Keeping company with the characters explored in Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction (Westminster John Knox) is like living with children who disclose your quirks and virtues by parroting them back to you. And that's the point. Author G. Lee Ramsey Jr. hopes the fictional pastors he showcases will help flesh-and-blood ones "question and refine our own theology, self-understanding, moral practices, and approaches to pastoral ministry and the Christian life."
To this end, Ramsey holds up ministers both good and bad from Southern fiction as illustrations of the pastor's calling and responsibilities. He chooses this genre because he considers the South "particularly fertile soil for both religion and fiction." And he is adamant that every minister lives out his or her calling within a particular congregation in a particular place. To be effective, clergy must know their people and the culture in which they serve. As a minister and seminary professor of the South himself, Ramsey calls on Southern fiction to help him explain what churches there look for in a pastor.
Ramsey notes, for example, that congregants want a preacher who acknowledges that he is fallible as they are, yet who can still serve as their high priest. So he shows us vivid specimens of both priestly and earthy ministers, each of whom forces readers to reflect on their assumptions about faith and ministry. With radicals like the backwoods evangelist Bevel Summers of Flannery O'Connor's short story "The River," Ramsey reminds us that salvation in Christ should be a "startling summons to drown ourselves in the waters of new life," not an invitation to membership in a country club. And through the negative example of CEO-style pastor Roger Hagan in Will Campbell's The Convention, Ramsey illustrates the danger of becoming "wedded to business management models of leadership." In the end, he advocates a multifaceted ministry and illustrates the hazards of neglecting any pastoral responsibilities.
Exploring the work of the clergy through fiction has other advantages. To name one, it is much easier to indulge imaginary radicals. A fictional snake handler like the Pentecostal Reverend Virgil Shepherd of Lee Smith's Saving Grace may have something to teach us about extreme faith. An honest-to-goodness snake handler just makes us nervous.
Ramsey isn't out to tell you how to grow your church to 5,000. Nor does he share secrets to ministry success. His purpose is simply to provide a "variety of images of clergy that can open up fruitful discussions about Christian ministry."
From the prophetic Rev. Alonzo Hickman of Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth to the ex-convict pastor Lee Avery of Michael Morris's A Place Called Wiregrass, Ramsey presents a vision of the pastor that is eminently unaffected and honest. As a result, his Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves may restore hope in this highest of callings.
Brandon O'Brien, assistant editor for Leadership journal and BuildingChurchLeaders.com
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