Thursday, November 18, 2010

THE APOSTLE (1997): Evangelism Revisited

After the recent death of Jerry Falwell, I turned on the television and watched one of his prior sermons.  He was speaking to high school students about the need of Christians to attend a “Christian” University.  He emphasized that at Liberty Baptist College, for which he was the founder, it was taught that the Bible was inerrant, that the theory of evolution in whatever form was inconsistent with God’s word, and that the findings of science or any other field of knowledge need be subservient to what was stated in the Bible.  I both liked and disliked the man.  Whether one agreed with Falwell and most did not, he was at least straight up with his message.  (Whether he was straight up to make a difference or to make a few more dollars is another matter.*)  The problem with Falwell – and it was obvious in every word, expression or gesture – was his overwhelming smugness.  He comes across as so sure that he is right that there is no room for discussion.  Preachers of his ilk, of course, shift the blame for their arrogance on their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.  It is not their message they are preaching, but rather the message of the Bible.  Or so they say.  But that there must be a thousand different ways to interpret the Bible is answered with the assertion that only their view can be correct.   What puzzles me about a man like Falwell is why, with this remarkable creation all around us, that he has to think so small.  Does the fact that someone named Charles Darwin came up with a theory truly deprive anyone of his sense of mystery?  If science truly is subservient to the “word of God,” why not leave it to the men of science to fill in the details and take this burden away from the theologians who are busy with the bigger picture?  Falwell did not have that kind of imagination.

Fortunately, in The Apostle, a preacher by the name of Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) was forced by circumstances to turn his back on the money and glory, and to dwell on the more important things.  Sonny is at first like so many other television evangelists – well to do with an attractive wife and two children, and he preaches to a large church in Texas.  Circumstances change for Sonny, however.  His wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), has an affair that threatens to break up her marriage with Sonny.  Sonny is outraged and when he runs into the boyfriend, Horace (Todd Allen), at a baseball game, he clubs the adulterer to the head with a baseball bat.  Horace either is in a coma or dies – it doesn’t matter because Horace will never be any kind of companion to Jessie again.  Sonny is then forced to flee to Louisiana and there he attempts to start a new life under an anonymous name.

A number of things then happen.  Sonny baptizes himself in the Bayou backwaters and makes a decision to both humble and redeem himself.  Sonny finds an abandoned church in a rural area that probably reminds him of the churches of his youth.  Sonny impresses a black preacher named Brother Blackwell (John Beasley) and they begin organizing a congregation.  As the church grows, Sonny begins broadcasting his sermons on the local radio station.  Sonny probably finds in this church something to work for and that he actually believes in.  The congregation, made up of poor to middle-class blacks and whites, teach him as much about spirituality as he ever is able to teach them.  At the same time, Sonny remains human.  He calls his wife late one night just to listen to her voice, but he cannot muster up the courage to speak to her.  He is lonely and he asks the receptionist at the radio station, Tootsie (Miranda Richardson), whether she would go out with him.  He meets an angry infidel (Billy Bob Thorton) who tries to disrupt the church services and, probably because Sonny has had to deal with so much anger, manages to settle the young-man down.  (This is one of the few scenes in the movie that to me seems fabricated.)

Sonny’s broadcasts are eventually heard outside of the local area, and this alerts the authorities to his whereabouts.  Sonny, right before his arrest, pleads with the congregation to not resist and to carry on with the mission that he has already begun.  In the last scene of the movie, we see Sonny working on a chain gang and teaching the other prisoners the good work as they swing their sledgehammers.

Without question, The Apostle was one of the best movies of the 1990s.  Too few people ever saw this when it came out in the theatre.  Filmed, directed and financed independently by Duvall, the budget was small or the movie would never have been made.  Yet because Duvall put so very much of himself into the movie, he also cared about the outcome.  Probably, he could have made Sonny more of the stereotypical preacher as a gimmick to draw in a greater audience.  Instead, he turned a television evangelist with a history of violence behind him into someone with a sense of decency.   He gave justification to a profession that many people think that we would be better off without.

Affable though Sonny may be, he is still always an outsider.  Early in the movie, Sonny is praying over an unconscious man involved in a car accident.  A state trooper who happened to be present mocks Sonny by telling him that what he is doing is not helping anyone.  Sonny respectfully disagrees.  Sonny may or may not be sure that his prayers can reach the injured man, but he is at least open to giving it a try.  Sonny is not a holy man on top of a mountain.  Sonny is willing to place himself the middle of his congregation, however backwards some of us perceive his flock to be, but even among people he seems alone trying to grasp at something else.  Sonny wrestles and rants and shouts at God when he’s not pleased (sometimes to the distress of his neighbors who cannot help but overhear him), but he’s always accepting of the answer that he receives.

We live in practical times where the voice of progress and reason is so driven into us that we forget that the majority of time man has lived on this earth his actions were directed by something altogether different.  It’s easy to scoff at religion, though most of the rest of us have found nothing that replaces it.**  We dismiss religion by asserting that Falwell and Swaggart are typical representatives of it.*** Yet by tossing out all of the humbug, we come close to throwing out that small iota of truth that’s buried away in the pile of sanctimony.

Sonny, in The Apostle, was novel.  Though the follower of God, he was the follower like no other.  Sonny is not boring, which sets him apart.  He lives and suffers like a human being, not like a televised preacher.  He spends more time joking and laughing than trying to sound overwrought.    While preaching, Duvall as Sonny exudes a sense of fun in delivering his message.  He’s also more concerned about the well being of his congregation than the contents of their pocket books.  Sonny may actually believe in what he preaches, and this forces him to avoid being a hypocrite.  What saved Sonny, ironically, was his fall from fame and fortune.  Only when he lost this did he return to a state of grace.

Sonny’s struggle was representative of the struggle Duvall went through in getting this film made.  Duvall believed in his project as much as Sonny believed in his mission to revive the small southern church that he found in the Bayou.  It took close to two decades for this movie to even be completed in 1997.  Duvall used some famous actors, but he also used a variety of people in the congregation who had no acting experience at all.  Duvall financed it himself, as well.  Duvall took a big chance to make this as one of the first truly significant efforts to bring an independent film to a major market.  Duvall only failed to bridge the gap because of a lack of advertising funds.  With changes in the ways movies are made, the future of the cinema could head in two possible directions.  We may continue to see skyrocketing budgets into the hundreds of millions of dollars where nothing of substance is filmed.  Or we could see some unknown make a film with little more equipment than a video recorder that somehow captivates us.  A unique story like The Apostle gives me hope that the later can occur.

* When Falwell preached his sermon, Why Every Christian Should Tithe, I don’t think that he had millionaires like himself in mind to do the tithing.  The recommended practice of tithing ten percent of one’s income to support the television evangelists probably is done more by senior citizens living off of their social security check than those who can truly afford it.  In any event, providing money to the needy is not always the primary purpose behind this “Christian duty.”  Check out the website,, which advertises the following: “Five Simple Steps you must take to accumulate massive wealth.”  This advertisement explains that Abraham became extremely wealthy by making tithes and offerings – such wealth being promised by God.  “The free e-Books you receive here prove that God wants to make you wealthy … This website dispels the devil’s myth that God wants you in poverty.”  Apparently, an eternity spent in paradise after we die (while Christian detractors burn in hell) is no longer enough incentive to convert to Christianity.

** Once on a blog, I read an atheist make the claim that all of the murderous tyrants of the last fifteen hundred years (including Hitler) were Christians.  (I’m not sure if Hitler, with his mixture of pagan and astrological leanings could exactly be defined as Christian, but I’ll let that argument go.  However, I don’t think I’d be going out too far on a limb if I did label Hitler as an anti-Semite.)  When someone pointed out to this person that Mao and Stalin were atheists, this blogger refuted the argument by stating the killings of the Soviet and Maoist regimes were political rather than religious in nature, i.e., thus justifiable.  I’m not sure if the families of the millions of victims in Russia and China would have drawn this distinction.

*** Jimmy Swaggart is too easy of a mark, so I need to explain why I even bring him up.  After one of the two times that he was arrested for consorting with a prostitute, Swaggart made a plea to his television audience that he was being unfairly persecuted and needed money for his legal defense.  A friend of mine, a sincere and devoted churchgoer who received real value from his religious faith, attended a Southern Baptist church not too far away from where I lived.  The pastor of the church convinced my friend to send his money to Jimmy Swaggart because Swaggart was in real need.  My friend, by the way, was making $6.50 an hour.
June 11, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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