by John Ellis
I recently finished rereading Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, who is one of my favorite authors. The book, a satirical take on Christian fundamentalism in America, earned book bans and burnings across the country as well as threats of violence towards its author. However, being a powerful and incisively cutting, if flawed, book, Elmer Gantry became the bestselling fiction book of 1927 and eventually spawned a movie three decades later.
The title character is a womanizing, hard drinking big man on campus type that learns to harness his rhetorical powers, larger than life personality, and worst instincts in the service of building his own religious empire. The novel ends with him kneeling on the church platform, arms outstretched to his adoring audience/congregation, passionately praying accompanied by the soundtrack of applause and shouts of “triumphant hallelujahs.” Having just finagled his way out of a sex scandal and subsequent blackmail attempt that should have burned his empire to the ground, Gantry prays, “O Lord, thou hast stooped from thy mighty throne and rescued thy servant from the assault of the mercenaries of Satan! Mostly we thank thee because thus we can go on doing thy work, and thine alone!” During his prayer, he turns, “to include the choir, and for the first time he saw that there was a new singer, a girl with charming ankles and lively eyes, with whom he would certainly have to become well acquainted.” He concludes his prayer, which is the final line of the book, with the promise to God, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”
I last read Elmer Gantry sixteen years ago. As a new Christian struggling in my faith and greatly tempted to reject a God who I believed had lied to me, the novel hit me a certain way. Thankfully, by God’s grace, Sinclair Lewis’ cynicism didn’t prevail in my heart. Reading it now, especially after serving as a pastor, it hit me completely differently, helping unlock the value of the book in ways I was unable to see before. One of the warnings the book holds out (an obvious warning, to be clear) is about the pitfalls paired with the lust for fame and prestige. While a valid warning, in all fields but especially the realm of preachers and evangelists, Sinclair Lewis unfortunately overplays the danger by satirizing preachers and Christianity in such a way as to paint Gantry as an almost universal pastoral mirror. I’ve known a lot of pastors throughout my life, and very few of them have evidenced that they hide an Elmer Gantry in their soul. That doesn’t mean, though, that the temptation to be the center of attention isn’t real. The lust for fame and prestige and the power it brings sits at the center of many hearts. It was (is) in my heart, as it is in many of my pastor friends who have confessed as much to me. The desire to have an audience, on the other hand, is (can be) God honoring and commendable.
With a background in theatre and a previous career as a professional actor, I cautiously and prayerfully navigated my own pride and self-serving desires while serving as a pastor (and before becoming a pastor whenever I was asked to pray or read Scripture during the worship service and teach/preach). I would go through my motives with a fine-tooth comb, living with a near constant existential agony over the fact that I could not shake my desire to have an audience. While my motives were right, I believe, I ironically ended up making a mountain out of a mole hill and taking on guilt and angst that was unnecessary. And at times, as a non-pastor, I’ve allowed that guilt keep me from exercising my gifts for God’s glory and the edification of His people. You see, there is a difference between wanting to be the center of attention and the desire for an audience; they’re not synonyms. As an actor, I should’ve known this.
For sure, there are actors that crave attention. I’ve worked with actors like that, and those types of actors are generally viewed in the industry as irritating, at best, to work with. Most actors and directors do not look fondly on those peers who exhibit a desire to proverbially (and sometimes literally) park themselves center stage and bask in the spotlight. In my experience, those type of actors are few and far between. Most actors desire an audience because they desire communion; they want to have a shared experience with a room filled with Image bearers. Actors long to share stories with other people. Doing so requires an audience.
While working as an actor, I dreaded (more than most) curtain calls and the congratulatory pats-on-the-back from audience members who managed to find their way into the green room. My dread wasn’t owing to any sort of introversion. I dreaded those interactions because they were discouraging. After spending my energy communicating a story with fellow Image bearers, I didn’t want to hear what a great actor I was; I wanted to hear how the story moved them. My favorite interactions with audience members were when they communicated back to me the resonance and existential profundity they had gleaned from the play. Most actors I know feel the same way.
As a pastor, I harbored some of that same dread at the conclusion of my sermons. While I appreciated the intent, hearing praises of my homiletic abilities, vocal abilities, etc. was not what I longed for. Hearing how the Holy Spirit used and was using the preaching of God’s Word in their heart was the applause I longed for. And most pastors I know feel the same way.
Those desires – the desires held by actors and preachers to share an experience with an audience – reflect aspects of being made in God’s image. God didn’t create us to live in isolation; God created us for relationship with Himself and others. As audience members, shared experiences with fellow audience members are part of that. No less are the experiences of the storyteller (actor) communing a story with his or her audience. And the desire for that experience – the desire to share a story with fellow Image bearers – honors the One in whose image we are created. If it’s true for actors, and it is, it’s true for pastors who desire an audience. They desire to communicate God’s Word to God’s people for God’s glory and their mutual edification and sanctification.
There are a few takeaways from this. For the audience members, the congregation, you have a communicative responsibility, too. You’re not passive consumers; you’re Image bearers tasked with the privilege of receiving God’s Word. Prayerfully do so with the desire to be changed by it, to be conformed into the image of the Son. Actively listen, and if you can’t tell the preacher how the Holy Spirit used and is using the ministry of the Word in your own heart and life, start with the assumption that the problem lies in your heart that has a desire for consumption instead of communion. Of course, the sermon could be unbiblical. If so – if that’s a regular occurrence at your church – you may want to find a new church family. However, a biblically faithful sermon poorly preached/delivered is not an excuse to refuse the blessing of receiving God’s Word preached. If your first impulse upon the conclusion of the sermon or Sunday school lesson is to critique and criticize the vocal qualities, pulpit presence, length of the sermon, etc., you are likely steering into the consumerist instincts we all have hidden in our heart.
For preachers and teachers of God’s Word, pastors and non-pastors alike, guard against false guilt over your desire to have an audience. Praise God that He’s given you a platform from which to preach and teach. Likewise, praise God that He’s sent people to hear you preach and teach. And be thankful for the audience the Holy Spirit has given you, no matter the numbers. A word of caution, though: we need to be honest in our heart about our desire. Is it truly a desire for God honoring communion for the sake of preaching Christ crucified? Or is it a desire to be the center of attention? There is a difference. One reflects being made in God’s image and harbors the healthy goal of seeing God’s Word turn hearts and minds towards their Savior. The other is a reflection of idolatry in our heart and harbors the goal of magnifying self about God.
Desiring an audience isn’t a synonym with the desire to build your own religious empire. It’s a desire that honors God and seeks to bless others through communion.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Interestingly, at least to me, and not related to my objective with this article, the same is true of Kafka. Before I became a Christian, I devoured The Trial and The Castle multiple times. They spoke into my existential angst in quite profound ways. Since becoming a Christian, though, Kafka holds a much deeper resonance for me. His masterful books contain truth I didn’t/couldn’t see as an unbeliever. The same holds true with Camus, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Not Sartre, though. I’ve never really enjoyed reading him, neither before I was a Christian nor since. He’s always been more in the category of “well, I should probably read him because it’s expected of me” than the category of “because I want to.”