How do you involve the average reader in a philosophical discussion about religion? You use just enough fiction to make it an engaging story.
That’s just what James Stanley Barlow has done in Pastor: A Fictional Reminiscence.
The main character, Robert Staten, mirrors Barlow in many ways, although Barlow says Staten is better than he is, “a nicer guy.” Barlow served in the Air Force during World War II and went to Princeton, as did his character. He has been a parish and campus pastor and spent more than 30 years in academia before his retirement.
He’s written other books, notably a serious scholarly volume in 1973 called The Fall into Consciousness, and since his retirement he’s self-published poetry and what he calls a “kind of memoir” called Appalachia and Beyond: Yarns and Yearnings in Prose and Poetry. But Pastor is a little different.
“I always wanted to write a novel,” he said. “For some reason, I couldn’t get my mind off the early days of my experience as a Presbyterian minister.”
The narrator of the story is the Rev. Robert Staten, a contemporary Presbyterian pastor who is looking over scrapbooks of his career. Alabama’s Memorial Church, the first congregation where he served as head pastor in the 1950s, becomes the backdrop for a series of stories about members and situations Staten encountered during his time there. He credits these experiences with shaping the minister he became.
It’s been noted that Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel was only fiction because names were changed; Wolfe’s influence can clearly be seen in Barlow’s work.
“I used to love to read Thomas Wolfe when I was an adolescent and I guess it just carried over,” Barlow said. Still, he does make it clear that Pastor is a very fictional reminiscence based on facts.
“There are many facts in it. Billy Graham did drive me to the airport when I went into the service in 1943, and we were fellow students at the same college. I have him in there,” Barlow said. “And I did interview Martin Luther King. I have him in there. So some of those things are pretty close to being factual with a man named Barlow, not Staten.”
Writing the story as a fictional reminiscence was the best choice for a few reasons. First, it gave Barlow license to portray characters, dialogue and events in the ways that best made his point. One of his goals was to engage readers in thinking about the nature of religion and the role of the church in their life.
Some of the characters, like the skeptical best friend Charley, are composites of real people Barlow knew, designed to present a particular viewpoint in some of the dialogues. Charley represents one side of the argument of the role of religion. Staten’s mother, Muriel, represents the other. She’s a much truer representation of a real person: Barlow’s mother, Emily.
Like his character Staten, Barlow’s father died when he was very young, leaving his mother to raise four children on her own. The real-life Emily, like Muriel, turned to religion for comfort.
“Some of our erstwhile friends called her a religious fanatic,” he said. “She was a lot like Muriel, but I loved her. She did things like what we might call child abuse nowadays with a whip and so forth. So Muriel does reflect the real person.”
Aside from the philosophical discussions, Barlow also includes a series of stories about the experience of his character as a church pastor and about the members of his congregation. These stories come from Barlow’s experiences throughout his career but are depicted in the book as all part of the Alabama church Staten serves.
Barlow’s portrayal of the pastor as a man is a refreshing point of view. Staten has his own family life and relies on his wife’s journal of events as much as his own to recount his experiences. We also see a pastor who’s not always perfect, who doesn’t always know the right things to say and who sometimes feels he has much to learn from others.
Ultimately, Pastor, despite being set in the early 1950s, paints a picture anyone active in the life of the church today can identify with. The characters and church members are representative of people that can be found in any congregation.
Barlow also calls his portrayal of the church a “warts and all” picture. Writing fiction allowed him to protect the people he refers to as “bad actors.” Some of the people and events in the story are very rough around the edges. He debated in some cases about including their stories, including one chapter called “Flower Arrangement” that he considers quite bawdy but ultimately decided on telling the whole story — good and bad.
“It’s people. The church is people. It’s people and with all their goodness and their badness,” Barlow said.
The result is a story that makes the reader think about the role of religion without having to tackle a scholarly essay but that also has the ability to shock, make the reader laugh and sometimes feel right at home with a congregation just like theirs.
Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.