A Path Not Taken
It seems like a hundred years ago. My best friend and I were in seminary and we had this brainy idea. We would get two used milk trucks like they used to drive for home delivery, and load one with a refrigerator full of beer and food and a couple beds for sleeping. The other one would carry folding chairs, an old pump organ, a pulpit, and a tent. We would start in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which we believed was the buckle on the Bible belt, and go westward from there. He’d get saved one night to kick-start the offering, so to speak, while I preached; the next night he’d preach and I’d get saved. And so it would go.
This was all supposed to take place in summer, when we had finished a year of seminary education. We were unvarnished smart alecks at the time, and we thought this would be a hoot. We’d be like a carnival only instead of pitching the ring toss game or the sideshow, we would preach the gospel and rake in the bucks that folks would give to be saved night after night across the southland. Maybe it goes without saying that we never perpetrated the deed, perhaps because neither one of us had any money to get to step one (buying the milk trucks), perhaps because we came to our senses and realized we could not pull it off without being hypocritical since it was decidedly not our style. We had enough respect for people like Billy Graham see that his evangelistic meetings had their place, especially in America with its history of revival movements back to the 1740’s. On the other hand, we had seen Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry, decidedly not supportive of phony evangelistic efforts.
Lo and behold, we find a review in the New York Times of October 12th on Holy Ghost Girl, a book about a woman who fell under the spell of a traveling preacher and dragged her two children along with her as they did the tent meeting circuit in the sixties. The woman’s daughter, who was three when this adventure began, wrote the memoir. She remains ambiguous about the experience and the evangelist.
Some readers will remember Marjoe Gortner, who appeared on TV talk shows after a documentary film about his ministry appeared. He began preaching at the age of four and amassed a huge following by his teenage years. Disillusioned with the whole experience, however, he left the tent circuit and entered acting. Some would say that was no change of career, only one of venue, which I believe Mr. Gortner would say himself.
I learned that, if I was going into the ministry, I had to be ruthlessly honest with myself. I had to make sure that I was not bilking the public with tall tales of God, but that I was sure enough of my experience to use it as a ground for communicating with others. I had to check my experience against the historical record to make sure I wasn’t spouting wacky ideas. I had to be able to look in the mirror to make sure I was honest.
When Christian faith is treated like it belong on the sawdust trail, it easily becomes a laughing matter for “intelligent” and “sophisticated” people. But we must remember that Jesus did come among the lowly and the poor and he brought them good news as an itinerant teacher. A percentage of those drawn into tent meetings dig deeper and develop a faith mature enough to last a lifetime. May we be like those folks.