Monday, February 26, 2007

"Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis

How can I say everything I want to say about "religion" in a blog post, let alone one that's also a book review? I guess I can say -- by way of introduction -- that I see a great deal of goodness in organized religion: it builds strong social bonds, often has some connection with charity, gives people hope and purpose when they can't find it anywhere short, organized (and in this case I mean Christian) religion SHOULD be a win-win situation.

Except for two basic problems. First off, the Bible is a vague, symbolic, and contradictory document. Christians all believe certain limited things about Christ -- which is what Christianity should be about, you'd think -- but for some reason they elevate picky details ABOVE Christ. And since they tend to insist on a (totally impossible) "literal" interpretation of a vague Bible, ANY deviation is enough to cause a schism, and when athiests, Jews, and Muslims aren't strong enough opponents of the Christian church, they historically end up killing each other over the stupidest of things.

The second basic problem is that Christianity (for one) turns essential (or at least pervasive) human drives -- lust, anger, envy, curiosity, quest for knowledge -- and turns them not just into UNDESIREABLE traits, but actual SINS that must be eradicated and are more important than most things Jesus Christ ever supposedly said. People are kept beholden to their church because they need to be SAVED from these sins -- many of which they can NEVER be reasonably saved from -- and -- worst of all -- priests are expected to be even MORE perfect that the people they serve. They aren't allowed any vices, and somehow their followers can convince themselves that Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker are incorruptable. They are held to an impossible standard of "goodness." They can't just be like Doctor Phil and say "I guess I SHOULD be a better person." They MUST be better people...they must be better people than it is even POSSIBLE for a human to be.

Which brings me to "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis, a book about how priests survive in the toxic, impossible environment created by Christianity in its more literal form. Some of the priests acknowledge that their dogma is flawed -- they can't reconcile the Bible with the things they see around them, especially not in the early 1920's when science, sociology, and technology are stripping away the superstitions that religion was built on. But they STILL see the GOOD that they can do in their churches: supporting people, educating people, keeping people away from "vice.

So these priests just decide to stay quiet, view the Bible as a work full of symbols intended to help people, and work towards "liberalization from the inside."

A minority of the priests -- personified by Frank Shallard -- can't reconcile even this...and what's more they believe that there ARE no simple answers, not even from Christ himself. A fair section of the book is devoted to these sorts of soul-searching, agonizing crises of faith:
"Just what are the teachings of Christ? Did he come to bring peace or more war? He says both. Did he approve earhtly monarchies or rebel against them? He says both. Did he ever -- think of it, God himself, taking on human form to help the earth -- did he ever suggest sanitation, which would have saved millions of plagues?

"...There's just one thing that does stand out clearly and uncontradicted in Jesus' teaching. He advocated a system of economics whereby no one saved money or stored up wheat or did anything but live like a tramp. If this teahing of his had been accepted, the world would have starved in twenty years after his death!"
So which priests actually THRIVE in this environment? Hypocrites, in the form of Elmer Gantry. These people KNOW they're lying, and actually lie to get ahead, become cozier with politicians and businessmen, earn bigger profits, and -- in the case of Elmer Gantry -- hold more people in thrall. Elmer loves the money but what he loves MOST is power over others. During the course of the book he embraces hooliganism, Baptism, Revivalism, New Ageism, and finally Methodism, whichever route promises him a bigger and more adoring audience.

On the way he ruthlessly destroys everybody in his path, and also anybody he no longer has a use for. He particularly likes to "out" doubting priests like Frank Shallard, because doing so makes him appear even more dedicated and virtuous (the same way he goes on periodic "stamp out vice" sprees which accomplish absolutely nothing but victimizing a few average people).

The ultimate fate for Frank is horrifying, made even more shocking by the otherwise distant, flippant tone of the book: Sinclair Lewis is DEEPLY cynical and sarcastic, and even though he's herding the characters through an obvious round of tricks, the irony is so understated that it's up to the reader to keep up with it all: to recognize that Gantry has been rehashing the same pointless sermon for thirty years, to notice the gradual embellishments of his past, tailor-made for his audience. But when Frank Shallard is tortured and disfigured by a small-town mob who objects to his support for Darwinism, it's almost like the book has given you a physical shock. Don't read while eating.

Sinclair Lewis doesn't like Elmer Gantry, and he has little patience for people who lie and demonize even in the service of noble ends. He has nailed the character of Elmer Gantry perfectly: a man who experiences intense love for unattainable people, but utter disdain for those he's finally caught...especially women. Even his love for his mother, which seems credible at the beginning of the novel, is sidelined in his quest to head the largest anti-vice squad in the country -- a quest that he obviously attains at the end, propelled by the very people he's cheated and lied to all his life.

And does Gantry believe in God? At the beginning he is slightly AFRAID of God, but by the end God doesn't enter into the equation. He TALKS about God a lot, but that's as far as it goes. As with many powerful religious people, God becomes a tool for Elmer as opposed to an ideal. People like Elmer know how to use that tool beautifully, and through the extensive research he did for this novel, Sinclair Lewis understands how they do it too. And he uses this weighty novel to tell us about it.

So should you read the book? It's topical, written shortly after the Scopes monkey trial, and now we have our own monkey trials going on all over again. It's well-written, though you tend to share the same dislike for the characters that Sinclair Lewis has. It often feels a bit encyclopedic and dry, though it has plenty of moments of dry, hilarious, and bitterly sad black humour. I'd like to read more of his work -- Lewis even name-drops himself near the end, when a character makes fun of one of his earlier novels -- but unless you're up for a bleak study of human beings at their worst -- ala Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust" -- stay far, far away.

What about the movie? I'm watching it now, and BOY do I have lots to say.


Anonymous said...

My review of your review--in the words of Billy Sol Hurok, "That blowed up REAL good!"

Beautiful, precise little explosions.

Interested in what you say about Mama Partridge as a hooker. And Burt's hair.


VanillaJ said...

I often wonder if most professed Christians have even read the New Testament. You know, the story about Jesus asking rich men to walk away from their the garden where he instruct his disciples not to attack the Roman soldiers sent to arrest him...the part near his own death when even the son of Gawd allowed himself to express doubt..These stories seem to mean NOTHING to the Christians I've been talking to lately.

And yet, in Christian hands, "Elmer Gantry" would be added to the pile of book burnings. Poor Jebus. Lord, protect me from your followers.

Anonymous said...

Burt's hair is certainly a treat. I don't think I've seen him in any other film, and I'm still not sure whether I like him or not...

But Shirley Jones! Even though I did grow up watching The Partridge Family -- only because my sister liked it -- she'll always be Marian the Librarian to me!

Anonymous said...

Elmer Gantry was certainly banned (if not burned). I'd be VERY interested to get a Christian perspective on it, but as the book constantly points out, the perspective would vary depending on the Christian who read it.

See, that's your problem, Vanilla: you're paying attention to the LESSONS of Jesus, but overlooking the truly important parts of the bible: whether or not Baptism, snake-handling, or speaking in tongues are divine. You're also ignoring the ALL IMPORTANT miniscule details of the Holy Trinity and transubstantiation!

Someday we should watch Luis Bunels "The Milky Way," a hilarious examination of Christian heresies through the whether or not the Holy Trinity is like a "pate" or a "sandwich."

Anonymous said...

Just a note--maybe you know this:

Sharon Falconer is based both in the movie and the book, supposedly, on Aimee Semple McPherson, who was born as Aimee Kennedy in Salford, Ontario.