Elmer Gantry’s Theology & the Benedict Option

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Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option seeks to establish clusters of Christian communities instead of cloisters. The Ben Opters have two enemies: Secular Liberal Purists and Moral Therapeutic Deists.

I agree with C. S. Lewis that atheism is too easy, but I severely disagree that simplicity in theology is somehow the work of the devil (Mere Christianity. NY: Macmillan. 1944. Reprint 1952. 46-48). Rather simplicity is the way to wisdom—just as brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet II, ii)—but Lewis doesn’t address this point.

Yet once all the orthodox-in-name-only have been purged (or politely asked to leave) the cluster sought by Dreher and others, how will the remaining Ben Opters handle the Elmer Gantrys who will inevitably emerge from among them?

Take a funny scene from Sinclair Lewis’s novel from 1927:

“And of course, Brother Fislinger, you believe in infant damnation.”

Eddie explained, “No; that’s not a Baptist doctrine.”

“You–you–” The good doctor choked, tugged at his collar, panted and wailed: “It’s not a Baptist doctrine? You don’t believe in infant damnation?”

“W-why, no–”

“Then God help the Baptist church and the Baptist doctrine! God help us all, in these unregenerate days, that we should be contaminated by such infidelity!” Eddie sweat, while the doctor patted his plump hands and agonized: “Look you here, my brother! It’s very simple. Are we not saved by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, and by that alone, by his blessed sacrifice alone?”

“W-why, yes, but–”

“Then either we are washed white, and saved, or else we are not washed, and we are not saved! That’s the simple truth, and all weakenings and explanations and hemming and hawing about this clear and beautiful truth are simply of the devil, brother! And at what moment does a human being, in all his inevitable sinfulness, become subject to baptism and salvation? At two months? At nine years? At sixteen? At forty-seven? At ninety-nine? No! The moment he is born! And so if he be not baptized, then he must burn in hell forever. What does it say in the Good Book? ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ It may seem a little hard of God to fry beautiful little babies, but then think of the beautiful women whom he loves to roast there for the edification of the saints! Oh, brother, brother, now I understand why Jimmy here, and poor Elmer, are lost to the faith! It’s because professed Christians like you give them this emasculated religion! Why, it’s fellows like you who break down the dike of true belief, and open a channel for higher criticism and sabellianism and nymphomania and agnosticism and heresy and Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism and all those horrible German inventions! Once you begin to doubt, the wicked work is done! Oh, Jim, Elmer, I told you to listen to our friend here, but now that I find him practically a free-thinker–”

Theology will not save Americans from being themselves, just as it could not save a genius Jew from Poland like Solomon Maimon:

Originally the Cabbalah [that is, “tradition”] was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. The big promise of its design, to work effects on nature at pleasure, the lofty strain and the pomp with which it announces itself, have naturally an extraordinary influence on minds of the visionary type, that are unenlightened by the sciences and especially by a thorough philosophy. (Autobiography, Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888, p. 94)

Or as Walter Kaufmann once put it:

Theology is a misguided attempt to make poetry scientific, and the result is neither science nor poetry. (Critique of Religion and Philosophy. NY: Doubleday. 1958. §58, p. 238.)


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