The Reverend Elmer Gantry was reading an illustrated pink periodical devoted to prize fighters and chorus girls in his room at Elizabeth J. Schmutz Hall late of an afternoon when two large men walked in without knocking.
“Why, good evening, Brother Bains—Brother Naylor! This is a pleasant surprise. I was, uh— Did you ever see this horrible rag? About actresses. An invention of the devil himself. I was thinking of denouncing it next Sunday. I hope you never read it—won’t you sit down, gentlemen?—take this chair— I hope you never read it, Brother Floyd.
~Sinclair Lewis, from Elmer Gantry
Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Among his numerous books and characters, none was more memorable than Elmer Gantry, the hypocritical evangelical minister. The book was scandalous in 1927 and was banned in many places. Decades later the novel was the basis for a movie starring Burt Lancaster who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance. The role struck a nerve because people are hungry for moral leadership and are likewise merciless when the person they trust turns out to be an unethical clergyman.
Just as Tennessee Williams’s minister in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‘ is insensitive and crass, Lewis defines Gantry as a mercenary of the gospel — uncompassionate, pompous, and ambitious. He has no depth as a person, nor has he a heart for God or his people. From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter‘ to Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible‘, clergy have suffered from the dramatic portrayal of their failure to live up to the ideals they espoused, and though we might like to dismiss the stories as exaggeration, the six o’clock news knows no shortage of despicability among the clergy.
Literature offers trenchant commentary, but none sharper than the Apostle Paul who knew the importance of a blameless example. Paul knew that the greatest damage that Satan can do to the church is to discredit its leaders. We should all pray for the people who lead us from the pulpit.
1 Thessalonians 2:3–12
For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children.
Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.