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The Grace of Graham Greene

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The Grace of Graham Greene

Joy and Matthew Steem

Graham Greene

Graham Greene

For a long while—years—an exceedingly good friend pestered me to read Graham Greene, specifically The Power and The Glory. When I finally made the right choice, I had a sense of loss—grief that had I read the work earlier, I may have been a more replete and insightful person. I now personally know why he has been called one of the better writers (and a Catholic to boot) of the century.

I have read that Greene was attempting, as all good writers will, to critique an array of cultural practices. And he did this well. However better than a critic is a builder, not? The old adage that it’s easier to tear down than build up seems true.

What caught me in The Power and The Glory was that the majority of the characters – and especially the guiltiest – were made human; they were made understandable, their motives were round and they were surprisingly difficult to despise. And yet it would have been oh so easy for him to caricature the characters of iniquitous design.

Even the police lieutenant, for as nasty a plan as he had, and the lengths he was willing to go to achieve it, was made something less than a villain. I felt he was human and to be pitied. He did after all have good virtues; it’s just that they weren’t mixed appropriately with others.

Yet despite many characters’ poor choices, I could never find it in me to detest them. The Whiskey priest and his continual hope wouldn’t let me detest them. If he couldn’t, how could I?

Greene works similarly in The End of An Affair. Somehow, despite the perfidious actions, humanness is the prime focus. Greene paints a humanity that despite its fallenness, still has worthy and good qualities.

Shortly after finishing The Power and The Glory I had the opportunity to get a totally different experience of grace – or the total lack of it. I watched the movie Pan, staring Hugh Jackman. What stood out to me was the drubbing religion got via the caricature of the obese, piggy-eyed, overindulging nuns meanly lording it over the frail, underfed orphans. (You might recall the head nun furiously stuffing her face with stolen doughnuts.)

When I watch most media, the picture seems pretty much similar in representation. Religion is the boogie which perversely defies all tenets of humanity. Consider the TV series Game of Thrones, though the books do an even more articulate job. Judgy, meanly intolerant and revelling in it without intention of apology: that’s the typical caricature of Christian religious figures. (This is not to say that Christians are guilt free, and we must be aware of our guilt. I have touched on this elsewhere.)

And so—especially considering the recent tumultuous political events—I think upon how much better it is to avoid caricature. How can I extricate from myself the deleterious and ever so easy habit of demonizing “the bad people” and see the world as Graham Greene?