Religion Gets a Fair Shake

The mainstream media dislikes evangelical Protestantism more than any other religious movement. Print journalists routinely do hatchet jobs on its leaders, implying that its followers enjoy taking orders, can't think for themselves, and threaten American democracy with a judgmental, theocratic Puritanism.

Hollywood is even worse. Evangelical ministers are usually assumed to be thieves and womanizers, and their brand of spirituality is characterized as a form of psychological oppression that results in crime, mental instability, and sexual abuse. In recent years, a handful of TV series (Touched by an Angel, Seventh Heaven, etc.) have taken a more positive view of religion. But few of them have bothered to fight against the negative stereotyping of evangelicals, particularly if the preacher is white.

The Apostle, written and directed by Oscar-winning character actor Robert Duvall, dares to explore this thriving religious subculture without any of the usual prejudices. Unlike most contemporary filmmakers, he refuses to condescend in matters of faith in a positive or negative fashion. On the one hand, the movie has no plaster saints and, on the other, there are no psychologically repressed fanatics either.

Euliss “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) first heard the call at age 12. Since that moment he has been a workaholic in the service of the Lord.

“I quit school because I didn't like recess,” he exuberantly proclaims.

His preaching style is derived from black Pentecostal ministers, with much shouting, foot-stomping, and other dramatic gestures. His theology consists of comparing “Jesus' mailing list” favorably to “the devil's hit list,” all in the service of “Holy Ghost power.” But as he carefully points out, “No tongues,” that is to say, he doesn't speak in tongues or glossolalia, a popular form of Pentecostal worship.

He places a huge electric arrow pointing the way up, an image that characterizes his sincere but theologically shallow ministry.

When driving past an overturned car on the highway, Sonny stops, sticks his head inside the wreck and begins exhorting the badly injured young couple to “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” A cop tries to lead him away from the scene, but Sonny persists until he's succeeded in communicating his message.

Later he informs his equally devout mother (June Cash Carter), “We made news in heaven this morning.”

Sonny drives a new Lincoln Continental with customized license plates bearing his nickname and runs a large, prosperous Temple of Living God church in Texas with his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). He has two pre-teen blonde children who pray when they're supposed to and joyfully attend Bible camp. He proudly calls them “my beauties.”

But all is not well in this picture-perfect family. Hinting at Sonny's womanizing and boozing while on tour, Jessie wants out of the marriage and schemes to take the church with her.

Sonny correctly suspects that Jessie is having an affair with their youth minister. He has loud, angry conversations with God in his attic that keep his neighbors from sleeping at night. Convinced that his righteousness includes his personal life as well as his ministry, he takes revenge on his wife's lover with a baseball bat. Fearing that he's killed the man, Sonny does a fast disappearing act— but he continues to look to God for guidance, praying, “Wherever thou leadest, I will follow.” Sonny sees his flight from the law as a kind of pilgrimage and winds up in Bayou Houtte, La., a mainly black area whose only minister (John Beasley) has retired. Sonny rebaptizes himself “The Apostle E.F.,” and transforms the town's small, abandoned church into his own “One Way to Heaven Holiness Temple,” which he begins to fill through his lively preaching. At the top of the building, he places a huge electric arrow pointing the way up, an image that characterizes his sincere but theologically shallow ministry.

Sonny uses equally flashy radio advertisements to further build his flock, but his work includes more than cheap theatrics. He delivers baskets of food to the poor on a regular basis and succeeds in creating a racially integrated congregation despite the opposition of local bigots. Unlike many from his background, he also thinks well of Catholics.

While watching the local priest bless a procession of fishermen, Sonny declares, “You do it your way, I do it mine. But we get it done.”

In a certain sense, Sonny's starting again with a new identity results in a spiritual transformation. He's a better minister in impoverished Bayou Boutte than he was in the affluent suburbs of Texas, and more the suffering servant, devoting himself to the needs of his largely rural congregation. The huge ego he had developed as a successful preacher on the evangelical circuit is cut down to size.

Sonny feels personal pain in his reduced, anonymous circumstances, missing his kids and his mother. But he doesn't seem to feel any guilt for killing a man; the movie doesn't present this lack of remorse as a moral flaw. This makes Sonny's inner transformation seem well-intentioned but hollow.

The Apostle is more a brilliant character study than a fully developed drama. Duvall has succeeded in creating a complex, multi-layered personality, neither fully sinner nor saint. The movie deliberately leaves unresolved the question of whether the good Sonny does as a minister outweighs the evil in his personal life. But to deal with such important issues, the filmmaker should have created some distance between himself and Sonny. Instead, what's up on the screen is a story that is as morally ambiguous as its protagonist and therefore leaves the viewer emotionally unsatisfied.

The USCC classification of The Apostle is A-III: adults. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.

REGISTER arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.