Between hero and failure

Whether "Thorn Birds" or Grand Inquisitor: priests are popular characters in novels and stories. The Hanoverian pastor Gerhard Isermann has evaluated about 200 books in which poets describe the life of the clergy in all facets.

They fight for justice with confidence in God. They stand up for the weak and yet sometimes fail because of their own demands. Pastors are often found in books as novel characters. Their role is often ambivalent, says the Protestant pastor and former director of the association, Gerhard Isermann: "Failure and proving oneself are often united, whether in the books or in reality."Under the title "Helden, Zweifler, Versager" (Heroes, Doubters, Failures), the theologian presented a book in Hanover on the image of pastors in literature.

For his study, Isermann read a total of about 200 parish books from 1742 to 2011. 101 of them he presents in more detail in his book. These include well-known material such as the novel "The Thorn Birds" by Coleen McCullough, which was filmed for television, or Stefan Heym's "Ahasver". Three female pastors are also portrayed.

"Pastors, by virtue of their office, have a certain reverence"
The stories are as colorful as life itself: Pastors – whether Protestant or Catholic – have problems with alcohol or sexuality, fight against powerful authorities or strict guardians of tradition, and sometimes lose their faith in God.

"Pastors, by virtue of their office, have a certain deference given to them by the congregation," says Isermann, who himself has worked as a parish, school and youth pastor. "When someone does something wrong, says stupid things, behaves immorally or steals money, it is of course more spectacular than with normal contemporaries." That's why pastors are popular figures with poets, he says.

Writers such as Theodor Fontane, Theodor Storm, Gerhart Hauptmann, Adalbert Stifter or Uwe Johnson have taken up pastor figures in their works, as has the heath poet Hermann Lons. They were also worth a story to the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Frenchman Albert Camus, the British George Bernhard Shaw and the American Herman Melville.

At times "Wort zum Sonntag" speaker
Positive and negative representations balance each other out, according to the pastor. Especially sensitive topics like doubts about faith or sermons without effect would be well treated by the authors. The pastor's image can also change: "One person is a hero now and a doubter the next week."But Isermann does not agree with all the descriptions: "There are quite a few pastors – if they really existed and I met them, I would start a fight." For example, when pastors glorify war in books.

The theologian even considers some portrayals of pastors to be unacceptable. They are cliched figures, as if from a Punch and Judy show – especially in the case of the greats of literature such as Durrenmatt, Goethe, Schiller, Rilke or Thomas Mann. Figures such as "Father Brown" or "Don Camillo" are rather comedic figures for Isermann, so he did not include them in his study at all. For the theologian, however, it is all right if pastors are also laughed at.

Isermann (80) spoke the "Wort zum Sonntag" on ARD for a time. From 1979 to 1996, he headed the Association of Protestant Journalism in Lower Saxony-Bremen and the Lutheran Publishing House in Hanover, where the book was published.

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Christina Cherry
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