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Elmer Gantry’s 80th Anniversary

Many people didn’t realize that 2007 marked the 80th anniversary of “Elmer Gantry” – Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 fictional portrait of a bogus evangelist. The novel itself wasn’t great as a written work, and as the Wall Street Journal points out, even it’s admirers found little to praise as a work of literature. But the image of the con-artist, scamming preacher lives on in our collective memory. The novel was so controversial that it was literally banned in Boston, even though it sold 175,000 copies in it’s first few weeks. The story has given us not only a list of powerful archetypes for this kind of character, but an almost endless list of clichés as well.

I mention it, because it’s a great example of how perceptions of the culture color a subject. The novel isn’t remembered because of the quality of writing or the excellence of the story, but because of the indelible cultural image it created about a preacher who couldn’t be trusted. It’s a powerful reminder as we watch religious TV today, or watch another TV evangelist get put under the microscope for misuse of funds, sexual shenanigans, or other inappropriate action.

For years, I’ve actually had an original movie poster from Elmer Gantry hanging in my office as a reminder of how important that trust really is.  I actually believe that most of these men and women – perhaps even Elmer – have a trace of genuine faith. But that faith gets too easily choked out by hypocrisy, greed, lust, charlatanism, and self-promotion. (Sounds a little like a parable about seeds). As a result, these images do more to damage the culture’s perception of the Christian faith than we can imagine, and we could do well to learn from the consequences of Elmer.

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7 Comments

  1. I used to be of the perfectionist attitude towards failed preachers then I looked at my family and said to myself God is very good. As long as there is the human element of the sinful nature alive in us, it is very hard for us to control what one Christian will do in the private and public arena. I cannot control how my family behave (and some of it is rather quite sad) but I can better represent them (and pray for them)to people no matter how others may perceive them. Even Jesus when dealing with the churches in Revelation, had to deal with two churches caught in sexual immorality and eating food to idols – back then!But He did not deny them and gave them opportunities to repent and gain rewards. It is tough, but once we can accept that some of us will do these things and not act like it will not happen, we will be better prepared for such matters and somewhere in God’s wisdom, still be effective witnesses in our world today.

  2. I think as Christians we need to separate the ideas of fellowship with the body, from leadership within and of the body.

     There is no question that all of us entirely depend upon Grace in our Christian walks and we are in no position to judge a person's salvation and relationship with God.  We are to examine the fruit of our live's however and on that basis ot challenge ourselves and others to grow in that grace.

    Leadership is another matter.  I believe fallen leaders can be restored to leadership, but it is not a given that every leader should be.  Some sins, while absolutely under the Grace of God in terms of salvation and fellowship, should carry temporal restrictions from leadership.  Pedophiles, habitual adulterers, abusive addicts etc. may repent and should be counselled and disciplined that doesn't mean you put them in charge of a Youth program.

    I don't presume to know perfectly each case but I believe we err as Christians too often in elevating and maintaining fallen leaders and we do them and the church a grave disservice by keeping them in temptation and looking like fools to the world.  Jesus said many would call us fools for his sake, but I think some of us think that looking for opportunities to be fools is a virtue, and it is not.  When we look like fools because we're doing Biblically foolish things, we're not suffering for Jesus.  We're bringing shame to His Name and becoming a stumbling block for others to come to Christ.

    I'm becoming more convinced that TV ministries that are not tied to a formal board which in turn is tied to a Church body with a full disciplinary process are organizationally just asking for trouble.  When the existence of the organization becomes elevated over the reputation of Christ and the Church at large something is wrong and it is a formula for disaster, no matter how good and pure the intentions of the ministers and their staffs.

  3. Many years ago I was a 21 yr old junior writer/producer for PTL Television Network in Charlotte. We're talking late '70s. My assignment for a few days was to compile the Neilson ratings for the PTL Club tv broadcast. I went over reams of paperwork, looked over every single USA market and came to the conclusion based on research that the PTL Club was barely a blip on the radar screen compared to Phil Donahue, soap operas and The Today Show wherever it aired. It had an audience – maybe a million per day – and that was a stretch.

    Perhaps a week or two after my handing in the ratings to the in-house advertising agency, Jim Bakker announced on the air that the PTL Club was being watched by 20 million people a day. I was stunned, and said so to my wife, Yvonne, who also worked at PTL. "It's impossible," I said. "I just did the ratings. No way 20 million people are watching." Yvonne sort of scolded me, mildly, that I was to trust what Jim said as he was the one God was blessing to lead PTL. If Jim said it, then, obviously, it must be true.

    In the seminal book, Forgiven, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Charles Shepherd (who broke the Jessica Hahn story for the Charlotte Observer), it was documented that Jim Bakker (along with an advisor, Bob Manzano) made up the 20 million people watching figure. It was their creative fiction blurted out onto the TV airwaves to make PTL look good – sort of like the evangelist who claims larger crowds and miracles than actually occured to validate his/her ministry's success.

    Moral of the story? Be careful what you believe, measure what you hear, be wise in whom you follow. Even more so in an age with 215 channels. This points to the incredible responsibility we have as Believers to speak and act with INTEGRITY.

  4. It seems that every time there is a major spiritual awakening, there's always something else that comes along to try and rationalize it as a simplistic, naive movement of well-wishers and hypocrites. "Inherit the Wind", " the broadway play, "The Faith Healer", And now, the producers of Highschool Musical are remaking "Footloose" (which at it's heart, once again depicts kids trying to get away from the views of dogmatic, overbearing Christians. Lovely!) We as influencers have been gifted by God to change the way this generation views Christians & give people a taste of the real thing. Let's go for it!

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