If Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings really was, as Tolkein himself held, devoid of any hint of allegory; and if Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress displayed allegory to the extreme; then Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory strikes the perfect balance.
Set in a Mexican province bent on ridding itself of Catholicism and its clergy, Greene’s novel is ripe with the Passion imagery. The protagonist is a “whisky priest,” a cleric who is, to say the least, a little rough around the edges. He is an alcoholic, which is just one of many failings that make him a striking contrast to the ideal of what a priest should be.
Despite his numerous shortcomings, the priest is compelled to perform his priestly duties. In an ironic turn for a Catholic, Greene depicts an almost Calvinistic predestination that transforms the weak priest and moves him to act. His selfish motivations are supplanted by the larger need to do the work of God.
The illegal whisky priest is pursued by a likewise nameless police lieutenant. The lieutenant—an intriguing figure on his own—is relentless, methodical, and assured that he will hunt down the priest. Much like reading the gospels, there is a sense of impending doom for the preist. We know that he will be caught, and we know that the novel’s Judas figure will betray him. In keeping with the “no spoiler” spirit of these posts, I’ll leave the rest of the plot to the reader.
I first encountered the novel during my senior year of college. In order to fill up some credit hours in humanities, I took an intro to religious studies class. The class was pretty much what I expected it to be—broad surveys of the major world religions, each taught as if they were equally valid. One of the surprising things about the class was that we had to read several works of fiction that came out of each religion (so much for primary sources!). The professor chose The Power and the Glory as our text for interacting with Christianity.
After reading the book, we were assigned an essay answering the question, “Is the whisky priest a good example of a Christian?” My response was that, all Roman Catholic errors aside, in one sense the whisky priest was a good example of a Christian (stress is on example, not good). His own sins are never enough to overwhelm the power of God working in him and through him. Granted, a Christian should not strive to be a whisky priest, but at the same time every believer should remember the depths from which they were saved.
The Power and The Glory reminds the reader that God can use the most sinful and profane for his purposes. It’s a novel that will haunt the reader’s thoughts with notions of redemption, sacrifice, and betrayal for many a sleepless night.