by Tom Wacaster
Hollywood has produced a number of movies that focus on the shenanigans of con artists. One such move was actually titled, “The Flim Flam Man,” and starred George C. Scott. Paper Moon was another, but I would caution someone watching this one to obtain a filter device of some kind. One of my favorite, however, was a 1956 production of The Rainmaker (not to be confused with the 1996 movie with the same name with Dustin Hoffman, which I never saw and really have no interest in watching). The 1956 Rainmaker was produced when movies were entertaining, decent, and capable of being watched without a clear-play DVD player, TV-guardian, or other such devices that “filter out” the bad language, sex scenes, and “adult situations.” The Rainmaker is a fantasy about a con-man in the mid-west, a snake oil salesmen, going from town to town selling his miracles (whatever you need – tornado protection, drought relief through rain, anything) until he’s seen to be the charlatan he is and is run out of town, or arrested. Starbuck (the con-man) eventually meets up with Lizzie (played by Katherine Hepburn) who has dreams of love and marriage but at this stage in her life she has almost given up on that hope. The enduring quality of the movie is its emphasis upon the possibilities for those who have a dream and refuse to allow life’s circumstances to quench those dreams. The movie is really a paradox because as the story develops it is actually the con artist who is the hero, and whose flamboyant character eventually leads the heroine to believe in her dreams and, as we are left to believe, to accomplish those dreams. Such, of course, is only “in the movies,” and reality is often quite different. Let me explain.
The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is filled with stories of con-artists, flim-flam characters, and charlatans who prey on the unsuspecting. The serpent was the first, but he certainly was not the last. His deception was carefully planned and craftily carried out. With only one word he changed God’s promise to a lie, and the impossible became possible, if only in the mind of the woman: “You shall be as God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). But we know from the sacred record that the devil lied; he was the original flim-flam con-artist.
Dathan, Korah and Abiram were con-men who worked together in an attempt to get Israel to turn their backs on Moses (and God), and allow them (Dathan, Korah, and Abiram) to lead Israel back into Egypt where they would find true freedom as servants of Pharaoh. Preying upon the unsuspecting, these three men gained a following who rose up against Moses. Their rebellion was their own demise, and along with the con-artists who sought to seize authority from Moses, were swallowed up by the earth.
The list of Old Testament con-artists would include Nadab and Abihu, Absalom, King Saul, the false prophets of both Israel and Judah. The list seems almost endless. The thing all of these men have in common is their ability to deceive innocent souls into believing their bogus promises; men and woman who were chasing a dream, but looked in all the wrong places. Peter reminds us, “ But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). Jesus warned of false teachers (Matt. 7:15) who certainly fit the description of flim-flam men. The bottom line is they are not what they appear to be on the outside. They are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Jude describes them as “hidden rocks in your love feast” and “shepherds that without fear feed themselves” (Jude 12). Like the victims of so many con-artists, those who imbibe the false doctrine from these spiritual flim-flam men will find themselves on the loosing end. When the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch of destruction (Matt. 15:14). Therein is the tragedy. The con-artist will work his deception to rob his victims of their material possessions, the spiritual flim-flam man will rob his victim of something far more valuable—his soul.
Sometime back I came across the following tactics of a con-artist. They are extroverted, talk fast and want to move quickly. They have a lot of charm, magnetism and charisma. They present themselves as heroes with high morals and philosophy. They tend to be great experts on any topic being discussed. They are master wordsmiths, even expert storytellers and poets. They invent bizarre tales, say and do grandiose things and blatantly re-write history. They deliver intriguing and hypnotic monologues that deceive and fool their victims. They can create stories on the spur of the moment that are impossible to confirm or deny. They rely on claims that cannot be proven or validated to create a false sense of authority. They seem to possess a high degree of “spirituality” or “special” knowledge. Finally, they take risks others wouldn’t and then use their risk-taking to intimidate and outsmart their victim. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddie all fit into this group, as well as our modern day “tele-evangelists” who prey on the poor, unsuspecting and ignorant souls.
The apostle Paul captured all of these traits in one single passage regarding false teachers: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent” (Roman 16:17-18).
Beloved, do not fall prey to those who rob you of your inheritance. Study God’s word, remain vigilant, and beware of spiritual flim flam men.
I find it rather ironic that in this day of increased knowledge the human race, in their worldly wisdom, are actually becoming more foolish. Let me give you an example. Thomas Paine, a Quaker preacher and firm believer in God and the Bible while in America, went to France in 1787 and became an infidel. He wrote a book, The Age Of Reason, which he said would destroy the Bible and Christianity. Paine died in 1809, his book is seldom remembered, and the Bible which he fought still exists. Ironically, his call for "reason" led to his own demise. Our modern age is the epitome of reason and research. We question everything. Well, almost everything. The one area that we too seldom question is religion. Why do we fear investigation? Heaven's call is that we "reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Paul "reasoned of righteousness, and self-control, and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:25). Why is it that men are so reluctant to mount the polemic platform and publicly discuss matters of utmost importance? The generation preceding mine often met in religious debate. Issues were discussed, beliefs challenged. And while there may have been an occasional "mishandling" of such public discussion, by in large they were conducted with great nobility and manifestation of genuine Christian character. There is great value in public discussion or religious matters if conducted properly. More information can be gleaned in a one night debate than in weeks, perhaps months of sermons. A century ago men sought to know right from wrong, and truth from error. Indeed, religiously speaking, theirs was the true "age of reason." Perhaps we can, with God’s help, reverse the trend, and witness in our life time a revival of the spiritual interest of a bygone century. To this end we labor, and for this we pray.