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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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  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!

  5. I've never read Elmer Gantry.  Since you mention it, I'll put it on my list.

    What I know of badly behaved Christian leaders is up close and personal.  Since my own regrettable run in with such a person, I've made a brief study of the type, then moved on.  I now avoid them when I can, and interact minimally when I can't.  This decision has helped me become a more effective Christian.  

    There's no need to place these people in positions of Christian leadership.  There's not need to follow them either.  While these people are often deceptive, they're not so clever that you can't discern who they are and avoid them. 

    Normally, I wouldn't suggest you avoid a brother or sister in Christ.  These people are the exception.  Whether you call them Pathological Narcissists, High functioning Sociopaths or even Psychopaths, they're bad for you and your organization. 

    If worrying about how non-Christians think about Christians motivates more of us to stop following these people, giving them money and elevating them to positions of leadership, well and good.  Whatever it takes – hallelujah!  Personally, I think the damage these people do to Christians should be incentive enough. 

  6. On another blog post on this site, I told about attending a church where they taught that church leaders should not be criticized by the laity for any reason. They misrepresented part of the Old Testament (where it said that David refused to "touch the head of God's anointed" when dealing with King Saul) in order to justify their views. 

    I left that church, even though I liked many other things about the church, because I was convinced that their attitudes about the virtually unlimited prerogatives of leadership would sooner or later lead to great harm. In my view, they were on the verge of becoming a cult, no matter how orthodox their other doctrinal positions might be. 

    I'm convinced that most of the scandals which have beset the Church have arisen because of arrogance on the part of church leaders — an arrogance which is diametrically opposed to the spirit of humility which should characterize all Christian believers. Such arrogance is often embodied in the doctrines espoused by such leaders, although you will seldom if ever hear those doctrines articulated in the official doctrinal statements of those churches. After all, admitting that one believes that one should be treated as if one is infallible is not good "P.R.". 

    Elizabeth Conley wrote, "While these people are often deceptive, they're not so clever that you can't discern who they are and avoid them." And how does one discern who they are? By asking hard questions and not resting until one has satisfactory answers.

  7. You're dead right Mr. Pettigrew.  Whether we're up to the challenge or not, we're all Christian leaders!  Someone is always following us, even if we aren't aware of it.  For this reason responsible Christians need to put some thought into where they're going.  

    Sometimes the responsibility inherent in freedom  includes asking ourselves  some hard questions about why we have chosen to follow someone we know full well is bad news!  We are what/who we support.  If we sit around grinning and pretending all is well while our "leaders" abuse our peers, we're liars.  We're telling outsiders "All is well"!  We're giving the victims of abuse the impression they deserve what the leadership is dishing out.  We're also telling the leaders their behavior is just fine, even exemplary. 

    If a leader is badly behaved, and the church won't restrain or correct him, I suggest you leave.  Making waves in that situation will only get you and your family targeted by church bullies.  I highly recommend you move on to a healthier church, pronto!   In this way you and yours can immediately find meaningful ministry, wholesome fellowship and sound teaching.  Not only that, you'll be supporting these things and attracting others to these things.  That's good leadership. 

    Ready or not, like it or not, you're already a Christian leader.  The choice is to lead well or lead poorly. 

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