Another year-end list from PZ:

1) Father Sergius by Leo Tolstoy. This is the grand-daddy of them all, in my opinion. Father Sergius begins his ministry, within the Russian Orthodox Church, with all the right ingredients: a broken disappointed heart, an excellent education, and an appealing personality. He then becomes a saint! (But for all the wrong pelagian reasons) Later, he trips himself up, very badly, and flees his calling. Even later, however, most unusually, he finds it again.

I taught this once and first-time readers fell tumbled over into the snow. We all exist in this book, which is actually a long short-story.

2) Janet’s Repentance by George Eliot. There’s only one better tale of an Anglican Evangelical clergyman (see (3) below). In this novella, which is found in Eliot’s first novel, entitled Scenes of Clerical Life, The Rev. Alex Tryan, a recent Cambridge graduate and Simeonite (i.e., disciple of The Rev. Charles Simeon), comes to a village church in the English Midlands with a view to bringing the Gospel to the place. He succeeds, after encountering furious and unremitting resistance. He succeeds best of all, however, in helping Mrs. Janet Dempster escape from an abusive marriage. Needless to say, what sometimes happens in such cases, happens here, tho’ Mr. Tryan acquits himself with complete honor.

This is a sad story and a most perceptive one. I don’t believe there is a more sympathetic account in English literature of an Evangelical Church of England minister.

3) “Catherine Furze” by William Hale White (aka “Mark Rutherford”). This one is better than the Eliot, though exactly parallel to it. Here, The Rev. Theophilus Cardew, also a Simeonite like Mr. Tryan, seeks to bring the Gospel to a Midlands parish, where he also serves as chaplain to a local school. The hero of the book, Catherine Furze, falls in love with him — he is married, obtusely, to a fine loving woman — and it is all out of joint. Catherine and ‘Theo’ carry on a completely unacknowledged Platonic affair, until things heat up, just.

William Hale White is able to get inside his clerical ‘hero’, in order to understand how wrong a sincere man can be. The denouement is beyond powerful because it is also true to life. Moreover, a non-self-deceived evangelical character joins the scene towards the end, and redeems the Gospel message from its all-too-human carriers otherwise.

My friend Nick Wilde, the “Mark Rutherford” expert of the planet, regards “Catherine Furze” as the one of his novels that is most film-able. People have even written the “Beeb”, but so far no good.

4) Morning Noon and Night by James Gould Cozzens. Here the portrayal of “Canon Baker”, a doctrinaire Anglo-Catholic of the Episcopal Church, is both sympathetic, realistic, and devastating. Cozzens knows about clergy who are ‘making plans for Nigel’, that is, clergy who have an ideological agenda when they enter a parish. In this case, Canon Baker is all about taking a ‘Low Church’ small-town Episcopal church and making it ‘High Church’. That is his whole idea. Trouble is, Canon Baker, being a wholly committed ‘spike’, feels guilty about having a daughter, not to mention being married. So his odd and eclectic “Catholicism” has a confusing effect upon his teenage daughter. (You’ll see.)

James Gould Cozzens understood the Episcopal Church better than any writer I know of, even though he was himself an agnostic bordering on atheism. I think we can learn a lot from him. I wonder sometimes why Cozzens’ descriptions of Episcopal Church parish life are little known among church people. This is a great book, which needs more study.

5) Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas. Despite the thick (i.e., cruddy) style, which is almost un-readable in places — like Douglas’ “Magnificent Obsession”, which I defy anyone actually to finish — “Green Light” contains a moving and also plausible portrait of an American Episcopal cathedral dean, the crippled, canny “Dean Harcourt”. What I like about this book — What I Like about You! (The Romantics) — is Douglas’ picture of a good pastoral parish. Trinity Cathedral, which the author places in Chicago, is all about doing good for individuals yet without fanfare.
The description of an Easter Sunday service — which is Morning Prayer, no less! (let’s hear it for the 1920’s) — is terribly affecting and memorable. It is also do-able. I wish that all church organists could read that chapter. It could make a big difference for our Sunday mornings.

6) And the Last for 2010: The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan. In Rattigan’s wonderful play there is no ordained person. But there is a minister, a true minister of the Gospel, just as sure as I’m sitting here. He is “Mr. Miller”, a disbarred medical doctor who is also probably a refugee, either a Jew from Hitler’s Germany or a former Nazi from Hitler’s Germany (we are not told, but he is definitely a foreigner with some big secrets). Nevertheless, when the vicar’s daughter Hester Collyer tries to take her own life, it is only Mr. Miller who is able to help her. She needs to face the truth about her love-life and her marriage, and that is extremely painful no matter which way she jumps. Mr. Miller’s speech, and Hester’s reaction, is for the ages. It is pure theology of the cross, credible and effective. This was made into a movie with Vivien Leigh and others, but it is not available yet — plus, the movie is pretty static in the mise-en-scene. Reading the play will do it.

Well, those are six big ones, and they are about clergy while also being sympathetic to the clergy. Each of these books or stories knows what it is talking about. At the same time, there is Gospel mercy and Gospel light to be enjoyed in each. Highly recommended, and no matter what side of the pulpit you are sitting on.

P.S. I am just now in the middle of Harold Frederic’s late-Nineteenth-Century American novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. This is the tale of a young and hopeful Methodist minister, with a great wife, whose unexplored emotional vulnerabilities lead him to a very soft place of compromise and temptation. Not sure this tale is all that sympathetic. Its first-chapter description of a denominational convention is upsetting, partly because it’s too true. More on “Theron Ware” to come.