In the Mirror We Find Something of Elmer Gantry

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by Lucky Garvin

After watching Burt Lancaster portray Elmer Gantry in the 1960 movie based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis, I went to the library and looked over the critical commentary on the character of Gantry. They say little to commend him; and they are right… almost.

They say Gantry is a con with a collar, a fallen preacher. He is an evangelist who invites people into the house of God where he chooses not to dwell. Here is a man assuming an external conformity of virtue, but in truth, nothing contends for his soul; it is in the open possession of greed. Gantry has faith in Gantry, and nothing else.

Vanity is his substitute for faith; “goodness” is defined by what’s in it for him. He lives guiltlessly for there are no proscriptions to violate.  This preacher is inwardly more aligned with his own purposes than with God’s.

Does Gantry presume a state of communion with his Creator? Does he truly believe God shares his views? No. He doesn’t care. The language of, and the talent for, evangelism are appropriated by Gantry in the service of his own advancement, and in this, he holds another god foremost: Himself. But, Lawdy, this man can fill a tent! Do I hear an “Amen!?”

But what his critics do not see hangs on this question: If the subject of God never enters Gantry’s thinking, does the subject of Gantry ever enter God’s thinking? The question is vital as it appears God chose as His emissary Gantry The Apostate, sorely afflicted by self, to appeal to masses sorely afflicted by doubt. A peculiar choice that. Was Heaven short of volunteers? If you want an important task accomplished, do you send your most – or your least – qualified person? Do you send a fraud? It’s counter-intuitive to send a non-believer to save souls.

Religious conversion often has a short half-life. In the movie, several local ministers, made pessimistic by experience, play down the effect of Gantry’s preaching. Despite sinners’ initial ardor for The Word, most of them will backslide before long, falling into a compromise between the ecstasy of the spirit and the hungers of the flesh. They do not give their souls to Jesus, so much as loan them; then take them back. There is truth in that cynicism. In effect, it makes no difference how many sheep Gantry gathers; most of the flock will soon disperse.

Yet, if but one of the ninety and nine is bought to Heaven by Gantry, what then? If only one of the throng who sought grace amidst canvass found it for a lifetime, what may we conclude about this most negligent shepherd?

Throughout the annals of man, religion has been suborned as a pretext for war or acquisition, “a cloak for our shivering ignorance,” or a means for the ends of control. The historical roster of those who ignored religion while borrowing its terms and forms is of a demoralizing length.

There’s an old saying, “God doesn’t choose the qualified, He qualifies the chosen.” God chooses a man who rejects Him: Gantry, the ordained minister, the fire-breathing champion of rectitude, the man who said in wonder, “When I preach, I get this wonderful feeling,” is nevertheless the same man who refuses to walk through the opened door. He loves the warmth, but wants no part of the fire. Yet, he unwittingly shows other people the way, some of whom will walk the path, many of whom will not. For Gantry, it’s but a night’s performance; for those who hear him, it may be all.

 “One” seems to be a dispensable minority, but “one” is the universe if it’s you that’s lost; and one is the universe for the Creator who loves you. So we speculate anew what is important to the Creator. He sets ultimate store by Gantry as He does by each and every “one.” (Thus, the Creator has many “universes.”) But first, each of us must choose.

Gantry is a genial rogue, untrustworthy, but loveable. Most of us presume an un-severable obligation to integrate our philosophy and our conduct. Gantry is not so encumbered. Still, we think we recognize something familiar as we study him and the people he preached to; those who fell back, and those who moved forward.

We recognize something of ourselves, and we are moved to forgive him his faults because we share them. Gantry had Gantry, his flock had its skepticism, but how many of us pray without doubt or vanity? In the end, Elmer Gantry is a panorama of human kind and a chastening. It leads us to suspect – despite our confident interpretations – that we little understand the workings of the Eternal mind.