Book explores ministry

By James Buchok

WINNIPEG — When the wife of a Lutheran pastor set out to write a book about how members of the clergy are portrayed in popular culture, she was worried that she’d find overwhelmingly negative characterizations of men and women of the cloth.

And although author Sue Sorensen did find the expected tales of church leaders behaving badly, the books and movies that were most heartening “were about pastors who probably were failures, who were really flawed human beings but trying really hard to serve God and serve the church. I found those books and movies really quite exciting. “

Sorensen is an associate professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and her latest book is called The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film.

In a radio interview, Sorensen said The Collar is a study of the way pastors have been seen in literature over hundreds of years in the works of writers such as Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, right up to current films and TV.

“Usually in a movie if someone wants to make a point about the church or about religion, as a kind of shorthand they’ll just look at the priest or the pastor or the nun, and that person is supposed to stand for the church, and then depending on the filmmaker or the novelist’s point of view, that person is either wondrous and ‘Look how good they are’ or ‘Oh my gosh, look how hypocritical and wicked and deviant they are.’ So it’s a way of seeing how popular culture and literary culture see the church.”

The title comes from a 17th century poem by an Anglican priest about being collared by his vocation.

Sorenson said American storytellers tend to be respectful toward the church, while the British “are not at all careful about the church, they’ll say anything,” and Canadian literature, film and television “has mostly left the church alone.”

But if there is an important Canadian point of view of pastors, particularly a prairie view, said Sorensen, it is the 1941 novel, As for Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross. “It’s a depression-era novel about a prairie minister. He’s a very disappointed minister who probably shouldn’t be in the ministry,” said Sorensen.

Sorensen said actor and film director Clint Eastwood uses priests “all the time in his movies, to work through moral ideas, and he does it very respectfully. Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino have priests that play important roles. They’re minor characters but they help the protagonist work through moral issues in a real way.”

Sorensen said what was most gratifying was to find clergy who were “real people doing this really hard work and messing up. I didn’t find heroic role models but I think I found something even better.”

She said she’s hoping the book will be helpful to the church. “Most churches are having trouble attracting candidates for the ministry. So if the church is going to move forward we need more ministers. We need ordained ministers, we need lay ministers and we need good leaders. So I’m hoping this opens up a few conversations for people about what is ministry. “

Sorensen adds that it’s about more than just the people who preach every Sunday. “If we’re Christians, we’re all supposed to be ministers, so we should be thinking about what are the qualities, how heroic do you have to be, how good do you have to be with people, how good do you have to be at preaching? We all have to take ownership of this, so I’m hoping that there are elements of this book that will help people think about what ministry is, not just for the person up there in the pulpit, but for all of us.”

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