Next Sunday I’m teaching my son’s Sunday School class at our church. A couple of days ago, he sent me the teacher’s lesson book for these young couples. The subject is “living by a higher standard than the unbelieving world” and the text is Leviticus chapters 17-22.
Yesterday I started reading those chapters and began smiling. Oh, these chapters and I are old friends. Good friends even.
There is a story here, one I gladly tell.
It’s a story of persistent, nagging doubt and how God is able to use that doubt to do something extraordinary in the life of the believer who will stay in class.
So, yesterday, after reading the passage from Leviticus, I decided to do something I’ve not done in 45 years. I went back and re-read the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel “Elmer Gantry.” I found it online by typing in “text of Elmer Gantry.” In this world of technological wonders, as a child of 1940, I am constantly being amazed at what’s available through the computer. But there it was, the entire book.
I was looking for one specific quote, something Sinclair Lewis has a renegade preacher tell another but which, I wager, was Lewis voicing his own doubts about the Christian faith. Preachers and veteran teachers know what this means when I say that I have quoted this from “Elmer Gantry” all through the years but in time I was quoting my quoting. Eventually one forgets the original text and cites what he remembers he said the last time.
I decided it was about time to go back and see if I’d gotten it right, see what the preacher had actually said. I’m no longer the 25-year-old I was when I first came up against that book and the movie it spawned. It could be I’ll see those words differently from the way they hit me as a seminary student.
First, a side note about the movie. Far more of this generation have seen the Burt Lancaster movie “Elmer Gantry,” made in 1960, than have read the book. The problem is, the book is like a 6 hour movie, whereas the movie was necessarily much briefer. The movie covers only about 100 pages of the book.
I recommend the book to every preacher I know. It’s painful reading, I grant you. However, in many ways, Sinclair Lewis knew what he was talking about. The charlatan who was Elmer Gantry–the one in the novel is far worse than the on-screen version played by Burt Lancaster–exposes the charlatanishness in each of us who would deign to speak for God and lead His flock.
In order to convey the full impact of the renegade preacher’s words, I’ll need to quote a long passage from the book.
The preacher, a fellow named Frank Shallard, is through with the ministry and is resigning his church. Throughout the book readers see his gradual fall from faith and steadfastness. And now, in chapter 28, he gives a full explanation of his reasoning.
We pick up his story in the midst of his explanation….
“I’m appalled to see I don’t find Jesus an especially admirable character! He is picturesque. He tells splendid stories. He’s a good fellow, fond of low company…. But he’s vain, he praises himself outrageously, he’s fond of astonishing people by little magical tricks which we’ve been taught to revere as ‘miracles.’ He is furious as a child in a tantrum when people don’t recognize him as a great leader. He loses his temper. He blasts the poor barren fig-tree when it doesn’t feed him….
“Just what are the teachings of Jesus? Did he come to bring peace or more war? He says both. Did he approve earthly monarchies or rebel against them? He says both. Did he ever–think of it, God Himself, taking on human form to help the earth–did he ever suggest sanitation, which would have saved millions from the plagues?”
This was the arrow through my heart when I read it as a young adult. I thought, “Great question! Wonder why Jesus didn’t do that?” To my uninformed mind, Sinclair Lewis had just found the fatal flaw in the Christian faith.
“And you can’t say his failure there was because he was too lofty to consider mere sickness. On the contrary, he was awfully interested in it, always healing someone–providing they flattered his vanity enough!
“What DID he teach? One place in the Sermon on the Mount he advises–let me get my Bible–here it is: ‘Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven,’ and then 5 minutes later he’s saying, ‘Take heed that you do not your alms before men to be seen of them, otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.’ That’s an absolute contradiction, in the one document which is the charter of the whole Christian church.
“Oh, I know you can reconcile them, Phil. That’s the whole aim of the ministerial training, to teach us to reconcile contradictions by saying that one of them doesn’t mean what it means–and it’s always a good stunt to throw in ‘you’d understand it if you’d only read it in the original Greek!'”
The preacher goes on to say his main objection to the church is not that the preachers are cruel, hypocritical, actually wicked, though some of them are that too. Bolstering that point, he mentions some being arrested for selling false stock, for seducing 14-year-old girls in orphanages under their care, arson and even murder. (The church of 2010 could provide him with a fuller litany of preacher-sins, everything from priestly pedophilia to the scandalous money-grabbing ways of the prosperity preachers who ‘name it and claim it.’)
Then, Frank Shallard ends his diatribe with another blow to the heart of every preacher reading this.
“And it’s not that the church is in bondage to Big Business and doctrines laid down by millionaires–though a lot of churches are that, too. My chief objection is that ninety-nine percent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so AGONIZINGLY DULL!'”
And with that, the 28th chapter of “Elmer Gantry” came to an end. The story goes forward, but my mind stopped there and camped out at this point for years.
As a 25-year-old preacher just getting started on a lifetime of ministry and barely out of my first year of seminary, this little passage impacted me as few things ever have.
There are a number of criticisms of the Christian faith which Sinclair Lewis has the preacher, Frank Shallard, make and I’ve dealt with each of them in my mind and my studies. But for our purposes here, we’ll focus in on only the major attack, the one concerning sanitation. That’s the one that knocked me for a loop so many years back.
I honestly felt the author had uncovered something about the Christian faith which had no answer when he attacked Jesus for failing to give us a sanitation code.
I’m a constant history reader, a history major in college, and a lover of history. Even as a young adult, I knew enough history to be stunned at the ignorance of elementary sanitation procedures down through the centuries, even as recent as the late 1800s. In the various Black Plagues of Europe (there were several of them), so many millions died unnecessarily when even the most basic laws of cleanliness–washing, proper disposing of refuse, quarantining the sick–would have stopped the grim reaper in his tracks.
So why didn’t Jesus do something about that? Why didn’t He give mankind a sanitation code instead of performing all those miracles which had only a temporary effect?
I found the answer, but it was years in coming.
That, I came to realize, was of God, too. It’s how He works.
Had the Lord let my doubt linger for 15 minutes and then supplied the answer, the whole experience would have been forgotten the next day. By letting it fester for years as a nagging thing in the back of my mind, when the answer came, it arrived with such force as to burst off the chains and send me rejoicing into the light of day. It was wonderful.
The instrument that God used to liberate me was another book. “None of These Diseases,” by missionary physican S. I. McMillen, told how Scripture’s teachings through the Old and New Testaments actually gave the Lord’s people excellent keys and principles of health. Why, he said, the Bible even contains a sanitation code.
I was stunned. It does? Where?
I’m going by memory here. Over the years, I have bought and given away so many copies of that book–mainly to medical doctors–yet I don’t seem to have kept a copy for myself. The book, however, is still in print, and I’ve gone back to it time and again over the years. Used copies can be purchased from any online used-book source. My favorite is www.alibris.com.
McMillen says something to the effect that: “You know all those boring Old Testament passage such as Leviticus where God is giving Israel these endless rituals and regulations about the right way to set up their camp, the right way and wrong way to make offerings and handle dead bodies, and the like? Those boring passages that you tend to skip were actually a sanitation code for His people.”
McMillen points out–and gets the book’s title from–a promise God made to Israel as they were leaving Egypt under Moses’ leadership.
“If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exodus 15:26).
There it is, McMillen says, God promising perfect health to His people if they will obey Him. “None of these diseases” is how the KJV puts it.
Whether the Lord was promising absolute perfect health to Israel or not is debatable, but there is no doubt He was making an incredible promise. Critics have said Moses was educated in the arts and sciences of Egypt and therefore knew these things. However, the missionary doctor has done his homework. Medical science in Egypt, McMillen says, consisted of the most primitive and unhealthy treatments–such as applying cow dung to sores and drilling holes in skulls for headaches.
Now, take our text for next Sunday’s Bible study lesson, Leviticus 17-22. Let’s note a few insights….
Chapter 18 prohibits all kinds of sexual relations that had potential to destroy not only the family unit, which loomed large in the mind of the Creator, but opened the door to numerous varieties of transmitted diseases.
Chapter 19. Meat sacrificed in the tabernacle could be eaten on the first and second days, but not thereafter. Without refrigeration, the meat would be going bad by then. God was protecting His people.
Chapter 20. The Lord’s people were to avoid practices carried on by the pagans around them–sacrificing babies to idols, heeding witches and mediums, adulteries, and sexual activity with animals. (It is generally thought today that Aids entered the human race through sexual activity with monkeys, I have read.)
Israel was to make a distinction between animals that God named as clean and those He called unclean. (20:25) In other places, the pig is named as unclean. We now know that trichinosis, a deadly disease, is carried in poorly cooked pork. Again, God was protecting His people.
Chapter 21. Priests with any kind of defect (sores in particular) were not allowed to serve food (vs. 17-23). They could eat the meat sacrificed on the altar, but not serve it. Imagine a waitress serving our dinner while carrying an open boil on her face or hands and the issue is settled for all time!
Chapter 22. And then this chapter, the one which McMillen says ended the Great Plagues of Europe.
Again, going from memory here.
As millions were dying and entire cities were being decimated, people were trying every remedy imaginable. Finally, someone asked the priests at the church to consult the Bible and see what answers it could suggest. That’s when they came across Leviticus 22.
“If a descendant of Aaron (i.e., a priest) has an infectious skin disease or a bodily discharge, he may not eat the sacred offerings until he is cleansed. He will also be unclean if he touches something defiled by a corpse…. The one who touches any such thing will be unclean till evening. He must not eat any of the sacred offerings unless he has bathed himself with water. When the sun goes down, he will be clean, and after that he may eat the sacred offerings, for they are his food” (Lev. 22:4-7).
Quarantine. It’s what saved humanity in the Middle Ages.
Leviticus chapters 11-15 deal with this subject also and provide additional insights and instructions.
The reason, clearly, why Jesus did not give mankind a sanitation code is that God already had.
If we did not want to read what He had revealed, that was our problem.
And thus it has ever been, we might add. Think of all the problems man has dealt with over the centuries which could have gone away had he only obeyed the clear teachings of the Word.
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” God said in Hosea 4:6.
Now–getting back to Sinclair Lewis–if we can only do something about those boring sermons! (Oh well, that’s a future article!)