Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Apostle (1997)

What if you find out that your pastor isn't morally upright? What if he fudges the truth? What if he isn't faithful to his wife? What if he hits the youth pastor in the head with a baseball bat?

Though Scripture doesn't mention baseball bats specifically, it does set minimal standards for spiritual leadership. In a film he also wrote and directed Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher, Euliss F. 'Sonny' Dewey, a man who doesn't at all exemplify Paul's outline of moral rectitude found in 1 Timothy 3. He might also fail a fairly basic psychiatric examination. And yet, at the end of the film I found myself thinking I might not mind going to his church.

There are several churches portrayed in the film before the opening credits, including one Sonny visits as a child, when Sonny's African American maid (or nanny) takes him to a black Pentecostal church in New Boston, Texas. In the midst of a lively service, a blind preacher expounds on the text, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." The boy is enraptured and we next see him as a grown man, a pastor himself.

The next congregation we see has Sonny for a pastor. It's a charismatic congregation church that seems to be thriving, in a PTL, polyester, big hair, leisure suits and lots of make-up kind of way, but Sonny's wife has maneuvered with the church's youth pastor and the church's board to boot Sonny out. Sonny's wife (played by Farrah Fawcett-Majors) is having an affair with the youth pastor, but apparently Sonny has had plenty of affairs himself, so he doesn't have the moral upper hand. He goes to a worship service and rages that "This was my own church." Not God's church, but his. Still, in righteous indignation, Sonny attacks the youth pastor with the baseball bat previously mentioned, putting the youth pastor in a coma and himself on the run from the law.

Sonny takes advantage of his own dilemma to begin life anew. He baptizes himself as "the Apostle E. F." and travels to a small town near the swampland of Louisiana. There he finds a retired African American pastor and asks him to join him in starting a church together.
This church is the "One Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple" as the neon sign says on the front of it. E.F. promotes the church on the local radio station. He also gets a bus to pick up passengers who need a ride. Blacks and whites worship together. They don't have a piano or organ, but they get children to bring their instruments. And E.F. preaches passionately to a responsive congregation.

I certainly wouldn't want to go to the first church Sonny pastored. But this church has a sense of joy and unity. We see men full of hate and sadness find God's grace in this church. But E.F. is still Sonny, and we wonder how long he'll stay on the straight and narrow. Perhaps fortunately, the law steps in before Sonny has a chance to ruin what seems like a very good place to worship.
The churches in the film, good and bad, average out for 2 steeples.

(Look for a young Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins.)
-- Dean

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