Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Elmer Gantry


I am back after holiday in Montana. I visited family and celebrated my dad's 90th birthday! Did a little reading.





I read Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis.









This is a good read for anyone who is or who wishes to be a minister, liberal or conservative. Elmer is a completely non-sympathetic character. He is the archetype of the ambitious, hypocritical preacher. Any preacher with any self-reflection should be able to see a little of Elmer in her or himself.

The book is not really about Elmer the preacher (the character is much too flat for that). It is a critique of the church and of Christianity as a whole. Elmer makes it to the top because the church rewards hypocrisy and showmanship. What kind of church--what kind of society--do we celebrate that allows Elmer Gantrys to make it big?

The book shouldn't be confused with the film, which is also excellent, but it is a different story.





The film's Elmer is more sympathetic as he is able to self-reflect.






The book's Elmer has no such skills.



For example, Elmer's best sermon is a stolen paragraph by higher critic,
Robert Ingersoll! The irony is totally lost on Elmer.






I was reading and thinking about Elmer Gantry over my vacation. I was thinking about being a liberal minister who embraces higher criticism. My critics say I am a hypocrite for doing so. Maybe they are right.

Elmer of course does not monkey around with higher criticism. He eschews higher criticism but not for theological or intellectual reasons. Elmer rejects higher criticism because it doesn't sell. For Elmer, vice sells. He makes his success by pointing out the sins of others.

Lewis skewers the church of the 1920s and never lets up. I was hoping to see the liberal character, Rev. Frank Shaller, who does embrace higher criticism (and social justice), win the day. He does not. Elmer outs him publicly and forces Shaller to resign his post.

In the pulpit Shaller never seems to be able to move out of self-pity and his own condemnation of the church. Only when he leaves the church does he find his voice. He goes on the road to speak his views about the dangers of the fundamentalist movement. He doesn't finish his first speech when he is physically beaten by a bunch of thugs who do not cotton to his "atheistic" views. Lewis leaves Shaller beaten and humiliated. Perhaps he is the Christ figure? But if so, there is no resurrection. Again, the critique by Lewis is not of Elmer but of the church who loves the showman over the thinker.

Has the church made any progress since the 1920s? The Elmer Gantrys still seem to capture the emotions, the politicians, and the pocketbooks. I suppose that is to be expected.

What of those--the Frank Shallers or the Robert Ingersolls--have they made any worthwhile contribution? Have they found a way to make their voice heard? Or as Sinclair Lewis seems to suggest in his novel, Elmer Gantry, is higher criticism incompatible with the church?

I have to say, I find it rather lonely to be theologically liberal. I am also liberal socially and politically on many issues and I cheer on my colleagues who are all about social justice even though they don't make too much use of higher criticism.

But there are few of us who fully embrace higher criticism (over against creed or dogma when pitted against it). I am not complaining, oh maybe I am a little, but I do wonder why that is so.

It could be that higher criticism is wrong, false, and bad news while creed and dogma is right, true and good news. I doubt it.

It could be that higher criticism isn't sexy and doesn't put butts in the seats. I am not so sure. The success of books by Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels et al, have shown that there is a hunger for higher criticism among many folks (albeit among many who have left the church).

I think the real reason that most preachers have not embraced higher criticism (or if they have embraced it have remained silent about it) is that they are afraid of the Elmer Gantrys among us. For good reason. These guys are slick and loud and they will ruin your career the first chance they get.

More than that, we preachers know that the church really does shower the showman rather than the thinker with praise and opportunity. Hey, I am a showman. I have learned. I see a lot of Elmer Gantry in myself. But I am also a higher critic. There are few churches that will reward higher criticism and stick with you when the waters get rough. These churches exist but they are few.

For my nearly sixteen years in the pulpit here is free (and you know what that's worth) advice for seminarians. If you liked higher criticism in seminary, think carefully before you become ordained as a minister in a church. We need you. But don't be naive. You need to be wise as well as smart. Read Elmer Gantry and pay attention to the character, Frank Shaller. Do you want to end up like him?

Here is how Lewis finishes Shaller:


The doctors told him that though the right eye was gone completely, he might not entirely lose the sight of the other for perhaps a year.

Bess did not shriek when she saw him; she only stood with her hands shaky at her breast.

She seemed to hesitate before kissing what had been his mouth. But she spoke cheerfully:

"Don't you worry about a single thing. I'll get a job that'll keep us going. I've already seen the general secretary at the C. O. S. And isn't it nice that the kiddies are old enough now to read aloud to you."

To be read aloud to, the rest of his life . . . (Chapter XXIX)

18 comments:

  1. What a spectacular post. That you've written it at all says volumes about you John.

    It has to be lonely, very lonely indeed. The words that keep springing to mind are "a voice in the wilderness."

    I can't seem to find the right words, so I won't say more right now.

    Other than - Thank you.

    Pax my brother.

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  2. You raise a lot of great points.

    I wonder how many of the fans of Borg, Pagels and others are, like me, essentially unchurched. That is an interesting question. I know that there are churches that sponsor lectures by Borg, who hold "Living the Questions" seminars, who have book clubs in which they read authors who embrace higher criticism. But when push comes to shove, I see little that comes out of all of that.

    I embarked on a project a couple of years ago to try to find a church experience that embraced the kinds of things you are talking about. I have lost most of my enthusiasm for the project.

    I keep coming back to Jack Good's book, "The Dishonest Church", where he talks about clergy who learn things in seminary and then keep what they've learned to themselves so as to not rock the boat. The question is, though, who is being dishonest to whom? Are there clergy who are being dishonest to congregations, or to themselves?

    Of course, if you've got a pension on the line, there is a powerful economic incentive not to rock the boat so much.

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  3. Fran! hugs

    Seeker, hugs to you too!

    "I embarked on a project a couple of years ago to try to find a church experience that embraced the kinds of things you are talking about. I have lost most of my enthusiasm for the project."

    I gotta get that Good book to go along with The Good Book. I really do think this theologically progressive movement will be mostly outside of the church.

    Part of the challenge is to structure worship (if that is even the right word) with liberal theology. I am not saying it can't be done, it is a challenge, though.

    As much as we seminary types explored higher criticism at the intellectual level, little or nothing was done about communicating that in a worship setting. Things might be slowly changing now.

    And of course, there is the whole issue of job security.

    There may be another thing, too. Many folks think it is enough to be liberal on the political/social end without adding the theological issue to the mix. It is another layer of controversy that theologically creedal but politically liberal ministers are not ready to undertake. I appreciate that. In the end, what is really important--worshiping correctly or doing justice?

    But still, I wouldn't as you say be honest if I wasn't honest!

    BTW, love the new look of your blog!

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  4. Many folks think it is enough to be liberal on the political/social end without adding the theological issue to the mix.

    Yes, that's been a point that I've raised a few times myself. I think that for a lot of self-identified progressive churches, it is really about politics; the dogma, on the other hand, goes unchallenged. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for the political progressivism, and I'm all for supporting inclusiveness in churches, but when Gene Robinson of the Episcopal church defends himself as a gay bishop by stressing his theological orthodoxy, that only serves to remind me that taking a principled stand in favor of inclusiveness seems to be accompanied in most churches by a lot of timidity when it comes to asking the hard questions posed by modern scholarship and theology.

    In the end, what is really important--worshiping correctly or doing justice?

    Well, I think that that Micah 6:8 and Amos 5:24 offered some answers in favor of doing justice. :)

    (Thanks for the feedback on the new look of my blog. :))

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  5. Welcome back. I hope you had a great trip.
    Second, I enjoy reading your writing. It's thoughtful and honest.
    Third, My guru once said that being in self pity is like peeing in your pants: at first, it feels really good, but after a while it starts to sting and smell bad. The people that love you will tell you if it's getting bad.

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  6. I didn't mean to piss myself with this post. Reading it over, perhaps I was a little melancholy.

    Ah well, on with the fight!

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  7. Seeker,

    "...but when Gene Robinson of the Episcopal church defends himself as a gay bishop by stressing his theological orthodoxy, that only serves to remind me that taking a principled stand in favor of inclusiveness seems to be accompanied in most churches by a lot of timidity when it comes to asking the hard questions posed by modern scholarship and theology."

    It could be that brother Gene really is that orthodox. Or it could be expedience.

    I see this for me, as a person who is not discriminated against by my gender, race, orientation, and what not, as a responsibility not only to support those who are discriminated against, but to push for the theological progressiveness that others cannot because they are watched closely for other reasons--like Gene.

    On the other hand, the reality is that those who hope that being super orthodox to defend their being gay or whatever doesn't work anyway.

    I can only begin to name the darlings of the evangelicals (who haven't changed much theologically) become totally vilified by the right wingers because they either came out as gay or as a gay supporter.

    Be yourself and let the chips fall is my motto.

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  8. On the other hand, the reality is that those who hope that being super orthodox to defend their being gay or whatever doesn't work anyway.

    That's a really good point. No matter how orthodox Gene Robinson may be on the divinity of Christ, on the resurrection, or the Trinity, or a thousand other issues, none of that will matter one iota to the religious conservatives. If protesting one's orthodoxy is seen as a strategy, it is one that is doomed to fail.

    We just need more clergy like you, John. That would solve a lot of problems! :)

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  9. As a theologically orthodox Christian with progressive political positions, I can sympathize with Robinson. There seems to be something in human nature that demands that questions have "either/or" answers. Thus, when one comes across in a "both/and" fashion they are looked upon with suspicion by ideologues from warring camps. Like our cousins the apes, tribal instincts are deeply ingrained in our minds. Perhaps this explains the incredulous looks I get when I defend both the deity of Christ and Barack Obama's candidacy.

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  10. "Perhaps this explains the incredulous looks I get when I defend both the deity of Christ and Barack Obama's candidacy."

    LOL!

    I have no problem with folks like you or Gene being orthodox and progressive politically or socially. I certainly have no idea regarding whys or what nots regarding Gene's orthodoxy.

    I guess what I am saying is be it because that is what you are rather than be something for expediency. Although that is easier said than done.

    BTW, the Elmer Gantry read was inspired by your book which I have not forgotten and will review shortly, I promise!

    Seeker: That is very kind but I really don't think the world needs more of me!

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  11. For some reason that reminds me of a question i have been meaning to ask you:

    How strong is Calvin's TULIP view of sin and salvation in modern Presbyterian circles? I have read that there has been a retreat in recent decades from strict interpretations of total depravity, double predestination, unconditional election and the other points.

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  12. I would also be curious about the answer to freethinker321's question.

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  13. TULIP--

    Some obvious things first. My denomination is PCUSA. It, of all the Presbyterian denominations, is the most broad theologically. Many of the other Presbyterian denominations such as PCA (of which we find quite a few in Tennessee) would embrace TULIP.

    Within the PCUSA, there are a good number of folks who would embrace TULIP and preach from it. Hard to say how many. Perhaps 10-20% would embrace it fully. The rest take some and leave some kind of along a spectrum.

    This is not based on any hard evidence, although there may be some polls. This is a guess on my part do to my experience interacting with other clergy and the number of congregations (about 10%) who united with the Confessing Church Movement which I would say embraces this kind of thought.

    We don't use those words total depravity, predestination, etc. in the Book of Order or in the newer confessions, for whatever that is worth. Newer theological study documents don't tend to use that language.

    However, some of the concepts are still used even if the language is different. For example, the word "election" is still common rather than predestination.

    It is the theology behind the baptism of infants. God chose us before we knew of it. It is about radical grace. I personally find that doctrine a beautiful one. How do I know God loves me? I remember my baptism.

    Now, there may be debate on whether or not some folks are not elected. I don't use it that way. I believe God elects everyone. I am universalist in that regard. I would say a good number of my colleagues would agree with me. What maybe 40-50% would state clearly that election should only be used in the positive sense. I am guessing on percentages based on my experience in conversation with colleagues.

    I think, and I may be wrong, but I think Swiss theologian Karl Barth was universalist in that he defended the freedom of God who desires salvation for all and therefore his will cannot be thwarted.

    People will disagree of course. But we are all in the mix.

    Total Depravity. I don't believe that. I think we would all say that no one is without sin, and that we need the grace of God (election) to recognize it, but totally depraved?

    I prefer to think along the lines of Matthew Fox, that we are originally blessed. I am not really sure how other modern Presbyterians feel about that.

    Limited atonement. I think I addressed that under election.

    I have forgotten what the other letters mean. So you can see that TULIP has less value for me.

    TULIP was not an invention by Calvin. It was a century I think after him that some Calvinists tried to narrow down Calvin, and I believe in so doing distorted him.

    That should be worth a good argument.

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  14. I could answer, but FreeThinker isn't speaking to me at the moment... ;-)

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  15. Thanks for that explanation, John.

    I've visited a few Presbyterian churches in my area and none of the ones I visited seemed very TULIP-like, but I have to admit that this issue has always stuck in the back of my mind about whether I would be getting myself into something that I couldn't identify with. I like the idea that God's grace is out of our hands and thus is a free gift from God. I don't like the idea that some people are preselected to be "elect" while others are not, or that we are all totally depraved, or that there is a substitutionary atonement and that it is only available to some people.

    Last Sunday, I almost went to a Presbyterian church that calls itself progressive. I've been there once before, and thought about giving it another chance. So I got in my car, but as I was driving there, all those things about predestination and total depravity and the elect started swirling around in my mind. I found parking right across the street, which I could have taken as a sign to just do it. But then as I sat in my parked car, I realized that it was a day of the month when they held communion, and I remembered how my refusal to take communion the last time seemed to rankle the pastor who administered it (even though she insisted beforehand that it was totally voluntary), and I just started my engine and drove away.

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  16. Now, Fly, Free, kiss and make up. Actually, I would like to read your take on TULIP, Fly.

    Seeker, we do carry our tradition in big bags. I personally find that OK. Especially, as we continue to reform it.

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  17. Wesley on Calvinism:

    “…one might say to our adversary, the devil, ‘Thou fool, why dost thou roar about any longer? Thy lying in wait for souls is as needless and useless as our preaching. Hearest thou not, that God hath taken thy work out of thy hands; and that he doeth it much more effectually? Thou, with all thy principalities and powers, canst only so assault that we may resist thee; but He can irresistibly destroy both body and soul in hell! Thou canst only entice; but his unchangeable decrees, to leave thousands of souls in death, compels them to continue in sin, till they drop into everlasting burnings. Thou temptest; He forceth us to be damned; for we cannot resist his will. Thou fool, why goest thou about any longer, seeking whom thou mayest devour? Hearest thou not that God is the devouring lion, the destroyer of souls, the murderer of men?"

    Whether one agrees with the above or not, I still maintain that it is one of the finest examples of rhetorical argument ever created. Aristotle would be proud.

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