This discussion of priests on reservations (special reference to the Blackfeet) leads me to think about what I’ll call “plot loops.” They’re really continuums, but bent around to join at the other side. The rationalization for writing fiction is the ability to speculate and make assertions about characters who don’t exist, thus escaping lawsuits and a punch in the nose. (Maybe.)
The loops are sort of the same as the paragraphs I wrote about in the post called “culture loops.” This is what I mean in terms of priest/Blackfeet interaction: Choose your kind of priest and your kind of Blackfeet. Is this a young green priest who needs his corners knocked off? Does a wise old Blackfeet woman console him, maybe even redeem him? Does this have a happy ending? (Check out “I Heard the Owl Call my Name.”) Is this a young priest who is miserable about being gay who runs into a shrewd Indian in black leathers who rides a Harley? (Take a look at “The Fancy Dancer.”)
But you could also (this would be more daring) create a story about an old, ill priest who is somehow saved by a little child. (I just watched “Silas Marner.”) Or an old priest who once raped an altar boy and is now revenge-raped by that boy grown up. Might be a bitter little God-defying tale with Satan laughing in the corner or you could have enlightenment arrive with orgasm, either character or both. (Egad. No one has ever gotten something like this into print that I know of.) You could even write a story with both endings and either present them as alternatives or mix them so that the reader would be confused -- on purpose.
Thinking along these lines, I went to Netflix streaming -- carefully avoiding the denominationally produced believers’ propaganda -- not because I’m disagreeing with it but because it’s so predictable. Seen one, seen’em all. I’m trying to break out of the cultural assumptions. Two films have priests but no Indians.
“Priest,” (1994) was written by Jimmy McGovern, who devised and wrote “Cracker,” the crime/mystery series. You can always trust Jimmy McGovern. This is presented as about a young gay priest, but actually addresses the relationship between love and sex. Christianity, with its naked dead man hanging in front of everyone, is surely the most carnal of religions. Three taboos: a priest who has his female sexual partner (subintroducta with benefits) in the house, a father who is forcing sex on his daughter, and the protagonist young priest who has a male lover. Two are excused but the third, the father, is not. If one digs down beyond the surface conventions of society or an institution, the question is not about taboos, but about obligations and consequences.
The ability of a father to dominate his daughter to the point of forced sex is, in HIS eyes, performing an act of love. But it destroys his daughter, destroys his wife, destroys the institution of family. The question then is whether the priest who loves his female housekeeper destroys the church. (Does their intention to marry absolve them?) Does the priest who is not just gay but also actively sexual with a man where love is present destroy the church? I would say that they at least challenge it. But they do not destroy the religious ground on which that institution was founded, which is salvation in the face of stigma, persecution, but only the interests of a institution that has left its original charisma, that of love and inclusion. McGovern loads the issue by presenting the defender of the Faith as grim and punishing, the male lover as nearly Jesus-like.
“Mass Appeal” (1984)
This one is by a Broadway playwright and has had legs in that form, being performed all over the planet. Jack Lemmon leads off on an interpretation of the Catholic Church as an “old boys' network.” (That’s why you can’t have women priests. Or defiant boys. Or, well, go off in pairs. It’s a function of group, not individual.) This is prosperous American suburbia. (The kicker watching it now is that Zeliko Ivenka, who plays the rebellious young seminarian, has matured into playing the part of the cynical politician on police procedurals.) Mostly this plot loop is a reflection on the rebellions of what they call “the Bangladesh Granola Herd.” At least they didn’t knock Berkeley -- not directly. But in the end the movie defends the individual as a source of reform.
This is an American version of BBC class critique, NOT the Irish confrontation with the Devil. It’s slow and bland, like a sit com. But it makes some good points. The rebel calls this Teflon parish a vendor of “song and dance theology.” It is based on manipulation and evasion. But this movie is the first I’ve heard to “daylight” the relationship between Jesus and John, which some interpret to be sexual. The movie just doesn’t deal with it after bringing it up. (It’s a history loop. One of the Apocrypha plus the Gospel of John is the evidence but they don’t say that.)
Don’t think this is about Catholicism. It’s exactly the same in all prosperous suburban American congregations of any denomination. Synagogue as well. So what’s the screenwriter’s solution? It comes down to the kind of community that becomes family. (I like the idea -- though I thought the young priest’s sermon was icky.) There is redemption in the end but, again, there isn’t all that much depth. Still, this is a PG movie starring Jack Lemmon. What did you expect? I’m sure that most priests, ministers, and rabbis will approve of it. Even though it’s mildly subversive.
Another movie is one I’ve had so long that it’s on tape rather than disc. The Third Miracle (1999). “A skeptical Bishop sends a broken priest as Postulator to investigate the possible beatification of a simple, devout woman whose death caused a statue of the Virgin Mary to bleed upon and cure a girl with terminal lupus. The politically weary priest unknowingly embarks on a spiritual journey that rebuilds his shattered faith and life.” (from imdb.com) It’s conventional but very well done because of Ed Harris playing the priest.
The Mission (1986). This one has both priests and Indians. “18th century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.” I have this one on tape as well. DeNiro and Irons make suffering ever so sexy. Historical culture loop intersects with some rather subversive S/M elements.
Twice I’ve heard young local Blackfeet men propose plot lines based on a rez dog, from the dog’s point of view as it interacts with kids, street people, and finally a home -- the ever-present longing. Neither went on to develop the story beyond a short video so far as I know, nor did either proposal include a priest, but it’s still a great idea -- isn’t the way we treat animals part of Sacredness? Or you could let this dog be a sardonic atheist or meet a Napi coyote. Surely a border collie has a priest's instincts.
The reconciliation between individual and group must be remade again and again because all these “loops” are actually moving wheels that draw in new forms and issues, open new possibilities even as they crush old ones. Stories and images are hub-spokes-and rim of the wheels. It’s all a road trip. Keep rolling.