Elmer Gantry EvolvesThe
old woman said,"All these
years of having to pretend to be good when
we were just common folks!
Ain't you glad you can just be simple folk?"
"Maybe it is restful. But
that's not saying I wouldn't do it over again."
old man ruminated a long
"I think I would. Anyway, no use discouraging these young people
from entering the ministry. Somebody
got to preach the gospel
truth, ain't they!"
"I suppose so. Oh, dear. Fifty years since I
married a preacher! And if I could still only be sure about the
virgin birth! Now don't
you go explaining!
I know it's true - it's in the Bible. If I could only
"I would of
liked to had you try your hand at politics. If I could of been, just once,
to a senator's house, to a banquet or something, just once, in a nice bright
red dress with gold slippers, I'd of been willing to go back to alpaca and
scrubbing floors, and listening to you rehearsing your sermons, out in the
stable, to that old mare we had for so many years."
"Why is that it's
only in religion that the things you got to believe are agin all experience?
Now don't you go and quote that 'I believe as it is impossible at me again!
Believe because it's impossible! Just like a minister!"
I hope I don't live long enough to lose my
faith," he replied.
second year of seminary, just finished, Elmer Gantry had been more
voluminously bored than ever at
Constantly Elmer Gantry had
thought of quitting, but after
his journeys to the city of
Monarch, where he was in closer
relation to fancy ladies and to bartenders than one would have desired in a
holy clerk, Elmer Gantry got a second wind in his resolve to lead
a pure life, and so managed to keep
on toward perfection, as symbolized by the degree of
Bachelor of Divinity.
observed, "Morning, Mrs.
Gantry. Elmy, going to be a preacher, eh'!"
"I am, Hank."
"Like it?" Hank
was grinning and scratching his cheek.
Elmer Gantry boomed, "I do,
Hank. I love it! I love the ways of the Lord, and I don't ever propose to put
my foot into any others! Because I have tasted the fruit of evil, Hank - you
know that. And there's nothing to it. What fun we had, Hank, was nothing to the
peace and joy I feel now. I
am kind of sorry for you, my boy."
He loomed over Hank, dropped his paw
heavily on his shoulder. "Why don't you try to get right with God? Or maybe
you're smarter than he is!"
"Never claimed to be anything of the sort!"
snapped Hank, and in that testiness Elmer Gantry triumphed and Elmer Gantry's mother exulted.
"We're all just rarin' to go out and
preach the precious Baptist doctrine of 'Get ducked or duck.'
We admit it.
And people actually
sit and listen to us, and don't choke!
I suppose they're overwhelmed by
And we have to have nerve, or we'd never dare to stand in a
We'd quit, and pray God to forgive us for having stood up
and pretended that we represent God, and that we can explain what we
ourselves say are the unexplainable
But I still claim that there are preachers who haven't
Why is it that the clergy
are so given to sex crimes?"
"I'm glad to
hear you say that,"
the Baptists and the Methodists have all the numbskulls - except those that
belong to the Catholic Church and the henhouse sects - and so even you, Horace,
can get away with being a prophet.
There are some intelligent people in
the Episcopal and Congregational Churches, and a few of the Campbellite flocks,
and they check up on you.
Of course all Presbyterians are half-wits,
too, but they have a standard doctrine, and they can trap you into a
But in the
Baptist and Methodist churches, man!
There's the berth for philosophers
like me and hoot-owls like you, Eddie!
All you have to do with Baptists
and Methodists, as Father Carp suggests."
have to do," said Zenz, "is to get some sound and perfectly meaningless
doctrine and keep
Brother Elmer Gantry was shaking hands all
Brother Elmer Gantry's sanctifying ordination, or it might have
been his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he
could greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing machine agent.
Elmer Gantry shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more
aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss.
Elmer Gantry said the right things about the weather, and by luck or
inspiration it was to the most acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted
a homicidal text from Malachi.
call them doubts? Doubting is a very healthy sign, especially in the young.
Don't you see that otherwise you'd simply be
swallowing instruction whole, and
no fallible human instructor can always be right, do you think?"
began it - began a talk, always cautious, increasingly frank, which lasted till
midnight. Dr. Zechlin lent him (with the adjuration not to let anyone else see
them) Renali's "Jesus," and Cae's "The Religion of a Mature
Frank came again to his room and they
walked, strolled together through sweet
apple orchards, paying no attention even of Indian summer pastures in their
concentration on the destiny of man and
the grasping gods.
three months did Zechlin admit that he was an
not for another month that
atheist would perhaps be a sounder name for him than agnostic.
Before ever he had taken his theological doctorate, Zechlin had felt
that it was as impossible to take
literally the myths of Christianity as
to take literally the myths
For many years
he had rationalized his heresies.
These myths, he comforted himself, are symbols embodying the glory of
God and the leadership of Jesus' genius.
He had worked out a
The literalist asserts that a flag is something
holy, something to die for, not symbolically but in itself.
The infidel, at the other end of the scale, maintains that the flag is
a strip of wool or silk or
rather unaesthetic marks printed on it, and of considerably less use, therefore
of less holiness and less romance,
than a shirt or a blanket.
But to the
unprejudiced thinker, like
himself, it was a symbol,
sacred only by suggestion but not the less sacred.
After nearly two
decades he knew that he had been deceiving himself; that he did not actually
admire Christ as the sole leader; that the teachings of Jesus were
contradictory and borrowed from earlier rabbis; and that if the teachings of
Christianity were adequate flags,
symbols, philosophies for
most of the bellowing preachers whom he met and detested, then perforce they
must for him be the flags, the symbols, of the
Yet he went on
as a Baptist preacher, as a teacher of ministerial cubs.
And he did love to tread
"Oh, my God, it is so sweet - so
sweet!" he sighed, as he fumbled for her hand and felt it slip confidently into
Suddenly he was ruthless, tearing it all down:
"To darn' sweet for me, I guess. Sharon, I'm a bum.
I'm not so bad as a preacher, or I wouldn't be if I had the
chance, but me - I'm no good.
I have cut out the booze and
tobacco - for you -
I really have!
But I used to drink like a fish, and till I met you I
never thought any woman except my
mother was any good.
just a second-rate traveling man.
I came from Paris, Kansas, and I'm
not even up to that hick burg, because they are hard-working and decent there,
and I'm not even that.
And you - you're not only a prophetess, which
you sure are, the real big thing, but you're a Falconer.
Family! Old Servants! This old house!
Oh, it's no use!
You're too big for me. I can't
lie to you!"
He had put away her
slim hand, but it came creeping back over his, her fingers tracing the valleys
between his knuckles while she murmured:
be big! I'll make you!
Perhaps I'm a prophetess, a little bit, but I'm
also a good liar.
You see. I'm not a Falconer. There ain't any! My name
is Katie Jonas.
I was born in Utica. My dad worked on a brickyard.
I picked out the name Sharon Falconer while I was a stenographer.
I never saw this house till two years ago; I never saw these old
family servants till then - they
worked for the folks that owned the place - and even they weren't Falconers -
they had the aristocratic name of Sprugg!
Incidentally, this place isn't
a quarter paid for.
I am Sharon Falconer now!
I've made her -
by prayer and by having a right to be her!
And you're going to stop
being poor Elmer Gantry of Paris, Kansas.
You're going to be the
Reverend Dr. Gantry, the great captain of souls!
Oh, I'm glad you don't
come from anywhere in particular!
Oh, you will serve me - won't you?"
"Forever!" And there was little said then.
Even the agreement
that she was to get rid of Cecil, to make Elmer her permanent assistant, was
reached in a few casual assents.
was certain that the steely film of her dominance was withdrawn.
Yet when they went in, she said gaily that they must be early abed; up
early tomorrow; and that she would take ten pounds off him at tennis.
When he whispered. "Where is your room, sweet?" she laughed with a
chilling impersonality, "You'll never know, poor lamb!"
Elmer the bold,
Elmer the enterprising, went clumping off to his room, and solemnly he
undressed, wistfully he stood by the window, his soul riding out on the
He jumped into bed and dropped toward sleep, too weary
with fighting her résistance to lie thinking of possible tomorrows.
He heard a tiny scratching noise.
It seemed to him that it was the doorknob turning.
He sat up,
The sound was frightened away, but began again, a faint
grating, and the bottom of the door swished slowly on the carpet.
fan of pale light from the hall widened and, craning, he could see her, but
only as a ghost, a white film.
held out his arms, desperately, and presently she stumbled against them.
Hers was the voice of a sleep-walker.
just came in to say good-night and tuck you into bed. Such a bothered unhappy
child! Into bed. I'll kiss you good-night and run."
His head burrowed
into the pillow. Her hand touched his cheek lightly, yet through her fingers
flowed a current which lulled him into slumber, a slumber momentary but deep
With effort he said, "You too - you need comforting, maybe you need
bossing, when I get over being scared of you."
"No. I must take my
loneliness alone. I'm
different, whether it's cursed or blessed. But -
lonely - yes -
sharply awake as her fingers
slipped up his cheek, across his temple, into his swart hair. "Your hair is so
thick," she said drowsily.
"Your heart beats so. Dear Sharon -"
Suddenly, clutching his arm, she cried. "Come! It is the call!"
He was bewildered as he followed her, white in her night-gown trimmed
at the throat with white fur, out of his room, down the hall, up a steep little
stairway to her own apartments; the more bewildered to go from that genteel
corridor, with its forget-me-not wallpaper and stiff engravings of Virginia
worthies, into a furnace of scarlet.
Her bedroom was as
insane as an
Oriental cozy corner of 1895 - a couch high on carven ivory
covered with a mandarin coat; unlighted brass lamps in the likeness of mosques
and pagodas; gilt papier-mache armor on the walls; a wide dressing-table with a
score of cosmetics in odd Parisian bottles; tall candlesticks, the twisted and
flowered candles lighted; and over everything a hint of incense.
She opened a closet, tossed a
robe to him, cried, "For the service of the
altar!" and vanished into a dressing-room beyond.
rather like a fool, he put on the robe.
It was of purple velvet embroidered with black symbols unknown to him,
the collar heavy with gold thread.
He was not quite sure what he was to do, and he
She stood in the doorway, posing,
while he gaped.
She was so tall and her
hands, at her sides, the backs
up and the fingers arched, moved like lilies on the bosom of a stream.
She was fantastic in a robe of deep crimson adorned with
golden stars and crescents,
swastikas and tau crosses; her
feet were in silver sandals, and round her hair was a tiara of silver
with steel points that flickered in the candlelight.
A mist of incense
floated about her, seemed to rise from her, and as she slowly raised her arms
he felt in scboolboyish awe that she
was veritably a priestess.
voice was under the spell of the sleep-walker once more as she sighed "Come! It
is the chapel!"
She marched to a door part-hidden by the couch, and led
him into a room.
Now he was no longer part
amorous, part inquisitive, but all
What hanky-panky of construction had been performed he never
knew; perhaps it was merely that the floor above this small room had been
removed so that it stretched up two stories; but in any case there it was - a
shrine bright as bedlam at the bottom but seeming to rise through
darkness to the sky.
walls were hung with black velvet; there were no chairs; and the
whole room focused on a wide
It was an altar of grotesque humor or of madness, draped with Chinese fabrics,
crimson, apricot, emerald, gold.
There were two stages of pink marble.
Above the altar hung an immense
crucifix with the Jesus bleeding at nail-wounds and pierced side; and on
the upper stage were plaster bust of the Virgin,
Saint Theresa, Saint Catherine,
a garish Sacred Heart, a dolorous simulacrum of the dying Saint Stephen.
Crowded on the lower stage was a crazy rout of what Elmer called
heathen idols: ape-headed gods, crocodile-headed gods, a god with three heads
and a god
with six arms, a jade-and-ivory
an alabaster naked Venus, and in the
center of them all a beautiful, hideous, intimidating and alluring statuette of
a silver goddess with a triple crown and a face as thin and long and passionate
as that of Sharon Falconer.
Before the altar was a long velvet cushion,
very thick and soft.
Here Sharon suddenly knelt, waving him to his
knees, as she cried:
"It is the hour!
Blessed Virgin, Mother
Hera, Mother Frigga, Mother Ishtar, Mother Isis, dread Mother Astarte of the
weaving arms, it is thy priestess, it is
she who after the blind
centuries and the groping years shall make it known to the
Earth that ye are one, and
that in me are ye all revealed, and that in this
revelation shall come peace
and wisdom universal, the secret of
the spheres and the pit of understanding.
Ye who have leaned over me and
on my lips pressed your immortal fingers, take this my brother to your bosoms,
open his eyes, release his pinioned
spirit, make him as the
gods, that with me he may carry the revelation for which a thousand thousand
grievous years the Earth has
"0 rosy cross and mystic tower of ivory-
"Hear my prayer.
"Hear my prayer.
"0 sword of undaunted steel
"0 serpent with
"Hear my prayer.
"Ye veiled ones and ye
bright ones - from caves forgotten, the peaks of the future, the clanging today
- join in me, lift up, receive him, dread, nameless ones; yea, lift us then,
mystery, sphere above sphere,
dominion on dominion, to the very throne!"
She picked up a Bible which
lay by her on the long velvet cushion at the foot of the altar, she crammed it
into his hands, and cried, "Read -
read - quickly!"
It was open at the Song of Solomon, and bewildered he
"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, 0 prince's daughter!
The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the
work of the hands of a cunning
Thy two breasts
are like two young roes.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory.
The hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
How fair and how pleasant art thou, 0 compassion, for delights!"
She interrupted him, her voice high and a little shrill:
mystical rose, 0 lily most
admirable, 0 wondrous union; 0 St. Anna, Mother Immaculate, Demeter, Mother
Beneficent, Lakshmi, Mother Most Shining; behold, I am his and he is yours and
ye are mine !"
As he read on
his voice rose like a triumphant priest's:
"I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs
That verse he never finished, for she swayed sideways as she
knelt before the altar and sank into his arms, her lips parted.
"Ah-hah, now I've got you, my logical young friend!
If we have
that liberty, why aren't you
willing to stay in the church?
Oh, Frank. Frank, you are such a
know that you long for
you see that you can get it best by staying in the church,
liberalizing from within, instead of
running away and leaving the people to the ministrations of the Elmer Gantrys?"
I've been thinking just
that all these years.
That's why I'm still a preacher!
coming to believe that it's tommyrot.
I'm coming to think that the hell howling old mossbacks corrupt the
honest liberals a lot more than
the liberals lighten the back
woods minds of the fundamentalists.
dickens is the church accomplishing, really?
Why have a church at all?
What has it for humanity
that you won't find in worldly sources - schools,
"It has this, Frank: It has
the unique personality and
teachings of Jesus, and there is something in Christ,
there is something in the
way Jesus spoke, there is something in
the feeling of a man
when he suddenly has that inexpressible experience of knowing the Master and
his presence, which makes the church of Christ different from any other
merely human institution or instrument whatsoever!
Christ is not simply
greater and wiser than Socrates
Jesus is entirely
different. Anybody can
interpret and teach
Voltaire - in schools or
books or conversation. But
to interpret the personality and teachings of
Christ requires an especially called, chosen, trained, consecrated body of men,
united in an especial institution - the church."
"Phil, it sounds
But just what were
the personality and the teachings of Christ?
I'll admit it's the
heart of the controversy over
religion: - aside from the
fact that, of course, most people believe in a church because they were born to
But the essential query is:
Did Christ - if the
biblical accounts of Christ are even half accurate - have a particularly noble
personality, and were his teachings particularly original and profound?
You know it's almost impossible
to get people to read the Bible honestly.
They've been so brought up to take the church
interpretation of every word that they read into it whatever they've been
taught to find there."
been with the Charity Organization Society for three years, and he had
become assistant general secretary at the time of the Dayton
It was at this time that the
brisker conservative clergymen saw that their influence and oratory and incomes
were threatened by any authentic learning.
A few of them were so
intelligent as to know that not only was
biology dangerous to their
positions, but also history -
which gave no very sanctified reputation to the Christian church;
astronomy - which found no
convenient heaven in the skies and snickered politely at the notion of
making the sun stand still in order to
win a Jewish border skirmish;
psychology - which doubted the superiority of
a Baptist preacher fresh
from the farm to trained laboratory
researchers; and all the other sciences of the modern university.
They saw that a
proper school should teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead
languages made deader by leaving out all the amusing literature, and the
Hebrew Bible as interpreted by
men superbly trained to ignore
technically called "fundamentalists."
clergy and their most admired laymen expressed in quick action.
formed half a dozen competent and well-financed organizations to threaten
rustic state legislators with political failure and
bribe them with
unctuous clerical praise, so that these back-street and back woods Solons would
forbid the teaching in all
state-supported schools and colleges of anything which was not approved by the
It worked edifyingly.
- Sinclair Lewis, from
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