Sunday, January 06, 2008

Elmer Gantry, a Critique

Sinclair Lewis' 1927 satirical novel, though it has dated some over the years, still speaks powerfully to us all. It particularly speaks to those of who who ponder the intersection between power and belief. The protagonist is a largely amoral, narcissistic, manipulative opportunist. That he also happens to be a minister is due to the fact that he finds the profession a much easier manner of accomplishing his aims and insatiable desire for self-aggrandizement. Through the character of Elmer Gantry, we are asked, among many other things, to contemplate whether religion as an institution is a success or a failure.

Those of us who have a more liberal, open-minded conception of theology often find ourselves caught in between two contradictory viewpoints. One argues passionately that religion, of any sort, despite its urgings to the contrary, is merely a means of control, merely a method to preserve the status quo. It keeps the powerful in positions of authority, and the poor in its proper place of subservience to those higher up the food chain. This view of religion justifies its existence by heavily disingenuous means that reference high minded ideals of servitude, grace, and salvation. The other argues just as passionately that the role religion plays can be powerfully positive, providing hope and comfort to many believers. It concedes that the abuses which occur are due not to the system itself, but rather ought to be blamed squarely upon human nature, particularly the desire for power and acquisition. In this same line of thinking comes the tacit assumption that the masses need some sort of control, some set of moral guidance--else they be inclined to commit crimes against people, property, or both.

One of the strengths of Christianity, indeed the reason I am a Christian, is because of its promise of forgiveness for sin, provided one admits to them and resolves to reform his or her behavior accordingly. Sincerity is the key sentiment, and one I think Lewis himself could get behind. Thus, as is often the case, the massive amount of criticism Lewis faced from Evangelicals after the book was published rather missed the point altogether. Elmer Gantry holds a kind of reverence for the spiritual purity of purpose, idea, and those who practice what they preach. Rather, its most scathing condemnations are directed towards hypocrisy in general, particularly towards those whose true behavior completely contradicts the nobility of their message. This is no different for politicians than it is for pulpit-pounders.

Lewis puts most of his criticisms in the person of questioning minister Frank Shallard, whose role as Doubting Thomas seems to mirror also the author's personal feelings on the matter.

But the essential query is: Did Jesus--if the Biblical accounts of him are even half accurate--have a particularly noble personality, and were his teachings particularly original or profound? You know it's almost impossible to get people to read the Bible honestly. They've been brought up to take the church interpretation of every word that they read into it whatever they've been taught to find there.

We have this sort of argument today, particularly regarding the nature of the historical Jesus and how it has been shaped by church policy and denominational differences. This passage also underscores the argument of whether people are capable of forming their own opinions or need to have these opinions spelled out for them. The classical liberal belief, which dates back to the Enlightenment, states that knowledge is power and the attainment of it is the means by which freedom of thought can be attained. What has not changed in ninety years time--Evangelicals then and now argue that most people are incapable of living in a world other than one rigidly painted either purely black or purely white. They would argue that the masses must be controlled and that most people are either incapable on an intellectual basis of perceiving a reality of metaphorical shades of grey, or would be incapable of responding in any responsible manner to it.

Though the inherent message of Fundamentalism has not changed, the means of presentation, however, has. Gantry was a man ahead of his time, clearly willing to resort to unorthodox tactics to attract membership, and, it must be added, increase his own power and influence in the process. His sermons were more akin to the clever sales pitch of a skillful salesman and he had no qualms about advertising his message in a similar manner. I can't help but notice how even Fundamentalist Christianity, which in the early part of the last century doggedly clung to long-since antiquated viewpoints such as the evils of dancing and Catholicism, were among the first to adopt many of Gantry's tactics in a concerted effort to grow its numbers. They were among the first to incorporate rock instruments, non-traditional liturgy, so-called "contemporary" worship styles, and elements of secular culture to keep people in the pews.

It has become fashionably in many circles to argue that we have lost our moral foundation in this country. The ironies in that statement are many, but the one that jumps out most at me is that this same familiar refrain is no new creation, nor realization. Elmer Gantry himself used it as a sure-fire method to drag people out on Sunday morning. Fundamentalism, by its very nature, always paints itself as under attack. If it had no enemies, it would certainly feel compelled to create them to serve its own ends. The difference between then and now is that it has, for better or for worse, embraced advertising and capitalism as a means to ensure its survival.

Somewhere, Elmer Gantry is smiling.

1 comment:

Fran said...

I am not really sure what I want to say about this as I have so many thoughts and feelings about this post and this topic.

That said I will say I think you have laid out something brilliant here.