As Others See Us: A Fresh Look at Elmer Gantry
- 2008 20 Feb
Last month, Wilfred McClay wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “You probably did not notice it, but that old rogue Elmer Gantry turned 80 this year.”
He is right; most of us did not notice it. And when McClay called our attention to it, the response of many was probably, “So what?”
After all, the fictional preacher, created by novelist Sinclair Lewis 80 years ago, is no one’s idea of a role model. As McClay puts it, “A crude, profane, hard-drinking, and oversexed football player from Paris, Kansas, Gantry, using his histrionic gifts and his ‘arousing baritone,’ latched onto the ministry because of the power it gave him over others.”
As that last part suggests, Christians especially have reason to regard Elmer Gantry with a jaundiced eye. The character’s name has become an epithet often used by secularists against Christians, a kind of shorthand way of stereotyping us all. Nearly every time a Christian leader is involved in any sort of scandal, it seems the ghost of Elmer Gantry is raised yet again. No doubt Elmer’s creator, a man who left religion behind after his school days, would have been pleased about this.
But the truth is that Wilfred McClay, co-director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is himself a Christian. So we know he is not commemorating this character out of a dislike for religious people. Though he does not spell this out, I think he has good reason for reminding us about Elmer and his legacy.
You see, Elmer is the sort of figure that inspires the Church, or should inspire the Church, to take a long, hard look at ourselves. I am not just talking now in terms of financial scandals or high-profile cases of adultery or child abuse. I am talking about the subtler temptations, without which none of those bigger scandals would have taken place. For instance, the temptation to think more of ourselves when we are celebrated, or to use God to further our own agenda, or to preach one thing and do another, or to mistake our emotions for the voice of God, or to fall for a compelling but false message because it is expressed in Christian-sounding jargon.
These were the kinds of things that Sinclair Lewis saw and satirized on us 80 years ago, and even though he exaggerated, he was not making them up from scratch.
Sadly, if we think we left those sins back in the Elmer Gantry era, we need to think again. Just look at the number of Christians who buy into the prosperity gospel, spread by some best-selling Christian authors.
Remember when I talked about the new book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity ... and Why It Matters? As I said then, just because a lot of impressions that people have of us are exaggerated and unfair, that does not mean they do not have roots in our own behavior.
Think of the Elmer Gantry novel as the unChristian of its day. We ought to learn something from the discomfort these books cause us. So come to our website for a link to McClay’s article or call us at BreakPoint (877-322-5527) for a copy. Or go to the library and take a look at the book Elmer Gantry. It is a cautionary tale, and if we do not want churches full of Elmer Gantrys and their gullible victims, we have to first be willing to see ourselves as others see us.
© 2008 Prison Fellowship. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.breakpoint.org