October 28, 2020

Recommendations and Reviews: J.F. Powers, “Wheat That Springeth Green”

Wheat That Springeth Green (New York Review Books Classics)Just finished J.F. Powers’ novel of the life of an ordinary suburban priest, Wheat That Springeth Green. Maybe I’m starved for a good novel, but it was fine. Great character. Understated, excellent humor. A simple, even profound, vision of the priestly life and ordinary people.

Powers seems to have mastered the small, almost invisible world of ordinary parish ministry. It is, in fact, the journey from dreams of sainthood and spiritual achievement to the mundane, political and public relations pursuits of the parish that animate this story. One needn’t be a pre-Vatican II Catholic to appreciate what happens to Fr. Joe between his days of lengthy contemplative prayer and hair shirts to his struggles with fund-raising and the lives of ordinary parishoners and church leaders.

Powers was a master of dialog, both internal and conversational, and he takes the reader inside the mind and emotions of Fr. Joe as he lives a numbingly banal and ordinary life, but finds himself inadvertently brought back to his ideals by the arrival of a new curate. Aspiring writers will be in awe at a true master of finding humor, description and action in the smallest, most common phrases. A wonderful book with much to offer ministers or anyone looking for something of a better vintage than contemporary fiction.

Powers was a writer about the world of men, and his characters talk like men talk. There are few female characters in this book. Also, readers not used to the constant consumption of alcohol in the context of Christian ministry might want to be prepared, as Fr. Joe is somewhat of an alcoholic. But if you want to see how a single, simple sentence, put in the right place, can move you deeply with no more touch than a feather, you are in for a wonderful experience.

Here’s an article on Powers
in Religion Online, and the second half is about Wheat. Powers wrote books of short stories and three novels in a career that produced five published books, all about the priesthood and all examples of tight, creative, highly observant prose dialect. At one time, he was considered a master story-teller and the dean of Catholic writers in America. A real treat if modern religious novels leave you cold.

An article on Powers in City Pages

An essay on Powers by John Derbyshire. A good quote:

Powers is not—I think he would have smiled approvingly to hear it said—a relevant writer. The only reason one can advance for reading him is the quality of his art, which is of a very high order. Powers took infinite pains with his work. He deplored writing that was careless or inflated, or even just verbose. He did not like the great English novelists of the last century because he thought they used too many words to say what they wanted to say. God, said Powers, has demanding standards. “We couldn’t have art unless there were some higher authority that says, ‘Yes, that’s right’. God gave us that mentality, that kind of judgment. I don’t think God likes crap in art.”

Joseph Bottum at First Things says he was the best of his time.


  1. chrisstiles says

    I didn’t realise there were a particular plethora of modern religious novels. Outside someone like Susan Howatch (who *actually* writes great dialogue even if she started off as a ‘romance novelist’) I can’t think of any who make a serious attempt at it. Care to name some examples?

  2. One “clerical novel” I’d highly recommend is Bo Giertz’s book “The Hammer of God”, about pastors in three different eras in the same parish, who discover the true grace of God in the course of their ministries. As a work of literature, it’s so-so, but it is a spiritual classic, with some truly inspiring passages (see, for example, here). Giertz was a bishop in the Church of Sweden – some would say one of the last orthodox Lutherans in that church – and wrote his book in 1941.

    As for the JF Powers – sounds interesting, but I would find it next-to impossible to take a character called “Father Hackett” (NB: language warning) seriously, alas… (Though given your comments about Fr Joe’s fondness for the bottle, I do wonder if there is a direct connection between Father Joe and Father Jack.)

  3. Georges Bernanos also gives a powerful description of the struggles of a young minister in its “Diary of a country priest”.

  4. Классно всё: и картинка ,и информация

  5. Ага, теперь понятно…А то я сразу не очень то и не понял где тут связь с самим заголовком…

  6. Огромное вам пасибо! а еще посты на эту тему будут в будущем? Очень жду!

  7. очень занимательно было почитать

  8. Ценные рекомендации, беру на заметку

  9. Благодарю!!!У Вас часто появляются очень интересные посты! Очень поднимаете мое настроение.

  10. Чёрт возьми! Круто!Вы Сами ответили.Беру в цитник! Смысл жизни и всё остальное. Решено.Без шуток.

  11. Спасибо за статью. Восхищена как всегда

  12. Ты как обычно радуешь нас своими лучшими фразами спасибо, беру!

  13. Очень интересно!!! Только не очень могу понять как часто обновляется ваш блог?

  14. С наступающими праздниками вас, кстати!

  15. Я подумал и удалил свою мысль