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pastors in the classics

Interview with Leland Ryken

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

The image of the pastor in both popular and “high” culture  is often a less than complimentary one, to say the least. One thinks of the bumbling toady Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, the deranged and irrational curate in War of the Worlds, or the narrow-minded and cynical Rev. Lovejoy. Whether or not they are portrayed negatively, clergy are usually portrayed as simpletons with little depth or complexity. Mercifully there are exceptions to the rule. Indeed, there are many exceptions and we can be thankful to the editors of  Pastors in the Classics for providing a substantial list of  men of the cloth–not caricatures of the cloth– who stand out in our heritage of Western literature. Dr. Leland Ryken was gracious enough to answer a few question for our readers about this book.

How did this book come into existence?

This book was conceptualized at a working lunch at a restaurant in downtown Wheaton, Illinois (where some other of my books were also conceptualized).  Philip Ryken (my son) and Todd Wilson were preachers who independently got the idea of a book on literary portrayals of pastors.  Since I had an established record of serving as a literary midwife on book projects, both Philip and Todd approached me independently.  I arranged a luncheon on an occasion when Philip was in town, and the rest is history.

 How did you decide which twelve major works would receive a full-fledged chapter?

 The slate of works destined to receive the fullest attention evolved somewhat spontaneously at the first meeting.  The key to its evolution was that all three of us had our own passions for individual books.  These passions largely complemented each other.  Still, changes occurred until the late stages of composition.  Once I discovered Bo Giertz’s trilogy of novellas entitled The Hammer of God and shared my passion for it, it quickly forced itself into the top tier.  Frederick Buechner’s Godric dropped out of the running late in the process (being relegated to the handbook section of our book).

 What makes up the handbook section of your book?

 I remember raising the question at our first meeting whether we wanted a handbook of brief entries in addition to our reader’s guide to major works, and I got a very strong vote for such a handbook.  The oversight fell immediately to me (I once said in my son’s hearing that the handbook section had fallen to me by default, and he immediately said, “No, it was by design.”).  The handbook (affectionately known to me as “our one pagers”) consists of 58 entries, almost all of them novels.  The format is half a page of factual information about each work, and half a page of commentary and tips for reading and discussion. 

 How do you picture readers using the handbook section?

 The purpose of the handbook is to define the canon of works in which clerics figure prominently and (equally importantly) that embody issues in ministry.  The goal is to provide enough information that individual readers and book discussion groups can ascertain whether they wish to read a given book, along with tips for reading and discussion.

 What picture of the minister emerges from the individual works that you discuss in your book?

 The dominant impression that I carry away from the venture is the immense range of ministers and varieties of ministry.  This range extends to the denominations and church situations that are portrayed, the individual temperaments of the ministers, and the cultures within which the ministers exist.  This range is enhanced by the international scope of our authors.  In  addition to the sheer range of ministers, it is obvious that a very human picture of the pastor emerges.  The pastor and church leader are at one level “one of us.”  Yet countering that is the picture we get of ministers as high visibility people in their respective spheres.  I would say that the minister is portrayed in the literary classics as a vulnerable figure.  In literary portrayals, ministers do emerge as very flawed people, but not necessarily more so than the typical parishioner as portrayed in the same works.  Pastors are simply more visible.

 Why are authors more inclined to write about ministerial failings than about ministerial successes?

 To begin, all stories, and not just stories about ministers, take human failing as their subject.  Even comedies take human failing as their subject.  Aristotle used the same term, hamartia, or “some defect,” to name the subject matter of both comedy and tragedy.  Southern fiction writer Flannery O’Connor claimed that all fiction bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological categories or not.  There are no perfect people in a fallen world, and literature that portrays people as perfect strike us as unrealistic and not to be taken seriously.  So if we look just at the clerical stories themselves, we might superficially conclude that ministers get “bad press” in fictional stories about them, but if we widen the scope to literature generally, ministers emerge as being approximately at the norm.  This is not to deny that the works that we survey in Pastors in the Classics portray some genuine scoundrels, but there are also some idealized portraits to which none of us would attain.

 In the introduction to your book you state tips for how to read the literary works that you discuss; what are some of those tips?

 All literary works need to be read as works of literature before they are read as something more specific.  All the usual features of literature apply to a piece of clerical fiction.  In the same vein, a work of literature is not a delivery system for an idea; it is a house in which readers take up residence and out of which they view the world.  Accordingly, we should not be in a hurry to extract the ideas that a story asserts about issues in ministry.  A reader’s first task is to relive a story as fully as possible.  Additionally, works of literature have an artistic side, stemming from the writer’s exploitation of the resources of literary form, and these stylistic features deserve to be enjoyed as something self-rewarding, quite apart from what a work asserts about its subject matter.

 What are some discoveries that you personally made while working on this project?

 Writing my chapters and overseeing the handbook entries allowed me to read or reconnect with works that either I had never read or had not read in a very long time.  Books that I now count as favorites but that I would have missed completely without this project include Elizabeth’s Goodge’s The Dean’s Watch, Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God, and George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate.  Even when I was already familiar with a work, the focus of our book led me to look at the story from a new angle of vision.  I learned that the minister’s life is extremely demanding and many sided, and I learned that the genre of clerical fiction is much larger than I realized.

 Do you think that pastors and church leaders are promising literary subjects?

 Yes, I ended the project with total enthusiasm for stories about ministers.  Many of the works that we discuss in our book are on the list of classics that get taught in college English courses.  Some of the lesser known works became entries on my personal list of classics.  I gradually came to the conclusion that stories in which ministers and other Christian characters interact on the issues in their lives are likely to engage life at a more profound level than most fiction does.

 Out of all the pastors and authors that you discuss in your book, which one stands out to as most compelling?

 The fact that my answer consists of a list instead of just one item proves my point about the high quality of clerical fiction.  My list of “most compelling” includes the following:  Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; Swedish author Bo Giertz; Geoffrey Chaucer, our first great portrayer of the clerical life; T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral; Thomas Wingfold, curate in George MacDonald’s novel.  I was also captivated by the ambiguous title Saving Grace (authored by Lee Smith), a story about wayward Grace Shepherd who returns to the faith of her upbringing at the end of the story, with the result that the motif of “saving grace” applies both to the protagonist and also to the saving grace of God.

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