It is sometimes argued that every story has already been told, that all the narratives can be reduced to something we’ve heard before—star-crossed lovers, hubristic self-destruction, disillusionment with youthful ideals. For many, this is the draw of literature and film: the hope that through the embellishments of setting or character we might catch a glimpse of our own plot. Simple reiteration is undeniably a human impulse. We see it in folk tales, myths, and the Gospels.
We also see it in literary fiction. The twentieth-century novel has running through it a thick thread that is distinctly Christian, and one fiber of this thread is a particular kind of story retold in many books and films over the past century—that of a Church leader under pressure at the seam where the modern world and an ancient faith come together like two tectonic plates.
It would be wrong to suggest that any version of this story is an exact retelling of any other. Each reimagines and borrows from earlier versions. The overlaps can be as small and local as an echoed phrase, or as large and general as a character or a theme. But there are some reliable markers: a pastor failing to connect with his or her flock from the pulpit, struggling with lust, alcohol, depression, or bodily illness, and ultimately confronting a crisis of faith.
Among the most recent examples of this kind of story is Hanne Ørstavik’s 2004 novel The Pastor, which was translated into English by Martin Aitken and published last year by Archipelago Books. Ørstavik’s novel begins in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer at a church in a remote fishing village in northern Norway. Despite being a fairly new arrival, Liv, the pastor, is already disillusioned not only with the job but with herself. Her sense of uncertainty is due in part to how she came to her vocation, having abandoned a theology doctorate after the sudden death of an intimate friend, Kristiane. Liv’s self-consciousness is potent: even as she administers the Eucharist to the members of her congregation, she recalls her embarrassment at the boredom she put them through during her first sermon, when she spoke for half an hour until people eventually started to get up and leave.
This scene is familiar: versions of it appear in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 film Winter Light, which begins with Pastor Tomas Ericsson looking out onto a nearly empty church, ready to perform the Eucharistic rites. Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed, opens the same way. Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest begins with its title character reflecting that his parish is “like all the rest. They’re all alike. Those of to-day,” by which he means plagued by the “leprosy of boredom.”