19 June 2008

The Morning and the Evening Star

In the time since I last posted (--awkward silence, shuffle shuffle--), I finally sat down to read Sinclair Lewis' novel Elmer Gantry (1927). I can't recommend it highly enough - and not simply because Lewis' lambasting of Fundagelicalism is razor-sharp, which it is, but because the author is a true master at portraying truly, vitally human characters in all their tragic, hypocritical, self-deluded glory.

I also had a chance to watch the film version (1960). Although like most adaptations of great novels it differs considerably from the text, the film isn't just an incomplete, shoddy rip-off of a brilliant original. The film is an artfully, powerfully-constructed whole that is worthy in its own right. Burt Lancaster captures Gantry's infuriating ambivalence, his mercurial hypocrisy, perfectly. You never can tell how much or how often he means what he's saying, how he justifies what he does and how he preaches - and that's precisely the feeling that Lewis created in the original. And the monologue by a (much changed) Jim Lefferts will make you want to stand up and cheer - none the less because of how daring it was to make such a statement in the heart of the red scare.

But of the many things I've taken away from these works of art, I find one to be particularly upsetting. The copy of Gantry that I read was borrowed from the Div School library - and throughout the entire book, I couldn't help but imagine the internal monologues of the seminarians who came before me as they read along with Lewis. They all, I'm sure, went along similar lines. "Oh how dreadful Gantry is. Such a hypocrite. Such a disgusting misuse of the Bible. His interpretation of Christianity is so crass, so self-serving, so puerile. He's not a true Christian like I am. Well done, Sinclair Lewis, for pointing out the follies and excesses of this brand of Christianity -- but I wish he wouldn't take it so far. The author clearly doesn't understand what true Christianity is all about. The poor misguided man. I shall pray for him."

In other words, it's the classic 'no true Scotsman' argument that every liberal theist uses like a get-out-of-jail free card whenever they're confronted by someone doing ugly things with their religion. Now, I'll agree heartily that the New Atheists are not altogether unfairly criticized for focusing their efforts exclusively on the straw man of biblical literalism -- which no 'enlightened' Christian has believed for a century. When we do this, we are guilty of misrepresenting Christianity in toto. But that's not to say that liberal Christianity is blameless. Far from it! By focusing solely on the wackjobs, we've been missing out on an opportunity to hold the liberal religious accountable for their own faults, and allowing them to keep playing the Scotsman card as often as they care to. To my knowledge, none of us has seriously engaged the liberal theists in debate in their own terms, and it's high time we stopped picking on the backwoods pea-brains who most Christians even disavow and started tackling the more polite, urbane superstitions of the more modern, well-educated believers.

It's a shame I don't know any. (Strange, that - since the Div school is crawling with them. Too bad I'm such a crotchety grump.)

But it's a project to keep on the back burner until a good subject comes along.

No comments: