April 20, 2009
A caricature nicely drawn
I've started reading Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, and I must say that I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I know it satirizes Christianity and the ministry, and that the Southern Baptist Convention probably had three fits when it came out, but for all that I'm finding it a very thoughtful read. Even though I haven't met any really sympathetic characters I have encountered quite a few scenes addressing calling, faith, wimps in the church, the seductions of power vis a vis the pulpit, Christian education, the challenges of the pastorate, atheism, etc. I certainly wouldn't say that in these first few chapters Lewis has painted the whole of Christianity, but the part he paints I'd say he paints quite fairly. All the things he caricatures are things that Christians, both individually and corporately/organizationally, wrestle with on a ongoing basis. I think one of the reasons Lewis's critique is so valuable is that the characters are (primarily) drawn from inside the church. For instance, Elmer Gantry isn't a profane fellow who decides that being a used car salesman is too much work and turns to selling salvation instead. Rather, imagine a young man growing up whose mind is completely formed by life in the church. Aside from a few college songs his entire imagination is formed by Sunday morning worship -the marching rhythm of its hymns, the rolling thunder of the preacher's voice expounding on the juicier bits of the Bible, the stained glass giving forth gaudily behind the choir, and all the various kings of the Old Testament adorned with gold, silver, crimson, and purple. Imagine a young man growing up with a mind shaped to the liturgy who nevertheless knew nothing of grace and doctrine and who (together with a friend) assuaged his hours of boredom with drunkenness and easy affection. That is Elmer Gantry at the point before he "converts" and is persuaded to attend seminary. To a large degree that is still Elmer Gantry when he sits before the crowd of parishioners to be ordained. Where he goes from there it's rather easy to guess.