If you have never seen the movie Elmer Gantry, and live in the NYC area then get offline and watch the movie tonight (Saturday Dec 25th) on PBS at 9PM. It is the classic tale of the end of the third great revival and turn toward secularism of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The story shows:
Uneducated outreach working making up the tenets of faith as they go along.
They are good at outreach but never studied in a seminary and do not have real ordinations.
The hypocrisy of financial, sexual, and criminal scandal among those preaching.
The emotional manipulation of the masses and peoples lives.
The egoism and narcissism of those involved.
It also show the complacency and acquiescence of the Established churches who should have know better.
For my Jewish viewers notice the shifts in preaching from New Thought to Methodist to pure emotionalism and ask yourself where a given Jewish kiruv organization fits in. New Thought is the secrets and powers of faith, Methodism is the regular public Bible reading and the emotional manipulation speaks for itself.
What one wont get from the movie and book is an sense of the grappling and loss felt by the ordinary believer. It is not about the struggles of living with the realization of chicanery, anti-intellectualism, and manipulation. The story is only about the self-aggrandized rise to power.
The original book was 460 pages and was scandalous when it came out in 1927, the movie used only 100 pages of the book and by the time it came out in 1960 was noted more for its acting than its social criticism. Go read the book- It is one of the classics of 20th century relgion.Elmer Gantry ranked as the number one fiction bestseller of 1927, according to “Publisher’s Weekly”.
For a complete copy of the book for those who read online- see here.
Lewis did research for the novel by observing the work of various preachers in Kansas City in his so-called “Sunday School” meetings on Wednesdays. He first worked with William L. “Big Bill” Stidger (not Burris Jenkins), pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend L.M. Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. Lewis preferred the liberal Birkhead to the conservative Stidger, and on his second visit to Kansas City, Lewis chose Birkhead as his guide. Other KC ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, and Bert Fiske.
The character of Sharon Falconer was based on elements in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson, an American evangelist who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.
On publication in 1927, Elmer Gantry created a public furor. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the USA. One cleric suggested that Lewis should be imprisoned for five years, and there were also threats of physical violence against the author. The famous evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort”.
Baylor professor wrote a book a few months ago connecting Elmer Gantry to today.
Public fights over the role morality and churches should play in American life. Vocal evangelicals tripped by personal scandals. Heated debates over science versus religion, definitions of obscenity, a presidential candidate’s religious faith.
Welcome to — the Roaring Twenties?
As current as many of those topics seem today, they were equally vibrant in 1920s America, said Baylor University professor of history Barry Hankins in his new book, “Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars.” published this month by Palgrave McMillan.
“After a period of about a half century, from the 1930s to the 1980s, when religion was viewed more as a private, individual concern, I wanted to show how similar the place of religion was in the public arena in both the ’20s and now,” he said.
Try former baseball player Billy Sunday, whose dynamic preaching style and pop culture sensibilities packed his revival tents and tabernacles in the 1910s and 1920s. Or female evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, whose dramatic stage presence and radio preaching drew thousands each week to her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, including Hollywood actors and filmmakers seeking to learn from her style.
Today’s religious-flavored debates over abortion, science and intelligent design, homosexuality and morality in media had equally emotional counterparts in 1920s fights over Prohibition, the teaching of evolution, fundamentalism and book censorship.
Hankins said a popular misconception of the 1920s is that fundamentalism and conservative Christianity were defeated in the public arena in controversies over Prohibition and the1925Scopes Trial concerning the teaching of evolution. “(Fundamentalists) didn’t disappear. They were vigorously building Bible colleges and mission programs in the time between the 1930s and 1980s,” he said.
Likewise, viewing the Scopes trial as a fundamentalist-vs.-science battle overlooks the effort by liberal Protestants in that decade to discredit fundamentalism as preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick argued faith and science could be reconciled.