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.