Give Me That Ol' Time Religion

I have a confession to make: After viewing Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, I wanted to return—for the first time in nearly 20 years—to the pentecostal church. I realized I miss preaching that overflows with gospel clichés and the strange howl of people overcome with the Holy Ghost. I miss the big hair, the big cars, and the big extravaganzas put on to "win back our city for Christ." For the first time in a long time, I miss feeling the completely otherworldly sensation of being a born-again, Holy Ghost-filled believer.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a believer. But while watching The Apostle, I longed to be once again part of a culture of Christians who aren’t the least bit embarrassed that their neighbors think they’re nuts for yelling at God all night long.

The Apostle tells the story of Eulis "Sonny" Dewey, a traveling missionary and the pastor of a successful church in Fort Worth, Texas. While Sonny is singularly focused on winning souls for Christ, he is never one dimensional. Neither really good nor really bad, he is perhaps a lot more like us than we care to admit.

After catching his wife (played by Farrah Fawcett) in an affair with another minister, Sonny—filled with "spirits" of the distilled variety—busts up his brother in Christ with a bat. The preacher then hits the road, stripping himself of all the vestiges of his former life and baptizing himself as God’s apostle. Now calling himself "the Apostle E.F.," Sonny ends up in a tiny town in Louisiana, where he throws himself into building a church.

After a couple of radio sermons to promote the project, the white folks think his preaching is too black and the black folks know from his preaching that he’s white. But the Apostle E.F., with the help of a retired African-American pastor (played by John Beasley), still manages to bring together a small, multiracial congregation that sparks a spiritual renewal among the town’s people.

Though Sonny is a killer, he evokes sympathy because, in spite of his King James vocabulary, he is a sincere man. He is also an intense, self-absorbed, and—we suspect—egomaniacal pastor trying to pull the wool over his flock’s eyes and get away with murder.

The Apostle is filled with God-obsessed men and women whose entire lives are wrestling matches with God, the devil, and their own conscience. This culture of apostles and teachers, prophets and prophetesses, healers and exorcists, speakers of tongues and translators of tongues, and folks manifesting all other manner of gifts of the Spirit is part of a "primitive" Christianity still existing all around us. As The Apostle shows, this can be one of the most bizarre slices of life America has to offer.

Robert Duvall, who wrote and directed the movie, put in years researching pentecostal preachers and culture in preparation for The Apostle, and it shows. His depiction of the Apostle E.F., with all his rough edges, is as authentic a portrayal of a pentecostal preacher as ever offered in cinema. Still, after the project was rejected by studios for 13 years, Duvall finally had to put down $5 million of his own money to make the picture.

Though Hollywood will likely applaud the tremendous performance of screen veteran Robert Duvall, I suspect The Apostle will be problematic for much of the movie-going public: The film doesn’t cater to mainstream America’s amusement in shallow bloodshed, and instead commits itself to in-depth character development. Also, The Apostle is obsessed with an ecstatic, spiritualized form of Christianity that isn’t especially understood by many Americans, or, for that matter, by most Christians outside the pentecostal subculture.

While Hollywood has at times had a taste for "religious" films that deal with social consciousness, such as Romero or The Mission, it might find the rawness of The Apostle less palatable. While some more liberal sermons don’t mention Jesus at all, the Apostle E.F. invokes his name a couple times per sentence, including in the nearly 10-minute preaching finale, perhaps the longest sermon ever made for a mainstream movie.

While such a simplistic faith may not be popular, The Apostle strikes a chord dwelling within many of us for a spirituality that grabs our hearts and turns our lives around. Many Christians on both the Left and Right sides of the aisle are tired of experiencing their faith solely in political or social terms. A politically engaged faith isn’t bad, of course. But The Apostle reminds us that humans have some needs that only an encounter with the Divine can fulfill.

A low-intensity global revolution is transforming the way we live, work, and have our being, and many are less than satisfied with the results. The fact that millions of people around the world find solace in the answers offered in the fundamentalism portrayed in The Apostle shows that this brand of religion is fulfilling a widespread and primal need for stability and assurance that others haven’t been able to duplicate.

As our postmodern culture slowly dissolves all that we know and once felt safe in, more and more people are crying out for that "ol’ time religion." Perhaps The Apostle will help us understand that they can’t be all wrong.

The Apostle. Directed by Robert Duvall. Released by October Films, 1997.

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