PRIEST: A Spiritual Struggle by Ellwood E. Kieser (Doubleday: $19; 352 pp.) Battling a popular culture "more concerned with the coupling of bodies than with the fusion of souls," Father Ellwood Kieser no doubt must feel like a fish out of holy water in Hollywood. But what's extraordinary about Kieser is that he has managed to produce successful films and TV shows in a community that does not exactly take well to unabashed moralists.
How does he do it? Mainly by cloaking any self-righteousness with a hearty, self-effacing sense of humor. For example, when a lightning bolt strikes the ground between him and a cop after he is stopped for speeding (a favorite sin), he quips: "The Lord sometimes takes best care of us when we least deserve it." And yet, while Kieser jokes away the resistance he encounters when trying to develop films such as one about the murder of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero ("too depressing, too controversial," he is told), he writes about deserts as if he knows the territory well: "Deserts are hostile to physical life. But paradoxically, they stimulate the spiritual life." Kieser maintains an upbeat attitude in these pages, though, because he realizes that his desert is hardly as arid as those of friends whose parish is El Salvador. Listening to a group of seminarians sing at a memorial for Romero and thousands of lay church workers, Kieser begins to cry: "That these people could say 'Hurrah for life! Hurrah for God,' I found an overwhelming sign of faith and resurrection."