Interview with Douglas Walrath on Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction

Douglas Walrath, Displacing the DivineThe following is an interview with Douglas Alan Walrath, author of Displacing the Divine: The Minister in the Mirror of American Fiction

Question:  Most books stem from an author’s experience as well as from his or her professional interests.  Is that true of Displacing the Divine?

Douglas Walrath: It really is. In 1954 I enrolled in seminary and began to study for the ministry. After I had been in seminary for several weeks I ran into some old friends from high school.  We reminisced and laughed about some of our past adventures together.  But once they learned I was in seminary the conversation became surprisingly constrained.  They seemed awkward with me.  One of them swore—accidently I now realize.  When he did they all looked at me and apologized.  I replied that the apology was unnecessary; I’m still the same guy I’ve always been.  “No, you’re not,” they said.  “You’re a minister now.”  We argued the point for awhile, but they refused to give up.  Even though I didn’t experience myself as different, they insisted that I was different.

Q: So, what do you think was going on?  Why did they insist on seeing you as different, even though you insisted you weren’t?

DW: I know now that they were seeing me according to their preconceptions of what ministers are like.  When they learned that I was in the process of becoming a minister they automatically applied those preconceptions to me.  Though I protested I was the same person they had known before I enrolled in seminary, they insisted on seeing me as a minister—according to their cultural image of a minister.  Their cultural image of ministers overwhelmed what they recalled of me personally.  They insisted I would match that preconceived image.

Q: ‘Cultural image’ is a key term in your book.  What do you mean by it and why is it so important? 

DW: It has become a very important concept for me.  Cultural images are the preconceptions we have of key figures in our lives—mothers, fathers, teenagers, doctors, clergy and so on.  We form these images during our socialization; we internalize them and, unless we reflect on them critically, simply take their accuracy for granted.  When we watch a teen-ager sulk, for example, and say, “That’s just like a teenager,” we are saying that this teenager is a typical teenager; he or she matches our cultural image of teenagers.  If a teenager we meet is unusually polite and social, and we say something like, “He’s unusually easy to get along with for a teenager,” we have kept our cultural image of teenagers in tact by defining this teenager as an exception.  We follow the same pattern with ministers.  We “know” what ministers are like because we internalized a cultural image of ministers during our socialization.  Of course, cultural images change and develop, and when they do, we may (but not always) adjust our images to match emerging perceptions.  But we always have a working set.

Q: Besides that early personal experience, what drew you to study cultural images of ministers?

DW: Fast forward twenty-five years.  I am now teaching practical theology in a theological seminary.  I’m concerned to help prospective ministers recognize how they will be perceived as clergy when they begin to practice.  How can I share with them what I have discovered?  Most theological students are clear about how they should be perceived as ministers, and how they want to be perceived as ministers.  They are less clear about how they will be perceived.  Few realize that they will run head-on into cultural images held by their parishioners and others that these cultural images may be very different from the image they want to project.  After casting about for ways to help students appreciate how others will view them as ministers, I realized that ministers in novels reflect cultural images of ministers in society.  Fiction writers have to make their characters credible to gain acceptance for them.  Creating characters that match, or nearly match, readers’ cultural images is one way they make their characters plausible.  (I am over-simplifying a process that I discuss extensively in the book.)  So, I began asking my students to read novels to help them see how others may see them.  As practicing pastors they will always have to contend with the cultural images held by those among whom they minister. 

Q: Your description of cultural images implies that they vary.  How do they vary? 

DW: Cultural images of ministers vary from group to group, from place to place and from time to time.  My book is a social history of cultural images of ministers in American society from the 1790s to the 2000s.  Portrayals of ministers in American fiction are my primary source.  During the twenty years I worked on the book I identified over 600 American novels in which ministers appear as significant characters.  These novels provide a historical record of the way ministers were and are viewed throughout American society during the past two hundred years.  Of course, I couldn’t use every novel and I couldn’t discuss every aspect of this history—the book would have become too unwieldy.  I chose to concentrate on the nineteenth and early twentieth century because I think major social and cultural changes occurred during this period that continue to affect how American ministers are viewed today.

Q: The mention of social change recalls the title of your book.  What do you mean by ‘Displacing the Divine’?. 

DW: I can best answer that question by quoting part of the first sentence in the Introduction.  In the book I “show that Protestant ministers who appear as characters in American (U.S.) fiction over the past two hundred years, especially fiction published between the 1790s and the 1920s, mirror a discrediting and displacement first of ministers and then their God in American society.”  The displacing of divines and the Divine was in many ways a sad discovery for me: portrayals of ministers in American fiction reveal a declining status and a declining credibility of ministers in American society.  While there are many strong, positive portrayals of ministers in fiction, a process of progressive decline is apparent.  From the 1790s to the 1850s fiction is filled with ministers who misbehave in various ways, but they are viewed as individual rotten apples in the barrel.  But after the Civil War the message in fiction is that ministers as a class are less able.  The socially-constrained or unable minister is portrayed as typical in post-bellum novels.  Ministers are not entirely to blame for their fall; the increased challenges that they face after the Civil War are part of the cause of their faltering.  A secular intellectual revolution spreads through American society during this period.  Intellectual challenges fostered by figures like Darwin, Comte, Freud and Einstein call traditional, biblically-based explanations of reality into question.  Thousands of graduate students study in Europe, especially Germany, where they are exposed to positivist philosophy and higher criticism that challenge the credibility of the Bible.  They return and become major figures in American higher education.  So the displacement of the divine I discuss concerns not only the displacement of divines (ministers) but the displacement of the Divine (God).  The two are obviously interrelated; ministers are ministers of God, so if the credibility of God is in question, ministers’ credibility is severely compromised.

Q: The last section of your book is called “The Legacy.”  I assume that means that you see the legacy of the displacement of divines and the Divine reflected in contemporary fiction.

Walrath: It is.  With few exceptions ministers in contemporary fiction are admired or castigated for their excellent or poor human qualities.  They are human heroes, not heroes of believing.  They stand in stark contrast to mid nineteenth-century ministers like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Samuel Hopkins who appears in The Minister’s Wooing.  Hopkins’s believing is what commends him; he is so sure of the reality of what many of us would now see as a harsh Calvinist faith that he is willing to be damned, if necessary, to advance the glory of God!  In current fiction there are some rare portrayals of persons with unassailable faith, like Marilynne Robinson’s John Ames in Gilead.  But Ames’s faith is presented as his own in the novel, not as the faith that defines a pervasive cosmic reality as faith was for ministers like Hopkins.  And he is not contemporary: he lives in a vanishing post-World War II small-town world.  But to Robinson’s credit Ames is not a nostalgic figure like so many ministers are in current popular fiction.  Popular novelists like Jan Karon and Garrison Keillor have created ministers that are admirable persons,  their portrayals (especially Karon’s) seem sentimental, even nostalgic to me.  They reflect what ministers once were, not what they are.  Though Keillor’s portrayals over time become less nostalgic and more ironic.  In Pontoon, his 2007 novel set in fictional Lake Woebegon when Evelyn, the main character dies, her daughter, Barbara, rebuffs all of Pastor Ingqvist’s attempts to comfort.  And when it comes time for her daughter to marry she plans to fly in a minister from California to officiate at the wedding.  Satire becomes cutting parody: this minister is named Misty Naylor.  As her name implies, Misty has no clear theology.  She is a “seeker.”  She was once a Presbyterian, but decided to become a minister as the result of a vision she had when she was under anesthesia during breast enhancement surgery.

Q: What do you see ahead in for ministers in fiction?  Do you think at some point ministers in fiction will cope better with the displacement of divines?

Walrath: The portrayals I have looked at since finishing the book seem similar to those I just described.  Karon has finished her series.  Robinson has another impressive portrait in Home, her novel that follows Gilead and that is also set in Gilead.  But like Gilead the ministers in this novel don’t seem to me to address the displacement of divines that is now an established reality in contemporary society.  I agree with John Updike’s view that we cannot expect fiction to do the work of theology.  The deficiencies that are reflected in ministers in contemporary fiction seem to me to reflect theological shortcomings.  Few theologians address the issues of displacement I identify in my book.  Theologians who make an attempt like David Tracy and Edward Schillebeeckx, who died just recently, tend to be marginalized by the church.  The most widely-accepted theologians in the church, like Karl Barth and his disciples, defend the faith ably, but they don’t engage the modernist and postmodernist critics in any kind of level-playing-field dialogue.  As Updike says in the quote that appears on the frontispiece of my book, fiction is a mirror that can reflect only what is in this world.  Unless theologians admit the challenges of displacement and address them convincingly I don’t think we will see ministers in fiction who rise above nostalgia and are convincing believers.

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