Christians, through the looking glass

By on July 17, 2015

The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film

By Sue Sorensen
306 pages
Wipf & Stock, 2014
ISBN: 978-1625642486

In the opening pages of The Collar, Sorensen writes, “…the ministry is a profession of vital importance, but it is also delightfully strange, even absurd. We need to look at it from a variety of angles and look at it honestly” (8). The Collar explores a wide swath of fictional narratives about men and women in church leadership. Sorensen’s goal, it seems, is to search out the truest readings of ordained life and reflect on how they cast light on the real tasks facing church leaders today. For this reason, The Collar will appeal especially to clergy, although lovers of fiction will find plenty to admire in Sorensen’s whirlwind tour through literature, television and film.

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Sorensen, an associate professor of English at Canadian Mennonite University, has published a novel, A Large Harmonium, and is the editor of West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature. She has also published work on contemporary British literature and detective fiction, as well as her own poetry.

These interests heavily inform The Collar. Chapters are thematic, covering topics such as “The Collared Detective,” “Passion, for Better or for Worse” and “Frustration: the Collar on Screen,” each of which compares and contrasts a variety of texts that portray the clergy with strong emphasis in these particular areas. Chapters are interspersed with short “interludes” in which Sorensen does close readings of significant works, such as George Herbert’s “The Collar,” Iris Murdoch’s The Bell and Clint Eastwood’s film Pale Rider.

The Collar‘s tone can only be described as warm, comfortably straddling the scholarly and conversational. Sorensen offers analyses of an astonishing number and variety of works by writers, filmmakers and actors, from George Eliot and George Herbert to Rowan Atkinson and Richard Burton. There is also a gem of a chapter entitled “The Canadian Collar,” in which Sorensen examines portrayals of clergy life in Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Warren Cariou and others-a study that fills a gap in Canadian literary analysis.

Sorensen’s scope is probably too broad: occasionally the buffet of texts under examination forces parenthetical readings when close readings are called for, suggesting that a narrowed focus might have served The Collar better. But this breadth is also its strength; for a scholarly text, The Collar has an unusual and irresistible momentum.

Particularly strong is Sorensen’s splendid commentary on George Eliot’s “humanist religion,” her restrained critique of Jan Karon’s Mitford series and her romp through the subgenre of priest-detectives.

The Collar‘s call to realistic expectations for clergy and “de-mystification” of Christian ministry is also much needed in the church. But Sorensen also quotes T.S. Eliot in describing the average Christian as “living and partly living.” Occasionally, she writes, great literature points to priestly ministry as “demonstrating the possibility of going beyond this halfway stage, becoming fully alive in relationship with God.” It’s a high calling, but one Sorensen approaches with generosity, humour and good grace.

 

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