American Culture

James Street’s The High Calling: Perhaps Peace Demands Understanding

James Street’s The High Calling is the rare sort of sequel that continues a story without giving in to the typical reader’s desire for neatly tied up plot lines.

The High Calling by James Street (image courtesy “From Among the Books of…”)

As I have written on a couple of occasions now, work and the need to complete my latest book have slowed my reading. As a bit of indulgent diversion for myself, I have just completed the sequel to James Street’s novel about the life of a Baptist minister, The Gauntlet. This later work, The High Calling, picks up Baptist minister London Wingo’s story some 20 years after the ending of that earlier novel. While The High Calling is a sequel, however, it is a sequel that cares less about tying up previous plot lines than about exploring how time and change (that elusive quality we know as mutability) affect the lives of Wingo, his daughter Paige, and their friends.

Street’s novel finds London Wingo returned to Linden, MO, where he began his career as a minister to accept a call to a church. That church, Plymouth Baptist, is a new church founded by members of Wingo’s earlier church, First Baptist. Street seems to be setting the stage for a battle between churches, between ministers (the current First Baptist minister, Harry Ward, seems to be the sort of minister cum entrepreneur one sees much of in contemporary American religion), between visions of what the Baptist church should be. This expectation is whetted by a scene early in the novel when Wingo defeats an attempt to turn the new church’s covenant into a racist screed (the time setting of The High Calling is the early 1950’s).

But whether by design or by whim, Street takes the novel in unexpected directions.

Instead of the struggle between churches whose ministers hold opposing views, Street’s novel becomes a series of domestic episodes that examine the minister as man more than the minister as representative of God. While Wingo is successful in building the membership of his church and in managing the political machinations of his deacons with little trouble, he is befuddled and occasionally stunned by the changes that occur in his personal life. His daughter falls in love with a young man studying for the ministry who is engaged to another; their elopement and marriage is one surprise that London Wingo must adapt to. After more than 20 years as a widower, he becomes involved in a romantic relationship again. More adaptation. Finally, in what is perhaps the novel’s most shocking revelation, his friend (and the father of Wingo’s son-in-law ) admits that he had been in love with Paige Wingo, too, and that he struggles to “do the right thing” and be a good father-in-law to her now that she has married his son.

All this domestic drama, though, serves a useful purpose in The High Calling: it allows Street to show us that  a minister can be a great success as a minister and still have much to learn – and to struggle with – as a person. As London Wingo sometimes smoothly, sometimes bumpily negotiates the various curves that life’s road presents him, he, in a way that feels genuine and meaningful to the reader, comes to terms with his limitations as a man.

It is no small feat to overcome the biases most of us bear toward ministers/priests/rabbis, et al. Our tendency to make plaster saints of members of the clergy precludes our doing much considering of the humanity of that group. The High Calling makes us think about the person(s) who attempt to mediate between the human and divine. That in itself is something of a high calling.