According to Wikipedia: “Elmer Gantry is a 1960 drama film about a con man and a female evangelist selling religion to small town America. Adapted by director Richard Brooks, the film is based on the 1927 novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis and stars Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy and Shirley Jones.” I won’t go into the details as to how and why I got to view what I felt was a rather captivating film but as a preacher who is sometimes accused of “selling religion” and who can identify with several of the themes covered by this film, I must “declare an interest”.
It must have been in my late teens or early twenties when I watched the film for my only time before now and I seem to recall it made a mild impression and, dare I say it, a slightly positive one. I had not long before “got religion” and, while the type of “revivalist” preaching in the film wasn’t quite what I was used to, the film served as an antidote for potential brainwashing, one of the negatives it picked up on. I recall being warned against the film in those early days because it was deemed to be making a mockery of true religion, although having just watched the film I disagree in the main. Maybe the reason for that is that I have seen many abuses of religion and, while one can’t generalize, the film came quite close in highlighting some of these and, while the preachers: Sister Sharon and Elmer were flawed characters, I have seen many like them who were just that. While I want to be like Christ, I also see aspects of Elmer in me. As the film seems to suggest, God uses flawed characters so He can impart faith, hope and love the people may otherwise not have.
I was rather intrigued, and surprised even, by the opening statement at the start of the film. I suspect the film makers would have been mindful of the sensitivities at the time, although fifty years on most people today would likely not care. The statement reads: “We believe that certain aspects of Revivalism can bear examination – that the conduct of some revivalists makes a mockery of the traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity. We believe that everyone has the right to worship according to his conscience but – Freedom of Religion is not a licence to abuse the faith of the people. However, due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it.” Besides being a commentary on the culture of the day and while I object to a mindset that sees revival in any other terms than a work of the Holy Spirit among humans and myself not caring much about organized Christianity, there is much to commend the statement, including it providing a taster to what is in the film.
One of the many pieces of wisdom cited in the film is how “the Lord moves in mysterious ways”. While there is much in the type of operation that was being portrayed that I would be uncomfortable with, as well as concerning the characters of those who were doing the preaching and set on a pedestal, I tend to concur with the St. Paul when he comments that the main thing is Christ is preached, and when Christ is preached then I am glad, because those being preached to are indeed sinners in need of a savior to save them from their sins, and Jesus alone can do it. I have been in many meetings where, let us say, there has been a revivalist type of atmosphere, and it was easy then to be swept away. While my natural skepticism applies especially to such meetings, I am never skeptical about God and the need to be reverent concerning the things of God.
I harp back to 1966 when I experienced my first “revivalist” meeting, although there were many differences to that seen in the film. It was the culmination of a Billy Graham crusade, held at Wembley stadium. Many came forward to signify they were going to give their lives to Christ. While some will have fell by the wayside, I have good reason to believe that many held strong to their newly found Christian faith, right up to the end. I too was moved and, just a few weeks later, I became a Christian. Sadly, there have been many other “revivalist” type operations where, like with Elmer Gantry, the operation and the operators were found to be wanting, but God is not mocked. Billy Graham continued to have a fruitful ministry for many years after this and it seems he has now passed the baton onto his son, Franklin, who continues to tell the same old, old story, but within a very different cultural context to that in his dad’s day.
We need revival today, more than ever, not in a half baked religion proclaimed by charlatans but rather in the adherence to Christ and the gospel message that He has entrusted to the church (see here). Without a true revival, I can see little hope for this country.