It has been many decades since I first read Sinclair Lewis’ brilliant but enigmatic work, "Elmer Gantry." Recently, it has been released once again by the Library of America in a new edition, so I wondered if it would still have the impact of a wallop as it did then. I decided to find out.
Sinclair Lewis was one of America’s greatest writers in the early part of the 20th century, and he was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1930. A few years earlier, "Elmer Gantry"appeared, and the book was considered a heresy and a travesty on religion and on the clergy, putting both in a very bad light. The non-believers loved it. The believers were appalled.
Sinclair Lewis portrayed his clergyman as ambitious but lecherous, a grandstanding pulpiteer, always scheming for a higher office and looking to climb the ecclesiastical ladder. After its appearance, Lewis, who was in Europe, was cabled by his publisher, “Reviews violent — clergy hot.”
Evangelist Billy Sunday described Lewis as “Satan’s cohort.” Upstanding Christians were aghast. The Jews did not fare that much better by Lewis. He had attempted to explore the vacuity not only of the faith, but of the clergy itself, underscoring their pomposity and verbosity and exposing their personal lives to the heresy he believed they were harboring.
All of this was represented by Elmer Gantry, but with the many implications of his colleagues and cohorts. At one point, Sinclair Lewis, speaking through the mouth of a dissenter, summarizes his complaint against religion:
“My objection to the church isn’t that the preachers are cruel, hypocritical, actually wicked, though some of them are that too — think of how many are arrested for selling fake stock, for seducing 14-year-old girls in orphanages under their care, for arson, for murder. And it isn’t so much that the church is in bondage to Big Business and doctrines as laid down by millionaires — though a lot of churches are that too. My chief objection is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday school teachings are so agonizingly dull.”
And that is just for starters.
The internal bickerings that are referred to by Lewis throughout the book are altogether quite telling. He brings to life a real chapter on the religious history of that time, the inter-denominational competition for saving souls and in a sense, who makes the least demands on its religionists.
But viewed from the perspective of today, the portrait that comes through is exceedingly shallow and unpersuasive. Times have changed, and it is true of the American people and their relationship to religion as well. Lewis pictures congregations as naïve, gullible, unsophisticated as well as untutored. There are, no doubt, sections of our country where this is at least partially true.
But people today are not impressed by vice campaigns, raids on houses of ill repute done by clergy, exclamations of the sinfulness of our society, and exhortations to repent and be saved. Verbal statements will no longer do it. The people are looking for evidence in real time. A serial adulterer preacher might get away with it for a short while, but not forever.
Lewis has exaggerated and overstated. But he has written a masterpiece of a novel which still has power and impact, still worth reading and thinking about.
At the heart of the novel are the fiery sermons and hypnotic rhetoric that evangelical preachers were capable of. They depended more on raw emotion than on reality. And Lewis did hear the famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson preach in Los Angeles. There is some echo in his book of a woman preacher with charismatic characteristics. But the stars of those times have dimmed.
The most famous evangelist of our time, the Reverend Billy Graham, is as far from Elmer Gantry as one can possibly be. He is an authentic, passionate, learned man who has led an exemplary life. It has been my privilege in the past to have spent some time with him, so I can attest to that.
If I were to try to evaluate the changes in our time, I would say there is a resurgent search for the spiritual side of religious teaching. This often clashes with institutions, hierarchies, edifices and all the necessities of institutional religious life.
The “spiritual searchers” do not want to hear that every church, mosque, or synagogue has an annual budget hovering over its head which much be met. The searcher for religious experience is often totally uninterested in that aspect of religious life, yet it is indispensable for its survival. How to ford that gap remains one of the great challenges to the continuity of religious life as we know it. And there are other challenges as well.
There are many. One of the most egregious obstacles, ironically, is the incapacity of the worshipper to sense any Divine Presence deriving from the liturgy in the prayer book in front of him or her. Once the word is printed and the prayer recited, very often the afterglow is missing. Services are too long or in the wrong language, and the sermon is often seen as being irrelevant to the needs of contemporary life. None of these are permanent strictures, but at the moment they are all present.
In his time, Sinclair Lewis hinted at all of these problems. But he went further. He implied that the clergy, through Elmer Gantry, are not concerned with problems of divinity but only with the mechanics of monetary survival and personal ambition. We need a new model for 21st Century American religious life.
Rabbi Myron M. Fenster is the rabbi emeritus of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, N.Y. A graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush, Yeshiva College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Fenster also studied in the graduate school at Columbia University for a degree in philosophy. He was the first American rabbi sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly to an Israeli congregation. He has written for several publications, including Newsday, the Jerusalem Post and Hadassah Magazine. Read more of Rabbi Fenster's reports — Go Here Now.
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