Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819, a time when it was much easier for a woman to publish serious work under a masculine pen name. As a result, she is better know to the world as George Eliot – novelist, essayist, and journalist. A life-long agnostic and humanist, she nevertheless respected genuine faith. However, she had no time for phoneys of any stripe – especially those in religious clothing. This led her to her writing a scathing critique of the intellectual dishonesty of the clergyman John Cumming in an essay entitled “Evangelical Teaching.” Despite being an Evangelical myself, she puts her finger on distortion that arises within the movement, and for that I take her words as the faithful wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6).
Given a man with moderate intellect, an average moral standard, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech: what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher.
He will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morals with a high reputation for sanctity. Let him shun extremes in practical things and be ultra only in what is purely theoretical; let him be stringent on predestination, but lax on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the Eternity of punishment, but soft on curtailing the substantial comforts of Time; ardent and imaginative on the pro-millennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious toward every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the drag-net of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on rich Christians, let him spiritualize it away. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in identifying who are the sinners, less focused on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity. Above all, let him set up as an interpreter of prophecy and predict political events, tickling the interest of hearers who are but moderately spiritual by showing how the Holy Spirit has dictated problems and puzzles for their benefit, and how, if they are ingenious enough to solve these, they may have their Christian graces nourished by learning precisely to whom they may point as the “horn that had eyes,” “the lying prophet,” and the “unclean spirits.”
In this way he will draw men to him by the strong cords of their passions, made reason-proof by being baptized with the name of piety. In this way he may gain a big-city pulpit and the avenues to his church will be crowded. He has but to print his prophetic sermons and bind them in lilac and gold, and they will adorn the drawing-room table of all evangelical ladies, who will regard as a sort of pious “light reading” the demonstration that the prophecy of the locusts whose sting is in their tail, is fulfilled in the fact of the Turkish commander’s having taken a horse’s tail for his standard, and that the French are the very frogs predicted in the Revelations.
Leave a Reply