanism, as when Mackarel’s church decides to have a food offering for victims of floods in the state. Congregants march down the aisles to donate vichyssoise, artichoke hearts, smoked clams, and trout pâté. Such outpouring leads Mackarel to pray, "Let us hope…that a kind Providence will put a speedy end to the acts of God under which we have been laboring” (13, pages 27-29). What comes through in De Vries’s parody is that Unitarianism itself is a parody—a parody of serious religion. In less intense form the same thrust comes through in later contemporary novels about Unitarian ministers.
The Flight of Peter Fromm is a learned work in which current trends in theology are discussed seriously and meaningfully. While presented as a scholarly humanist the Unitarian minister in the novel is still ultimately whimsical. The Unitarian says:
Abandon theism and you can always become a Unitarian and work inside the Unitarian tradition if you like…I myself decided to be a truthful traitor. If you feel you can’t be a loyal liar, that you have to talk straight and honest to your congregation, then I agree. It’s better to become a Unitarian minister or no minister at all (17, page 208).
In the most sympathetic account of a Unitarian cleric presented in fiction his ministerial work is in his won eyes essentially that of a traitor to the Christian tradition.
John Updike in Marry Me manages several sniping comments at Unitarianism. The protagonist is shocked when his father-in-law, a Unitarian minister, christens their first child in what "seemed to him a parody of the sacrament” with jokes about holy water drawn from the kitchen tap. His wife has put religion "behind her” for a "pale faith” and Updike sneeringly adds, "If there was a supreme Unitarian commandment, it was face things. ‘Having things out’ had been her father’s phrase, returning post-midnight from some ecumenical, interracial scrimmage...” (40, page 85). Later Updike writes that there is something "confident and even destructive” about the Unitarian search for truth (40, page 269).
In 1977, a spoof book appeared called The Serial, which purported to be a year in the life of Marin County, the ultimate suburbia, just north of San Francisco. In the second chapter we meet at a wedding the Reverent Spike Thurston, minister of the Radical Unitarian Church and also active in the Marin Sexual Freedom League. His conduct of the wedding is pure California flake:
Fellow beings…I’m not here today as a minister but as a member of the community. Not just the community of souls gathered here…but the larger human community which is the cosmos. I’m not going to solemnize this marriage in the real sense of the word. I’m not going to pronounce it as existing from this day forward—Because nobody can do that…They’re not going to recite something after me, but this is a real wedding—the wedding of two separatenesses, two solitarinesses, under the sky (24, page 10).
At this point, the minister invites the couple to step up and declare, "What’s in your heart.” Later, speaks of marriage as "peer group support,” "organic union under the cosmos,” and the final pronunciation of the two as "cojoined persons” (24, page 111).
Novels portray Protestant ministers as either dullards or charlatans, while Unitarians come through as either nice or ridiculous characters, who present parody or ersatz foolishness in place of a real religion.
To complete our picture we need to come inside the novels and see how fictional ministers look at themselves upon the pages of these books. One novel with cute sarcasm suggests that churches relate to God in the same manner as billboards relate to Coca-Cola. The billboard promotes thirst, but it does not quench the parched throat (41, page 22). Virtually every novel portrays, from the cleric’s viewpoint, a story of disillusionment, temporary or permanent. Some fiction, for example Elmer Gantry, reveals clerics personally corrupt before they ever receive the call, but most novels tell a tale of honest men eroded by experience.
As the fledgling minister moves from theological school to parish the novels mark his dashed hopes. The seminarian had viewed his job as conveying learning, preaching the word, and officiating at rites of passage. In the reality of the parish, however, scholarship is a bar to faith; preaching is evaluated by its ability to be short, clever, folksy, and illuminating of the familiar faith; and the pastor’s role at rites of passage is perfunctory and delineated. As one cleric of fiction put it:
The ministry was so different from what he had expected. He had thought it would be just standing before a congregation and proclaiming the word of God each Sunday morning. He had never realized it meant running an organization, putting on financial campaigns, selling people on the programs and policies of a gigantic bureaucracy, and being a sort of public relations man at the Rotary, PTA, and getting involved with the Community Chest and the Boy Scouts and all sorts of things that dissipated one’s energy and purpose in a dozen directions (45, pages 16-17).
The first disillusionment with the reality of the parish is quickly followed by a second jolt—the ministry is not removed from the harsh realities of competitiveness. Ministers are found to be as vain, self-seeking, and rivalous as the practitioners in any field. The cloak of spirituality can sometimes mask, but it becomes a chimerical gauze, which cannot cover the brazen nature of survival. A mainline Protestant minister observes:
To be worth his salt, a preacher must be sincerely pious, narrow to the point of bigotry in his private life, a master politician with both his parish and the higher church organization, and a financial juggler just one step up the ladder from Wall Street…To climb to a city pulpit he must have still other qualifications: an unimpeachable respect for his own ability…oratorical fire…and the organizational genius of a minority politician; a society doctor’s bedside manner, and, if possible, a couple of sons studying for the ministry. If, in addition, he is adept at flattery, he may eventually become a bishop (34, page 9).
The fledgling minister soon learns that success in the church arises not from service, faith, or caring; its matrix is superficial skill, denominational politics, and a jolly bonhomie to all corners.
Behind the spiritual façade ministers are painfully aware of worldly rewards. One novel has a wise and cynical church official make this observation of his charges:
The men who come to me never have but one question: What does it pay? …Salary is only an index: it tells the world you’ve built a bigger church than the next man, or won more converts…or can preach a better sermon. And, of course, a cut in salary proclaims one a spiritual failure. Ambition and fear, or both: these just about exhaust the basic motivations…of what the church is and what her ministers are made of (45, page 176).
American novels underline the disillusionment of ministers with their practice and the rivalry and worldly ways that pervade their days. The practice of ministry relates little to what was taught in theological school.
But the internal disappointment is as nothing beside the mean ways portrayed by the laity. A fair number of religious novels are written by those who grew up in the fishbowl of clerical homes (such as 26, 31, 34, 43). These "preachers’ kids” show their residual anger; they cavil at the laity’s constant need to domesticate the cleric. e. e. cummings, child of a Unitarian parsonage, could write about his father moving through "dooms of love,” where "men kill which cannot share” (10, pages 119 and 121). There is automatically presumed to be a contest between minister and church leaders with the latter invariably portrayed as parsimonious, backbiting, jealous of prerogatives, and pretentious. Most of the minor novels center on this very point, namely how a minister strives to maintain his integrity when beset on every side by pressures to become servant to the civil religion of his town.
The difficult family realities of the minister’s home garners also much fictional attention. A novel written by a minister observes:
Isn’t it strange that if a man tramples on his wife and children and betrays his conscience and crucifies his self-respect trying to be president of a button factory, we call it sin…But if a preacher does all the same things trying to make it to First Church, we admire the monster and have our kiddies pray for him! …Most ministers cannot admit even to themselves that career and status are almost always their first consideration—plus fear of failure (45, pages 144-5).
American novels about ministry reveal ever an ambivalence about the profession. The ambivalence surges over into vituperation and self-loathing among clerics. What the novels portray is the basic contemporary role uncertainty of the world’s second oldest profession.
Ministers seem unsure about the reason and the purpose of their life’s work. Once they held the supreme position in the community; now they seem some strange adjunct to the ossified church. In fiction, the church is revealed as an institution bucking and resisting every move in communities toward tolerance, brotherhood, peace, and caring. The church is an enclave for the bigoted and the unloving, who seem to take a special delight in forcing their will upon their clerics. The minister must learn jungle survival tactics, so one preacher muses:
There was a time in his youthful ministry, when such tactics would have appalled…;a pastor maneuvering like a ward-heel politician…the smoldering embers in his church must be scattered before they had a chance to be fanned into flames of rebellion…If he must divide to conquer so be it (37, page 103).
Another cleric of fiction notes "every congregation would enjoy unmasking the minister, though they might not be aware of their desire” (45, page 7). The tendency is for the faith of the minister to erode in this process.
There is a recurrent questioning of the meaning of ministry. One novel has a minister suggesting the solution is "a preacher getting religion, getting saved, getting honest, getting out!” (22, page 356). The most notable fictional exception to this general portrayal is Episcopal priests, many of whom would not consider themselves Protestant clergy at all. Fictional Episcopal clergy come through as ever worldly, but buttressed by a deep, well tempered faith. The two most real and compassionate accounts of clergy (5 and 8) are based on Episcopalians. But for the rest of fiction, Protestant ministers are for the most part fraudulent, calloused, simple, or cynical. A recent novel has a minister denouncing his profession as "sickly parasites,” who are:
consuming gasoline and heating fuel in useless missions and rituals, intruding whenever a person is gasping to death or getting married, demanding the right to say grace at the Rotary luncheon (41, page 220).
The Protestant minister has little redemption either in his own eyes or the eyes of the world. A commentator suggests:
Fiction is able to hold the mirror out to the minister…and to those who avail themselves of their services, these mirrors supply an objective critique otherwise denied to those who are safely ensconced within the admiring fold (11, page 7).
That mirror today reveals a grotesque reflection of the profession. No cleric is taken seriously as an intellectual, cultural, or public opinion leader. The only household names among Protestant clergy are Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale, neither of whom has any standing in serious cultural circles. The popular image also reflects the attitude common among clergy, where there is a constant writing over professional purpose and meaning. Certainly the leakage from the ministry is higher than that of other profession and many leave simply because they find the church and its ministry irrelevant to important issues of life and society.
The major enticement which the clergy seems to provide the public is sexual. Novels carry a peculiar preoccupation with ministers and illicit sex. A fledgling minister is warned by a senior colleague:
Watch the women. And money. Pay your debts and don’t borrow. Never tell a smutty joke and never laugh at one. Bathe and shave every day. Don’t ever try to be a good fellow or a back slapper. Watch the women (37, page 111).
From the Scarlet Letter of 1850 down to Updike’s Month of Sundays, as well as most other novels about Protestant ministers which have appeared in the last decade, the sexual proclivities of the clergy is a recurrent theme. A definitive work on pornography tells us:
Many "obscene” books…have among their central figures persons connected with the clergy and religion…These "holy” individuals are then depicted as engaging in highly tabooed sexual activities (21, page 217).
These experts suggest that opposites appeal, the high altar of religious morality as contrasted with the gutter of pornography. But most books which deal with the clergy and sex could by no stretch of the imagination be labeled pornographic. So why this constant repetition of sexual themes related to ministry?
Earlier we discussed ministers as a third sex, apart from the world of men and women. Clergy are of a different order in a way rather similar to black males. The black male has long been stereotyped as uncouth, stupid, lazy, dirty, and unappealing: yet there is ever resurrected the fear he will have sex with a white woman. The shadow side to the shiftless black male is that he is, in truth, a sexually superior creature, able to entice and satisfy women in ways beyond the reach of the white male.
In some similar way the clergy may be looked upon as "nigger.” Ministers are thought to be effeminate, not given to masculine pursuits, generally foppish by male standards. Churches, however, are predominately inhabited and run in the ongoing work by women. Even in this post-religious age ministers represent the divine—the godly which human beings are forbidden to know (particularly to know Biblically) too well. The male cleric, as with the male black, carries a powerful image of forbidden fruit. Behind the seeming popinjay nature of the minister could there really be a person of sensuality? Cannot the minister also be eager to prove his maleness against all insinuation that he is less than a man? For a woman, what more symbolic way to revolt against the male dominance of the world, as ultimately signified by the absolutely superior male, God, the Father, than to seduce the divine messenger? What better way to reveal the travesty, corruptness, and false morality of the whole male order? The black and clerical males stand as the bedrock taboos—the black suggests that the white male cannot adequately satisfy women and the minister suggests that even the sanctimoniousness of the servant of God is a male shuck.
The minister is caught. He cannot be fully male, for in the public eye, he belongs not to the real world of business and money nor even to the real professions where important decisions in life are made. The minister seems a bit foolish and yet ever a threat among other males because of the peculiar inter-relatedness of religion, women, and clergy. On the other hand, the male minister receives the resentment of women, who object that the predominantly feminine-led institution of the church is still in its professional leadership so exclusively male. The male minister must be on constant guard that sexual exchanges do not destroy his career, whether the exchange be overt or simply a continuing castigation of his unredeemed male chauvinism.
Besides being long overdue for pure reasons of equality, the increasing entry of women into the ministry bodes well, because it will shake drastically some of the sexual stereotyping of clergy. Women clerics can help free us all, in pulpit and pew alike, to get on with more fundamental and important aspects of the church and religious questing. The point is not the women will redeem us, but that their presence in important numbers within the clergy will change the traditional images and fantasies. A hidden and ever present titillation with sexuality is too pervasive in the Protestant church of today.
The purview of this essay is not to point moral imperatives. But it is obvious from a study of American fiction about Protestant ministers that their popular public image is tawdry. The courageous leadership of some churches and clerics on social questions is ignored; the import of the church community for human growth and enfolding is rarely mentioned; the wonderful generalist quality to the ministerial profession is not delineated; and the caring ministry in its amelioration to individuals in crisis and grief finds little portrayal.
What seems an obvious need is a rearticulation of the power of the ministerial profession, but that seems an unattainable goal until clergy, themselves, become convinced that they are engaged in important work, in unique ways, in a holy calling. But a rebirth of professional pride is a matter neither of public relations nor of propaganda; it will be built upon the radiant example of ministers, who proclaim with their lives, the import of their work.
Perhaps clerics can find some succor in the vituperative nature of the attack upon them. At least novelists care enough to assault rather than ignore ministers, as if in this post-Watergate world, anything with any claim to authenticity must be torn to shreds and revealed in its full corruption. Certainly, novels about ministers continue to appear with ever greater frequency.
In days of yore, court jesters foolish in garb and appearance were allowed to speak truth to kings, when no one else could do so, for the jester did so under the guise of a fool’s humor. It may well be that the modern minister carries a similar role. Literature may proclaim that ministers are fundamentally of a different order—set apart, ludicrous, even corrupt; yet in the strange dress of turned collar or pulpit gown, the cleric, as with the jester of old, may reveal basic, unpleasant truths about our whole society. If the minister can show us more clearly where the true hurt and pain are, then we shall have a better chance to disenthrall ourselves and to learn better ways to have life and to have life more abundantly. If the minister can point unique truths about the abundant life then the cleric will become once again the parson—the pre-eminent person of the community and the pulpit will once more lead the world.