My Father Who Art in Hollywood
Born to a pastor and a pastor’s wife, I spent most of my childhood in church gatherings, at church waiting for people to gather, or at home biding my time until a church meeting concluded and my dad came home.
I experienced the church like a second mother, though colder and more smothering than my own. For years, my images of God the Father and my dad tied together as if paired in a three-legged race.
By virtue of appointment, growing up in a pastor’s family means knowing few families like yours. Not in real life, and certainly not in anything coming out of Hollywood. Because my dad worked in the church, not as a wisecracking cop, fighter pilot, or buster of ghosts, I rarely encountered anyone like him on TV or in the movies.
When I did, the ministers I found on screen usually fell into one of three categories. Banal, some lived as harmless lushes like Friar Tuck in the 1991 guilty pleasure Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Severe, others shepherded their flocks with iron staffs, laboring to keep entire small towns from dancing or browbeating their parishioners into holiness. Other-worldly, the rest spoke in lofty poems and holy riddles, their words far more heavenly and less helpful than the men I knew.
In my teen years, well-intentioned friends recommended the show “7th Heaven.” Surely I would see something of myself in the pastor’s family at its center. Instead, turning on the TV felt like stepping across the threshold of the seventh circle of hell. My life as a pastor’s kid rarely accommodated such cuteness or felt as sexually confusing. My parents rarely achieved such patience—my dad’s sermons never so short or trite.
I swore off the life in ministry only to welcome that life as my own when I later assumed the role of a church elder—a classic pastor’s kid move, by the way. Perhaps I could have mustered a Pacino-like performance, rehearsing the line “Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in” as I accepted the call into ministry.
Otherwise, it felt like few of my ministry scenes were worth preserving on celluloid. I began to recognize the difficulty of projecting a pilgrim’s progress on the big screen.
In the pastor’s life, “sitting” qualifies as an action verb. Sitting in front of an open Bible praying for wisdom—or simply to avoid Peter’s fate and stay awake. Sitting up with cup after cup of bad coffee in hospital waiting rooms. Sitting through another conversation where your counsel goes in one ear and out the other.
Question marks and exclamation points occasionally punctuate the quiet. Sometimes the light reflecting off a passage of Scripture blinds the eyes, searing the scales until they fall away; sometimes conflict twists like a knife. Often, however, even the troubles in a pastor’s life feel more like the resignation experienced by door-to-door salesmen in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied”:
Everywhere I go,
I get slandered, libeled,
I hear words I never heard in the Bible
... Just trying to keep my customers satisfied
The rhythms of ministry most often resemble the back-and-forth of rolling tides. In response, pastors’ lives produce strange convictions. My dad, for example, grew to prefer officiating funerals over weddings. He would never meet the dead in a supermarket five years after the fact and learn they divorced. But the highest human drama often occurs within the space of a minister’s soul. Something they can’t form a conviction to cover. Putting this existence on the big screen would challenge even the most meditative movie-goer.
And yet two recent films succeed where so many others fail. 2014’s Calvary features my favorite cinematic clergy, Father James, played with bottomless depth and boundless grace by Brendan Gleeson. Under a dark cloud of dread, even the threat of death, Father James completes his pastoral rounds—because that’s what pastors do. He expresses incredulity over the sins of others, while his own failings set off quiet tremors in his chest. He lives in the same space as so many pastors, always surprised yet never surprised by the turns life takes.
Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller cuts an even deeper, darker figure in this year’s First Reformed. Yet his experiences resonate. Early in the film, he walks away from a difficult conversation with pulse pounding and mind racing. He retraces his conversational steps, lamenting how he misspoke and all he left unsaid. I know full well the feeling of replaying dialogue over and over, of believing, even for a moment, you shoulder the full weight of someone’s spiritual condition.
These films understand the fundamental shape of a pastor’s life—as a container for contradiction. Full of people, yet often lonely. Brimming with opportunities to convey and clarify your deepest convictions, yet misunderstood on the basis of a single sentence. Alive with beauty, weighed down by obligation. Christ-haunted, yet gritty like sand.
Neither martyrs nor punching bags, pastors build their shelters in the path of most resistance. They live and work where the mundane threatens to swallow wonder, where the physical tries to keep the metaphysical from breaking through. With God’s anointing and by his grace, they seek to blow sparks of change into fires of revival. The director and actors who truly understood these tensions would tremble at the prospect of putting them on screen.
I still want more scenes in which ministers truly are seen. But the longer I pastor and am pastored, I realize most faithful ministers would demand third or fourth billing, at best, in their own biopics. My dad ranks among my heroes, but he never resembled an action star or became a household name. To the pastors I know and work among, the most important character sits just offscreen yet makes his presence felt in every frame. He feeds us lines and stage direction when we are ready, for he alone knows the script.