In November, I met a pair of priests. Not really. They were actually actors pretending to be priests. Yet, as a pastor myself, I’m generally quite interested in the portrayal of pastors and priests, whether it’s in movies, television, comic books or novels. And the two priests that I met in November were quite refreshing.
The first was Father John Gill, portrayed by Colin Hanks. Father John is a young parish priest, recently assigned to The Church of the Holy Innocents in Brooklyn, New York. Peggy Olson meets Father John in the second season of “Mad Men.” He’s initially confident, carefully shepherding Peggy back into church. Yet he’s also unsure of himself and a little bit intimidated about preaching in front of such a large congregation. He asks Peggy, as an ad executive who knows a little something about presentation and communication, for advice. As the season progresses, Father John becomes a recurring character. He’s gentle yet persistent. He plays folk songs on his guitar. And he’s genuinely likable.
The second was Father Jack Landry, played by Joel Gretsch. Father Jack is also the younger of two priests in a New York City parish, though he’s middle-aged. He is shown to be genuinely concerned about the people under his care, including the elderly and the homeless. However, Father Jack’s world is turned upside-down by the arrival of the Visitors in the remake of “V.” His superior welcomes the aliens as positive benefactors and a potential mission field. Father Jack isn’t as sure. He questions his faith without abandoning it. He preaches skepticism- trust, but verify. And he gets caught up, to his own surprise, in the underground movement opposing the Visitors.
I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not used to seeing pastors or priests portrayed in this way. “Men of the cloth” are sometimes portrayed as the sage. They’re a source of wisdom and advice for the main character, setting them in the right direction, but performing a function of the plot rather than playing someone with an actual personality. More often, religious professionals are portrayed as the villain. They’re the corrupt hypocrite, the tyrant or the evil mastermind.
But these two priests were human. They were protagonists or interesting supporting characters with stories of their own. They had all of the contradictions and complications we expect of normal people. They were neither perfect, nor evil. They were likable, believable. And, yes, they were also people of faith.
These two television characters prompted me to reflect upon some of the notable pastors and priests portrayed in pop culture and in comic books.
I mentioned that a lot of pastors and priests are portrayed as the villain. I don’t necessarily object to that. There are plenty pastors and priests who have done villainous things. And there are a few antagonistic pastors that I find quite compelling. There’s John Lithgow’s character in the movie “Footloose,” Reverend Shaw Moore. Rev. Moore opposes dancing and other worldly amusements, making him the main antagonist in the movie. Yet he’s given a strong motivation- the death of his son- and a change of heart. He’s also shown to truly love and care for his daughter and her friends, even if he’s a little rigid and naïve. There’s also Reverend William Stryker from the X-Men graphic novel, “God Loves, Man Kills.” Rev. Stryker is shown to be a true believer, willing to sacrifice his own wife and son for what he thinks is right. Yet Stryker doesn’t delight in their murder. It pains him, as if he was Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Now, having given up so much, Stryker is incapable of changing his mind. He doesn’t become a good guy, like Rev. Moore, but he’s a unique and interesting villain.
Unfortunately, there are also a number of villainous priests and pastors who have no depth or redeeming qualities. The one that usually springs to mind for me is Rev. Craig from “The New Mutants.” He’s a sexual predator, seducing young girls. He’s an abusive guardian, constantly yelling at and shaming his ward Rahne Sinclair. And he’s a hypocrite, as we eventually learn that Rahne is his daughter. He’s also usually portrayed as a Bwa-ha-ha kind of villain. Not one that wants to take over the world, mind you. But one that wants to rule his little fiefdom, his church parish. I won’t say that such pastors don’t exist in the real world (we’ve become aware of far too many examples) yet such one-sided characters are rarely interesting to read about in stories.
Of course, there are always counter-examples. An over-the-top evil pastor can be oddly amusing. I even met one recently: The Reverend. He was a fan submission to the Evil League of Evil, from “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog.” The Reverend was a puppet who wanted to turn everyone else into his battalion of brainwashed puppets. He threatened Hell to everyone who disagreed with him. When he spoke in tongues, he looked like the demon possessed child from “The Exorcist.” He was hilarious, even to a pastor like me. Plus, he was a really good rapper.
Happily, there are also examples of pastors and priests who are portrayed positively. Three of them come from stories that would be among my all-time favorites anyway. The positive portrayals are an added bonus.
The first is Reverend William Conover from the Broodfall story in “Uncanny X-Men” 233 and 234. Rev. Conover is a mass meeting preacher, like Rev. Billy Graham. He’s generous and compassionate. He’s loving to his wife. He has the gift of healing, but regrets that it hasn’t worked on his wife’s arthritis which causes her near-constant pain. When his meeting is interrupted by a Brood-possessed Wolverine, he steps in to help. He shrugs off the anti-mutant prejudice and fears of others. He prays for Wolverine and attempts to cast the Brood out as if it were a demon. When the larger fight is finished, members of the media come to Rev. Conover for comment. He rebuffs their anti-mutant hysteria, publicly thanks the X-Men for saving him and his wife and then defends mutants as humanity’s children.
The second positive portrayal is Reverend Norman McCay from “Kingdom Come.” Rev. McCay is an older pastor, nearing retirement age. He’s dismayed at what his world has become, as a world that once looked up to its heroes has seen those heroes replaced by others who look out only for themselves. McCay is our point of view character and when the Spectre invites him to observe the heroes, we are brought along for the ride. Despite his despair, McCay is a keen observer. And in the end, he refuses to sit in judgment. Instead, he breaks out of his passive role and encourages the heroes to reclaim their mantle.
The third is Father Jeremiah Parrish. Haven’t heard of him? Perhaps you know him by another name: The Confessor from Kurt Busiek’s “Astro City.” Father Parrish was a Roman Catholic priest. In the early 1950s, he was seduced by a young-looking woman who turned out to be a vampire. Father Parrish was turned into a vampire as well. He has lived his life in regret ever since. To atone for his mistakes, he fights crime as The Confessor. Even though he’s a creature of the night, he continues to live in the Grandenetti Cathedral. He wears a cross as part of his costume, though it is physically painful to him. And he trains a teenager, Brian Kinney, to be his sidekick, the Altar Boy. We discover that the Confessor adds a sidekick for more than one reason. Sure, it helps him in his fight against crime. But he was also lonely and wanted someone he could share his secret with.
These three characters are wonderful examples of pastors and priests in comics. Rev. Conover comes closest to the sage character, though he has more depth than your typical sage and a slightly different function in the story. All three are truly human with human hopes and human fears and human reactions. Well, except for the Confessor; he’s no longer human. Yet, even though he’s a vampire, he has human feelings and human reactions.
I don’t want pastors or priests to be portrayed as perfect. It sets up unrealistic expectations. It creates unfavorable backlashes. It’s also untrue. We may strive for perfection but we fall short of it, like everyone else.
I would like to see pastors and priests portrayed as people. People who genuinely try to do good and be good. People of faith for whom their faith is an important and positive part of their lives. People who may be admirable, but are always flawed. People who may even have interests and hobbies outside of their vocation, like Father Gill’s guitar playing.
I don’t see it often. But when I do, I am always pleasantly surprised.