An Insightful Look at Modern Evangelicalism

John H. Armstrong

Rarely do I review Hollywood films, at least for wide public use. This is especially true of films nominated for Academy Awards. Since evangelicals retain mixed reactions to the cinema in general, specifically to popular film as an art form, I generally steer away from the subject. The degrading aspects of the whole Hollywood subculture rightly trouble us. Much that is produced is outrageous and worthless. Yet, as noted by Dennis D. Haack in a recent article in our quarterly journal:

One part of modern culture which is easily 'plundered' is cinema. The enormous popularity of the movies makes them a good point of contact with the unchurched. Because movies tend to reflect the cultural consensus, it is possible to use modern film as a resource to help Christians comprehend the world and life views of those who do not share our deepest conviction.1

In the case of the recently acclaimed Robert Duvall film, The Apostle, evangelicals are given a rare Hollywood glimpse of themselves that is all too uncomfortably accurate. This is very definitely not a film which serves up Hollywood's distorted image of Pentecostal subculture. Duvall's script begs us to look at ourselves with a richness of insight rarely produced within our own ranks.2

After reading several reviews of The Apostle (specifically by evangelical critics) I decided to see the film for myself. I was definitely not disappointed. Duvall might well make us forget the stereotypical charicature of Elmer Gantry, a prospect we can only hope for. This story, and the performance of Robert Duvall, is such that I can only believe the Academy really did Duvall an injustice in not granting him this year's award for best actor.

The Apostle is the fictitious story of a Texas preacher ("Sonny") who grows up as a boy in the 1940s and 50s, learning to preach, as so many do, from early childhood. His congregation is racially mixed, economically and socially poor, and deeply Pentecostal. Sonny is a warm, genuinely caring, sincere man, who truly loves to preach. His kind of preaching, like so much in this context, is both engaging and direct. The outward success which follows Sonny results in him pastoring a large church, along with his wife (Farrah Fawcett), in an east Texas town. Sonny arrives at a home meeting to find out that he has been voted out of his own ministry, through the efforts of his estranged wife, who has recently been sleeping with the youth minister. Repeatedly Sonny seeks to pressure his wife into returning to him. He uses the methods all too common in evangelical sub-culture - strong manipulation mixed with Bible verses and piety. When his wife refuses to respond Sonny takes matters into his own hands, finally striking the youth minister with a baseball bat in a fit of rage. As a result of his problems Sonny flees Texas, eventually to start over in Louisiana.

Upon arriving in a small town Sonny privately baptizes himself the 'Apostle E. F..', in a display of quintessential American religious experience! He argues with God, begins to reach out to downtrodden souls, takes to the radio waves, refurbishes an old church building, and starts an entirely new ministry of evangelism and compassion. Within weeks the Apostle is able to reproduce the results that Sonny knew in Texas before his problems began.

Though the movie is a bit tedious at one or two points the depth of the main character carries the story well. Several scenes are indicative of E. F.'s personal attractiveness, especially when he stands down a racial bigot (Billy Bob Thornton) who threatens to bulldoze his church building. E. F. challenges him to repent and to embrace the love of God. This portrayal is genuinely moving yet even here nothing approaches the closing scenes in which Duvall gives one of the best portrayals of an 'altar call' ever scripted and presented on film.
Marvin Olasky, writing in World magazine, disappointingly portrays Duvall's performance as one in which 'the character lacks depth, and the film, sadly, ends up as a cartoon.'3 How little Olasky actually understands evangelicalism, especially of this variety. In Olasky's attempt to rebuke President Clinton, a favorite target for magazines like World, Olasky misses the whole point of this movie. Sonny actually depicts many hugely successful evangelical ministers in our time. Olasky, in his monochromatic approach to evangelicalism, actually fails to appreciate just how accurate and carefully nuanced is Duvall's depiction.

Far more nuanced and appreciative of this excellent movie is the insightful comment of Otto Scott, a decidedly Christian critic who writes a monthly commentary on contemporary culture from a historical perspective. He notes that:

Robert Duvall was attracted by their [Pentecostal ministers] dramatic qualities some years ago, and spent over a decade trying to talk some Hollywood producers into making a film about them - to no avail. Hollywood has its own views about Christians -and they are far from warm. Eventually Duvall made his own movie at his own expense, which he personally directed, and in which he stars in several ways. He began each day's shooting, we are told, by reading the Bible aloud to the players. The results will probably be shown for decades to come, for it radiates the true faith of a sinful man.4

The scenes in which Sonny wrestles with God in prayer ("I don't understand Lord, you always call me Sonny, and I always call you Jesus"); in which Sonny preaches with such pathos (emphasizing faith and commitment to Christ); and in which we are given marvelous insights into a very positive, and all too rare, social conscience in which Sonny touches the lives of common people with earnestness and love; these are all very real! (I sometimes felt as if I had 'been there and done that', especially with regards to Sonny's 'open' views on racial matters.) The sincere efforts of Sonny to share Christ with people in a car wreck, presented early in the movie, and the closing scenes of the Apostle E. F. giving the memorable altar call, while the police wait to whisk him away, are all too close to reality to be passed over as 'a cartoon.' While Olasky reacts to various elements of the movie as 'hackneyed' I find them profoundly believable and quite convincing.

Sonny is, in reality, a tormented soul - a real sinner troubled by his own moral failures yet profoundly devoted to preaching Christ (as he feebly and poorly understands Him). His life is anything but phony! He is not the charlatan figure Elmer Gantry at all. He is the real product, plain and simple, of an evangelical religion all too common in twentieth century revivalism. Sonny is most definitely not a hypocrite! Sonny is an extremely confused man who never clearly understands the biblical Gospel and yet at the same time strangely embraces what he does understand with utter sincerity.

I did not find myself dismissing Sonny as Duvall's warped image of an evangelicalism acceptable to President Clinton. Indeed, the character in this movie is much like the evangelical religion our President seems to favor. President Clinton really does know the Bible quite well, loves the revival hymns of his Southern roots, and sings in the choir of a conservative church! He really does meet with evangelical leaders and pray for God's guidance. It is time more of us realize that President Clinton is 'one of us', at least in terms of his being a good evangelical in the mainstream. No, Mr. Olasky, The Apostle is the right movie. I do understand exactly why President Clinton loved it. And you miss the point when you attack President Clinton in your criticism of this movie.

The simple fact is this - The Apostle depicts all too clearly the kind of Christian message that many of Olasky's World readers find appealing, should they ever bother to actually see the movie. (When I saw the movie the first time -yes, I have already seen it twice - many people were in tears at the end and some even applauded as Sonny continued to sing the praises of Jesus on a prison chain gang!) What Olasky fails to realize, in his constant assault on President Clinton, is that The Apostle is a wonderfully scripted, sensitively written, and extremely accurate depiction of an increasingly popular evangelicalism that speaks of God's grace with great feelings, while attributing salvation and Christian growth to man's free will and hard work. Sonny is the consummate Pelagian! His religion is a 'do it yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps Christianity' which looks to God for help to finish the job. Sonny (as our President) failed morally, but so have large numbers of our most popular evangelical ministers. If evangelicals persist in seeing their grave ills as residing particularly in the White House they will never come to true repentance! Sonny may have been a bit too sure of himself, but so are large numbers of present leaders in the church.

I am far more concerned that Sonny reveals to us that we have 'met the enemy and the enemy is us.' Evangelicalism needs to take a long penetrating look at itself and then return to the Word of God with deep and honest repentance. The Apostle might actually facilitate such a look if it is viewed with a discerning mind and a warm heart.

No, I did not find this 'a cartoon.' I found it a haunting film (though entertaining in another sense, as most films are designed to be) that made me say, with profound feeling and gratitude, "There but by the grace of God go I."

 

Author

John H. Armstrong is President of Reformation & Revival Ministries. He is an author of several best-selling books, editor of Reformation & Revival Journal, and an itinerant preacher. His next book releases include The Compromised Church (Crossway, July), and When God Moves: Preparing for True Revival (Harvest House, July).

 

End Notes:

1. Dennis D. Haack, 'Movies for Church Leaders', Reformation & Revival Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1,
Winter, 1998, 182-3. This article is a wonderful introduction to the subject of movies and their use as a means for understanding the culture and relating the Gospel more effectively to our neighbors.

2. The Apostle, October Films (1998), directed, produced and written by - and starring Robert Duvall.

3. Marvin Olasky, ' Wrong movie, Mr. Clinton, ' in World, February 21, 1998, 22.

4. Otto Scott, Compass: Commentary on Contemporary Culture. April 1, 1998, 4. Compass is an extremly useful commentary that can be ordered from: Uncommon Media, P. O. Box 69006, Seattle, Washington 98168. Phone 1-800-994-2323. It sells for $50 per year, a quite high price, but you can get three months as a trial subscription for $10.00.

Reformation and Revival