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The Good Ministers of the Silver Screen
Ron Glass as Shepherd Book in 'Firefly'

After watching "Two Boats and a Helicopter," the third episode of The Leftovers—HBO's TV show about a small town in the wake of the Rapture—I wrote that the character at the center of the episode, the Reverend Matt Jamison, was "one of the more complex portrayals of a true believer who's losing his grip that I've seen in a while." Others I read and talked with agreed.

Christopher Eccleston as Father Matt Jamison in 'The Leftovers'

Christopher Eccleston as Father Matt Jamison in 'The Leftovers'

Two days later, I was seeing an advance screening of Calvary, which releases August 1, and has one of the best portrayals of a "good priest" that I've ever seen. (More on that to come.)

What makes both of these characters good, and real, is that they aren't just "good" ministers: they are also real people, with doubts and struggles and screw-ups. Yet they're not portrayed in a bad light, or as hypocrites. They are people who want to follow their calling, and who encounter difficulties. They have histories. They have weak spots. They even do things that are destructive.

But, importantly, they dwell among the messed-up people in their towns, living with them, talking to them, listening to their confessions. They are reviled and trusted, often by the same people. They have what the priest in Calvary calls "integrity," in the way that Christ did: not because they are blameless (they can't be—they're human), but because they falteringly give us a sense of what this means:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We're used to seeing (and complaining about) bad portrayals of Christians, and especially clergy, on television. I've seen my fair share. A bad portrayal of a minister is one that "lacks integrity": the minister is portrayed as bad, or hypocritical, or a megalomaniac, or a predator, or even just all "good" in the most irrelevant wet-cardboard way—hopelessly out of touch with what parishioners need. (Unfortunately, this is often true of both Christian and non-Christian portrayals.)

This year, I've seen a number of leaders of Christian ministries that I was involved with as a child and a teen be exposed for abusing their congregants or their power. When I was younger, these people were held up as paragons of virtue and goodness; their "faults" were kept private. They were celebrities, in their way: a type of rockstar who got special treatment and reverence, those whom you dared not question.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle in 'Calvary'

Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle in 'Calvary'

I wonder sometimes how different this would be (or at least, if we'd ask "leaders" for more honesty) if we were accustomed to seeing better ministers on screen. So with that in mind, I asked some of my cinephile friends to come up with some examples of well-written onscreen Christian clergy from about the last ten years of TV and movies. The list isn't extensive, nor perfect, but it's a start. And some of the answers might surprise you.

Mel Gibson as Rev. Graham Hess in 'Signs'

Mel Gibson as Rev. Graham Hess in 'Signs'

Mel Gibson as Rev. Graham Hess
Signs (2002)
Wade Bearden (@WadeHance)

As a pastor, I've always felt a connection to Mel Gibson's Graham Hess in Signs. In the film, Shyamalan asks the question, "What happens when the one who's supposed to minister, needs ministry himself?" Losing his faith after the violent death of his wife, Hess has abandoned his post as an Episcopal priest. Throughout the story, Hess wrestles with the idea that a good God can't exist in the midst of seemingly senseless suffering and death. But, just like Hess soon realizes humans are not alone in the universe, he too finds that even though God seems absent and silent, that doesn't mean he isn't quietly working in the background.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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The Good Ministers of the Silver Screen