Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Faith Works 6-28-08
Jeff Gill

Calm the Waters, or Inherit the Wind

Troubling your own house, Proverbs 11:29 reminds us, is like sowing the whirlwind – you reap the storms you set in motion yourself.

The Licking County Players are bringing “Inherit the Wind” to their stage in July, this 1955 stage play and 1960 movie taking their title from the aforementioned text.

I should warn Brad Lepper that he now shares with me the odd distinction of playing a clergyman onstage, and I’ll be curious about how many cast members ask him theological questions through the rehearsal period.

If you have never seen this classic American play, click over to www.lickingcountyplayers.org and get tickets for their production space over on West Main St. in Newark.

Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee wrote the play to speak to McCarthyism, which for all its faults provoked a great deal of arts and literature, more than got blacklisted it would appear. I will admit to a certain ambivalence about the body of the play itself, which has many fine set pieces and great monologues and debates.

The fact that it echoes but in no way accurately represents the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee is not a problem. Plenty of great art uses reality as a starting point, but meanders into more productive rivulets and streams and rolls into a mighty river through fiction.

What I trace down to today from that wellspring is the beginning in popular culture of the image of the angry evangelist, the wild-eyed, hot-headed, truth-trimming, ultimately hypocritical preacher fellow who is now so much a stereotype that no comment, seemingly, is necessary.

Popular culture is key here because “Elmer Gantry” was written by Sinclair Lewis in the late 1920’s, but was controversial and not greeted with much approval outside of the literati; a play based on the novel didn’t last a month. The movie, which is how most people know the ol’ rapscallion, played by Burt Lancaster, came out just after “Inherit the Wind” was filmed and only with the major success of the play clearing out the space for it to thrive.

Are there Elmer Gantry and Jeremiah Brown sorts out there, filled with rage and hypocrisy? Yep. I’ve met ‘em, and suspect I can see it in the eyes of more than a few you can catch on TV between requests for money. Steve Martin did a stellar update of the genre which I love, the movie “Leap of Faith.” Go rent it and see what you think.

What I resist is the pull of the notion that Rev. Brown represents much of anything widespread or essential to Christian communities around the US, whether in 1925 or today. In fact, Clarence Darrow could not say enough about the good cheer and courtesy extended him throughout his stay in Dayton, TN by the locals; his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, who actually did die in Dayton five days after the trial ended, was a political progressive whose faith led him to rail against greed and robber barons of the “Gilded Age” and Roaring 20’s.

He was also one of far too few who spoke against the growing popularity in the 1920’s of eugenics, the “sterilization of the unfit” and the need to “weed and cull” mental defectives and physically deformed from the “healthy population.” No less a figure in evolutionary studies than Stephen Jay Gould has said that Bryan’s passion was to preach against “Social Darwinsim” more than evolutionary theory itself.

So go see “Inherit the Wind” and reflect on all it has to say about human nature, and eternal ends, but keep in mind the people and personages of the town are not what was, nor are they what is.

Five years after Bryan died, friends and supporters endowed a college in Dayton which is, of course, named “Bryan College.” Their motto is “Christ Above All.” And on Bryan’s tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery (he served as Secretary of State as well as in Congress for Nebraska) are the words “He Kept the Faith.”

The monument I most like for Bryan is another thing not in the play. When the judge found Scopes guilty of teaching evolution and imposed the minimum fine of $100, Bryan insisted on paying it for him.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s got some untold stories about Charles Darwin he wants to tell soon, too. Tell him a story at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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