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The Rev. Scotty McLennan draws on literature for sermon series

In the Bible, King Herod is so moved by the dancing of his stepdaughter that he offers to give her anything. She demands the head of John the Baptist. The king ruefully obliges.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the title character pursues his love for a woman -- or rather an illusory ideal of love -- with the help of illegally accumulated wealth, which he employs for the sole purpose of winning her away from her pugnacious husband.

As the Rev. Scotty McLennan, dean for religious life, explained during his July 13 sermon, Gatsby is "willing to sacrifice anything for his infatuation with a married woman."

Gatsby and Herod have something in common: Both are idolaters, according to McLennan. His sermon -- "What's So Great About Gatsby?" -- was part of Finding Meaning Through Literature, his summer sermon series that kicked off July 6 with a sermon titled "Gloria Naylor's Hill of Disbelief." "Was the Death of a Salesman Inevitable?" caps the series July 27.

The sermons, which are free and open to the public, take place during University Public Worship from 10 to 11 a.m. in Memorial Church. They are followed 10 to 15 minutes later by a "talk back" hosted by McLennan in the church's Round Room.

Since coming to Stanford during the 2000-01 academic year, McLennan has presented a sermon series every summer. (The 2001 series was titled Religion in Public Life, and the 2002 series was titled Personal Spirituality.)

McLennan said the idea for the current series stemmed from courses he has taught at several universities, including Stanford, in which he has used literature as a springboard for ethical and spiritual inquiry.

"I've found, somewhat to my surprise, that novels and fiction provide greater insight into human life than do biography and other prose writing of various kinds, including case studies," he said. "A good author -- someone like Gloria Naylor or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Arthur Miller -- is able to turn a character around as if it's a gem. There's both the imagination of the character and insight into how people live -- interaction with people that is more real and more helpful in terms of the big questions of why we are here, what is the meaning of life."

He said he encourages people to become lifelong members of reading groups so they can continue to discuss and explore literature in this way.

Gatsby, which was first published in 1925, is about many things -- the gilded but vacant lives of the wealthy; the degradation of the American Dream -- but, at its heart, it is about Gatsby's romantic idolization of a rather fickle, shallow woman who inevitably falls short of his expectations "because of the colossal vitality of his illusion."

"'It had gone beyond her, beyond everything,'" McLennan said, quoting from the novel. "Religiously, this is what idolatry is all about: Treating as ultimate that which is only finite and passing."

Similarly, Herod lets worldly love for his stepdaughter come before his divine duty -- "the duty not only to protect God's prophet but also not to take human life," McLennan said.

Gatsby, however, still may be considered "great" because of his idealism, even though it is impoverished and warped by idolatry, McLennan said.

"We can learn from him how life can be transformed by pitching one's life above the day-to-day practicality, above the desire for security, above the drive for power," he said. "Let us love other people, but always by remembering that they are not the ultimate object of our love, as God is. Let our love for one human being not lead to personal corruption, to abuse of other human beings or to myopia about the meaning of life itself."

The discussion that followed the sermon turned largely to the issue of America's image abroad, especially in the Middle East, and the propriety of exporting our moral and cultural values. Participants also discussed the definition of the American Dream.

One man asked McLennan what he wanted to achieve by teaching Gatsby to business students. (McLennan has taught the novel in courses at both Harvard and Stanford business schools.) McLennan said he hoped to make students think critically about the nature of the American Dream, which permeates the U.S. business culture. Is it simply about materialism? Is it about fulfilling one's potential? Is it about equality? People in business need to ponder these types of questions, McLennan said, especially since many will deal with people in other countries who espouse different values and conceptions about success.

A woman in the discussion group said that in television news programs she has heard some foreigners say that they don't want "American materialism" to take root in their countries. She asked whether it is possible to have a secular state that is not materialistic.

McLennan said he believes that the polity of the United States, though it insists on the separation of church and government, is profoundly influenced by religious values. He quoted from the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which states that that people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

"That's a very strong theological statement," McLennan added.

Another man in the group asserted that the American Dream is hard to pin down because it "is everything to everybody."

McLennan said that when he teaches Gatsby, he often begins by asking his students what they think is the American Dream. Responses are always varied and sometimes contradictory: One student will describe it as "rugged individualism"; another will call it a "great communitarian vision," McLennan said.

"You have all kinds of different definitions of the American Dream," he added. "It's interesting to think what holds America together."


By John Sanford

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