Elmer Gantry’s Theology & the Benedict Option

bookbread pencil shavings

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.)

“Ion” and the Role of the Reciter in Twenty-First Century America

One of the first questions that comes to mind after reading Plato’s Ion (380 B.C.E.) is: What is the role of the reciter or “rhapsode” in modern America? According to Plato:

[No] man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? [01]

On the surface, it seems that Ion, as a reciter, has no equivalent counterpart in our America of the twenty-first century. Once upon a time, the role of the rhapsode was to recite Homer, which, in a sense, was the Hellenic Bible.

Like the ancients, the inhabitants of the information age can lay hold to two general types of reciters: the religious and the secular. Religious ones recite the religious texts of their sect whether Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, or Catholic. Plato confides to Ion:

[For] not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine … God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets. [02]

The religious reciter is inevitably a theologian, a word inescapably Greek.

Albert Mohler, a modern theologian and current president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has recently reported on a British survey in the [London] Times on the state of the kingdom’s preachers. He concluded his post “How Will They Hear Without a Preacher?” (Jan. 2010) by claiming that: “preaching is the central act of Christian worship,” and that the “preaching of the Word of God is the chief means by which God conforms Christians to the image of Christ.” [03]

On the other hand, the Hellenic heritage of Plato holds:

All good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed … God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us. [04]

But what kind of preaching is Mohler interested in sustaining (perhaps reviving) for modern American religious rhaposdes? Principally, Mohler means “preaching that is expository, textual, evangelistic, and doctrinal. In other words, preaching that will take a lot longer than ten minutes and will not masquerade as a form of entertainment.” [05]

If someone should masquerade as a form of entertainment while reciting a text, most modern Americans would label that person (provided they used Bookbread’s diction) a “secular rhapsode.” These Modern, secular rhapsodes recite popular movies, game lines, or popular song lyrics as seen on American Idol. Others come in the form of actors, as when last summer William Shatner recited a speech first given by Sarah Palin.

In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history . . . a reciter, such as Plato’s Ion, was a middle-man between the true poet and the audience/readership. These true poets (i.e. Homer, Sappho, David, Taliesin) might better be understood as “sub-poets” considering how Plato reduces these rhapsodes to be “interpreters of interpreters,” [06]. Homer, poet a priori, has already interpreted life and thereby created art. Rhapsodes must, in turn, interpret the original interpreter.

Elaboration for this idea of a sub-poet can be found in Dante’s suggestion in the Divine Comedy (1321) where he comments on the arts of man as being the grandchildren of God (Inferno, Canto XI, 103–105):

And, if thou note well thy Physics, thou wilt find, not many pages from the first, that your art, as far as it can, follows her, as the scholar does his master; so that your art is, as it were, the grandchild of the Deity. [07]

Likewise runs Tolkien’s idea of the true poet as a sub-creator, found in his essay On Fairy Stories (1939):

The story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator”. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. [08]

Mohler, moreover, notes in his interpretation of the [London] Times preaching survey:

Evangelicals were most enthusiastic about preaching, while others registered less appreciation for the preached Word. Interestingly, [Ruth] Gledhill reports that “Baptists and Catholics were also more enthusiastic about the Bible being mentioned in sermons than were Anglicans and Methodists.” [09]

Finally, Canadian critic Northrop Frye once observed in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) how:

Ion, which is centered on the figure of a minstrel or rhapsode, sets forth both the encyclopedic and the memorial conceptions of poetry which are typical of the romantic mode. [10]

There seems to be a bit of romanticism hinted at by Plato when he concludes the dialogue of Ion by asking: “Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?” [11]. Dare it be asked: Can the dilemma of the modern romantic rhapsode be reduced to a question of dishonesty versus inspiration?

[01] Plato. “Ion.” The Dialogues of Plato Translated into English. Trans. B. Jowett.  Third Edition. (1892). Oxford UP. Vol. 1. pp. 497.

[02] Ibid. pp. 502.

[03] Mohler, Albert. “How Will They Hear Without a Preacher?” January 20, 2010.

[04] Supra. n. 01, pp. 501–502.

[05] Supra. n. 03.

[06] Supra. n. 01, pp. 503.

[07] Alighieri, Dante. “Canto XI.” Inferno. The Divine Comedy. (1321). Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno. trans. by John A. Carlyle. Second Edition. (1867). Chapman & Hall, London. pp. 128.

[08] Tolkien, J. R. R.. On Fairy Stories. (1939). The Andrew Lang Lecture. March 8, 1939. The Monsters and the Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (1983) (2006) Harper Collins. pp. 132.

[09] Supra. n. 03.

[10] Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism. (1957). Princeton UP. Tenth Printing (1990). pp. 65.

[11] Supra. n. 1, pp. 511.