Books

Echoes of an anguished evangelist

THE THIRD TEMPTATION by Charles Templeton

Kenneth Bagnell October 13 1980
Books

Echoes of an anguished evangelist

THE THIRD TEMPTATION by Charles Templeton

Kenneth Bagnell October 13 1980

Echoes of an anguished evangelist

Books

THE THIRD TEMPTATION by Charles Templeton

(McClelland and Stewart, $16.95)

On a chill winter afternoon in 1955, an evangelist named Jimmy Coulter—an urbane man whom the press liked to call “the thinking man’s Billy Graham”—was sitting in an office on the campus of Yale University listening to one of the brightest students of the Ivy League, Roger Whitton, who wanted to discuss his lack of faith. “If you were to ask me where I am today,”

Whitton explained, “I’d have to say I’m an atheist.” Whitton was a skilled debater, his arguments against faith were sharp and well put. But over a period of two hours he began to listen, as if, for the first time in his youth, he could take religion seriously. His unbelief was shaken and he left Coulter thanking him for making him think again. The evangelist, it seemed, had triumphed again, bringing yet another man to a new life.

But not so. As Charles Templeton writes of the main _ figure in The Third Tempta£ tion: “Alone, Jimmy was depressed ... it broke on him: what right did he have to intrude in Roger Whitton’s life, possibly to alter the course of it? And by what right did he stand night after night before tens of thousands, urging them to give all to God when he was not prepared to do so himself.” For Coulter it was the beginning of the end in the ministry. For anyone who has followed Templeton closely over the years, the story is almost sure to be familiar. Templeton has told it in conversation many times, the only difference being that the evangelist was not Coulter but himself who, at the peak of his career as a preacher, found himself no longer able to believe. The meeting with the student at Yale was the turning point; shortly after that he left the church.

The Third Temptation — the story of a young man from a poor family in Toronto who works successfully for a local paper,is converted to the Christian faith and goes on to become a celebrated evangelist — is drawn deeply from Templeton’s own tumultuous past. While he did not achieve the same degree of ce-

lebrity he grants Coulter (“his picture on the covers of Life, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Atlantic Monthly and Paris Match”), Templeton was indeed, as Coulter is, an evangelist who was also a compelling preacher. Thus, he sketches the outer and inner life of the troubled Coulter with a rare authenticity. When Coulter delivers his sermons, they resonate with echoes of Templeton, his dramatic voice reaching the far corners of an old arena in Sydney, N.S., in the early ’50s: “What then is the proof of God? It is the changed lives of those who believe in him. The miracle of Easter is the miracle of human transformation. Look at his disciples. Before the resurrection they were a ragtag bunch of semiliterate nobodys: craven, dull-witted, self-seeking and unfaithful... .But what were they after the resurrection? Overnight they were changed. They became men aflame with zeal and bold with courage. Ineffable

mystery! They . . . they are the proof!”

Templeton may have lost his faith but he has never lost his fascination with faith; nor has he lost his longing for its high idealism. Thus, Coulter is a man of decency. He is the victim of the frailty of man and the evil of a world that has rejected the message of Jesus in favor of personal power and a lust to hurt others rather than redeem them. This world—empty and jaded—is made vivid in Hugh Hoffman, a man who controls a huge Toronto newspaper (a paper great in profits but waning in influence), who sets out to destroy Coulter’s character by having his editors and reporters dig into his past and present, his sexual life, his marital relationship, his financial affairs. Hoffman—raised in small-town Ontario in a conservative evangelical sect but turned agnostic—is unrelenting in his bitterness and his readiness to forsake integrity to discredit Coulter, who returns at the peak of his life to preach in Toronto, burdened with his self-doubt.

The Third Temptation is Templeton’s best work. In exploring evangelical life and the media culture, he is moving through worlds he knows only too well. His sense of the men and women who inhabit these territories is sure and strong and their conversations ring with realism, reminiscent of John O’Hara and his reflections on the country clubs of upperclass America. Templeton moves beyond the simple characterizations of his mystery novels and has begun to show a range we did not know he had.

Kenneth Bagnell