Note: This article contains spoilers for John Michael McDonaugh’s film Calvary, Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, and the BBC TV show Rev.

When we encounter church leaders in novels, TV shows, movies, and other pieces of fiction, it can be tempting to wish for more flattering portrayals—more patient pastors, perhaps, with perfect congregations, or more saintly priests who shepherd with practiced ease.

In reality, though, we often meet men and women much like ourselves: put-upon leaders saddled with burdensome callings, facing down failure, barely holding it together. Like us, they minister both to and within a fallen world. Like us, they don’t always get it right.

And like us, they sometimes lose it. They flip out. They break down. The pressures of ministry catch up, and they are unable to cope. It can be painful to watch—even if a dose of warts-and-all honesty can still feel cathartic.

Flying in the face of that discomfort, however, are the words of German novelist Franz Kafka, who once wrote the following in a 1904 letter to his childhood friend Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

If Kafka’s right, then that pain that we sometimes feel watching our imagined colleagues fall apart just might be a redemptive thing: a call to pay attention to their humanity, to take holy axes to ice-encased hearts. And if so, then that could affect what stories we consume. Perhaps the best stories for ministry leaders are not, in fact, those that portray us as bastions of righteousness or heroes of ...

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