Preachers and the Humble Thing: Part I

Hollywood movies seldom show us
preachers–an odd fact, given
that the United States has, seemingly
forever, been beset by the breed before
and behind and on every side. On every
other street corner, every third cable
channel, and in uncounted best-sellers
you can see them, hawking Jesus and
positive-thinking and who knows what
else besides. If one listens to fancy British
neo-atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins,
the United States has been infested by
preachers, and the infestation has led to
the infection that preachers especially
carry, the lethal God-virus that breeds
stupidity, gullibility, and innumerable
personal and social ills–just about everything
that’s wrong on earth, in fact.
And yet Hollywood rarely puts preachers
up on the screen. It is not so reluctant
with culture heroes, from Rocky to
Batman, who are something of cartoon
surrogates for preachers. And it has produced
blockbusters aplenty on biblical
figures, mostly Moses and Jesus. Still,
preachers? MIA.

Preachers, and the overtly religious,
are fraught territory, and movie moguls
might wonder who needs the bother. It
is one thing to guess wrong and make
a film that tanks faster than the American
economy; it happens all the time.
It’s quite another thing to face boycotts
and public floggings. Woe be unto those
who provoke the testiness of conservative
Christian audiences. When Grand Rapids
boy Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay
for The Last Temptation of Christ–ultimately,
a pretty orthodox film–his very
own father, a proper old-line Dutch Calvinist,
worked hard to make sure the film
stayed out of town. Even Billy Graham’s
children are spatting among themselves
these days about the worth of the new
film about dad. (It hardly matters because,
here and gone with miraculous
speed, no one apparently bothered to see
it.) What sensible businessman, even a
soulful film-loving one, would want to
mess with the sleeping hyena known as
Christians?

Those films that do depict clergy
tend to give priests of various sorts kinder
treatment than Protestant ministers.
Witness Bing Crosby in The Bells of St.
Mary’s
(1945), Mel Gibson’s Episcopal
priest in Signs (2002), and the assertive
and caring young priest now showing
in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008).
John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008)
might mark an end to that string, however,
given ongoing pedophile scandals
associated with priests. As to traditional
Protestant preachers, Hollywood has
never been very generous. The prototype
was the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, adapted
and directed from the Sinclair Lewis
novel by the prominent Richard Brooks.
When the novel came out in 1927, author
Lewis, the fellow from Lake Wobegon (actually Sauk Center, Minnesota), received
death threats. Thirty years later the film
won Burt Lancaster an Academy Award
for Best Actor. That in itself is something
of a surprise, for Gantry is a pretty-faced,
incorrigibly narcissistic ex-jock womanizing
con-man who discovers that the
best pickings, financial and sexual, lie
on the sawdust trail. To be fair, for all its
spleen, regular preacher scandals have
since made Gantry look all too trenchant
and prescient.

And so the sons of Gantry periodically
appear, such as Marjoe Gortner in the
documentary film Marjoe (1972), a real-life
child preacher who kept up his act well into
adulthood long after he stopped believing
any of it. Then there is the con-man healer-
preacher Jonas Nightingale
in Steve Martin’s 1992
film Leap of Faith, who in
the end does find some faith
despite himself. One of the
most bothersome portrayals
but probably out-sized in
influence is John Lithgow’s
Reverend Shaw Moore in the
teen-flick Footloose (1984), a
hot-blooded prig who deems
dancing a work of the devil.
Who knows how many of
the current crop of cultured
despisers of religion saw the
flick and took it for God’s
truth, or at least absolute
truth of some sort, if such
there be.

With such a string it
might seem that enough is enough, but
it’s hard to end the game when evangelical-dom insists on providing ever
more scandals to lure the indifferent.
The chief current example comes in the
HBO documentary on the fallen evangelical
mega-star, The Trials of Ted Haggard
(2009), directed by Alexandra Pelosi, the
daughter of House of Representatives
Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. This relatively
even-handed work follows upon the
heels of a not-so-kind documentary on
militant evangelicalism for kids, Jesus
Camp
(2006), which features as a prominent
cheerleader none other than…Ted Haggard. To this insistent panning,
there have been rare exceptions, such as
A Man Called Peter (1955), a hagiographic
adaptation of the best-selling biography
of preeminent Presbyterian preacher Peter
Marshall, a Scots immigrant who became
chaplain of the Senate before his
death at age forty-six in 1949. After that
there came–well, that’s sort of it.

What is it about preachers that we
should have such a dearth of them in
filmdom? Is it the Protestant emphasis
on the Word over against the Image?
Hardly. Is it that preachers are (with the
exception of all those known to the writer)
just bland and boring? It’s not that
the appetite for something holy is not
there. The Apostle Bus Goodness knows, there have been
scads of films, some the most popular in
North American culture, that ring with
the amplitude of religious possibilities:
Jedis, Ring-lords, heroes from the Matrix,
talking Jesus Lions, caped wonders,
and veritable Christs as little green creatures.
Mel Gibson gave Jesus his due,
and then some, in blood and lashes, but
that was preaching to the choir, albeit
very profitably. How does one get something
exciting, any kind of saint, plastic
or otherwise, out of the oh-so-mundane
priesthood of all believers?

There is one wondrous exception to
this paucity, a film worth watching again
and again, preferably with months between
viewings: Robert Duvall’s The
Apostle. In The Apostle we perhaps find
an explanation for why there are so few others of the type, for why this “real
preacher” thing is a very hard act to pull
off, in life or in the movies. In Duvall’s
work we find not only an extraordinary
cinematic construction but a portrait of a
seemingly real-life–as in living in a human
skin–preacher, a man who is neither
demon nor angel but, as John Updike
was fond of saying after Karl Barth,
a creature on the boundary between
heaven and earth.

Rare as it is, it comes as no surprise
that actor Duvall not only wrote, directed,
and starred in but had to pay for the
whole project. After trying for years to get
the attention and money of studios, Duvall
finally gave up on the possibility of Hollywood
funding and told his accountants to
let him know if he ever had enough money
to make it by himself. One of the benefits
of being among the busiest (and best) actors
in the industry is that a lot of work
comes down the pike, and Duvall has always
liked to work. (At age seventy-eight,
and with three films due out this year,
including The Road, he shows no signs of
letting up.) With total control over production
and deep, nuanced knowledge of his
subject, then, Duvall set out where Hollywood
feared to tread.

The preacher in The Apostle is Euliss
F. “Sonny” Dewey, and one powerful holiness
preacher he is. Originally a boy
preaching wonder, presently leader of a
thriving Pentecostal church in Ft. Worth,
a hit on the tent-revival preaching circuit,
model father to two “beauties,” as
he calls them, and husband to buxom
worship leader, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett),
Sonny heartily preaches up a vision of
exultant roaring grace, always in the
name of “Ghee-suss,” which for him is a
pretty constant invocation on-pulpit and
off. There is never any question that Sonny
believes. However, and here’s the rub
of the boundary business, Sonny is both
very sincere and grievously flawed, simultaneously.
 
How does one get something exciting,
any kind of saint, plastic or otherwise,
out of the oh-so-mundane priesthood
of all believers?
 

In him Duvall sets forth a
tale in which the preacher finally comes
to know and live the fullness of the redemption
he’s been pushing his whole life
long. When he does find it, finds all that
heretofore unforeseen, altogether surprising
fullness of grace, Sonny lies in
the damnedest of places, like the stereotypical
drunk in the gutter. About that
fact, frankly, there should be no surprise;
it will take that much to puncture
the narcissism of Dewey’s sanctimony, a
more than common plight of people of the
cloth, be they from the left or the right
religiously.

The Apostle suggests that preachers,
of all people, sometimes have the hardest
time grasping what in heaven they’re
talking about. True as that is for Sonny
Dewey himself, for lots of viewers, especially
for tame evangelicals
and still tamer mainliners of
all types–Christian, Jewish,
agnostic, whatever–this is the
central problematic in the film
as a whole. What do we make,
culturally or religiously, of all
of Sonny Dewey’s hyper-kinetic
shouting, stomping, cavorting,
whooping, heaven-bent for glory, rolling
and soaring under what he calls “Holy
Ghost power”? What is this, anyway:
scam, inspiration, revelation, fireworks,
entertainment, trip, delusion, rant, or a
potent unwieldy mix of them all?

Sonny is impressive in big conspicuous
ways. For one, he has enormous, even
ferocious energy in behalf of his cause of
bringing people to personal confrontation
with the reality of a loving God as present
in the person of Jesus. In the first
sequence after the credits, which shows
the child Sonny going to church with his
African-American nanny, Sonny and his
mother (June Carter Cash) come upon a
horrendous four-car accident. A few police
are there, but paramedics and ambulances
have yet to arrive. Sonny pulls
over, grabs his Bible, skirts the police,
and runs to a distant car lodged in the
tall weeds of an empty field. There Sonny
finds a badly injured young couple, the
woman unconscious and the young man
awake but unable to move and barely able to talk. Sonny first prays for a miracle, his
hands raised in petition, and then gently
but forthrightly urges the boy, blood oozing
from his ear and clearly facing death,
to embrace Christ for comfort and salvation.
During the last portion of his talk
with the boy, a policeman arrives to shoo
Sonny from the scene. Tenacious, head
inserted in the car window, Sonny continues
to reassure the boy while simultaneously
kicking backwards to keep the
policeman away. Not exactly civil disobedience,
but in the neighborhood at least.

It would all be funny if it were not
quite so serious, but of such go-for-broke
mettle is Sonny, this man who violates
law and taste to care more about souls
and eternity than physical well-being.
As he tells the openly skeptical cop, he’d
“rather die today and go to heaven than
live to be a hundred and go to hell” (7:50).
 
The Apostle suggests that preachers,
of all people, sometimes have the
hardest time grasping what in heaven
they’re talking about.
 

Strange though it seems to
tamer folks, this is just what
Sonny should be doing, given
how he sees the world, for his
success with the injured couple
determines not only mortal
but eternal stakes. As if to
make that very point, minutes
later as Sonny and his mother
are moving away, director
Duvall cuts very briefly to the accident
scene with a close-up glimpse of the
hand of the young woman, who has thus
far seemed more dead than alive; and,
lo, the injured woman now tightens her
grasp on her husband’s arm, amply signifying
the possibility that a miracle has
resulted directly from Sonny’s prayer for
healing. When Sonny gets back to his car,
he proudly announces to his mother that
they’ve “made news in heaven today.” As
they drive off, mother and son exultantly
break into song, the wonderfully expressive
voice of the aging June Carter Cash
belting out the tuneful “Victory Is Mine.”

Beginning with that nettlesome satisfaction
of making “news in heaven today,”
we run into manifold indications
that Sonny takes inordinate pleasure in
doing what he deems to be God’s work. He
takes his role seriously, as well he should,
but very often the whole ethos of preaching
and revival becomes more about him
as vessel. Especially in a religious realm
that emphasizes charisma and special
gifts in ministry, much depends on performance.
In his commentary on the film,
Duvall labels as “showmanship” the art
form that is at the heart of the holiness
preaching tradition wherein worshippers,
as he deftly puts it, sometimes “celebrate
the spectacle more than the substance”
(DVD commentary). Even more, while
Sonny finds due and proper satisfaction
in pursuing his calling, Sonny just loves
to be loved. He believes all, preaches all,
and sensualist of the spirit that he is, he
loves particularly the power, trappings,
and rush of being God’s special agent.

That’s clear even before the film’s
first glimpse of the man himself. Before
Sonny even appears we first see the big
preacher’s car he drives, a fancy Chrysler
sedan; it sports a vanity plate–SONNY–that tells volumes about his character
and fate. And then there’s the public
look of the man; Sonny’s attire declares
him to be very much a platform dandy. At
his first preaching gig, a revival-tent tagteam
preaching event, he sports a natty
double-breasted light gray suit while
all the other male preachers are soberly
dressed in dark colors (15:03); in his
second preaching appearance he again
stands out in a three-piece white suit.
When he crashes his own church after
being deposed, he shows up in that same
white suit wearing a pink shirt with a
pinker tie–and theatrics abundant, even
sunglasses.

Whether this is wholly ego-driven
or rationalized as an inescapable part
of what the job demands is rather besides
the point, for Sonny clearly loves
the trip. He preaches long and hard on a
host of topics that specialize in evil and
the devil, but he never quite makes the
connection between the worm of self and
Satan–that is, until much later when he gets the ego-stuffing drubbed out of him.
In short, Sonny lets flourish the incipient
egotism that resides in much Protestant
preaching, especially in revival preaching
where much of the grace happening
here and now depends on a particular
preacher’s charisma as the conduit for
grace. Preaching, as one wag put it, is the
Protestant’s only sacrament, the only
churchly means by which God shows
up and does God’s thing. Prayer and
Bible reading provide private routes to
God, but on the public, corporate side
of evangelicalism the preaching’s the
thing.

Sonny’s spiritual pride is not the
only carnal allure he faces. Just as his
thirst for a demonstrative Sonny-loving
God abounds, so do his more earthly
appetites for adoration, particularly
from multiple women, even though he
has a fetching co-pastor wife and two
lovely children. This becomes clear in
his conversation with his wife after he
discovers her infidelity with the church’s
youth minister.
 
Sonny lets flourish the incipient egotism
that resides in much Protestant preaching,
especially in revival preaching where much
of the grace happening here and now
depends on a particular preacher’s
charisma as the conduit for grace.
 

Sonny, it happens, has
his own troubling history, one that he regards
rather lightly, even dismissively, as
a necessary spill-over from the intense
emotional engagement that revivalism
demands. From its very first days revivalism
has seen leaders slide all-too-easily
from spiritual intimacy with God into
fleshly intimacy with converts. Sonny belittles
Jessie’s concern about (as he puts
it) his “wandering eye and wicked, wicked
ways” (22:31); he later loudly admits
to God that he is “a once-in-awhile womanizer”
(26:27). He ascribes this “wandering
bug” (22:38) to his love for evangelization,
an admission that in a more
introspective man might instigate serious scrutiny of his motives and his profession.
Jessie herself is fully aware of this history
and points that out to him when he threatens
to make a stink in their church about
her conduct. Still, for a husband whose
wife has just cheated on him with a man
of a very different sort–that is, a sensitive
“puny-assed youth minister”–Sonny
is rather calm about her specific carnal
straying. What seems to goad him most
is the offense to his pride–that his wife
would wander and whom she found to
wander with.

This, then, is the indomitable Sonny,
a complex mix of God-zeal and self-regard.
Surely, he loves God and he loves to
preach, and he does both with great intensity.
Throughout Duvall’s commentary
on the DVD, he continually
reiterates the
sincerity and authenticity
of Sonny’s belief,
especially the Pentecostal-Holiness notion that
one can have constant
spiritual exchange with
God himself, likening
it to Roman Catholic
adoration of the saints.
Unfortunately, though,
there is a rather nasty
snake amid the garden of zeal and piety,
and that is the possibility that what Sonny
most loves in the midst of his devotion
is himself, not so much God but his own
deep sense of special calling. A revivalist
since age twelve, Sonny’s besetting error is,
simply put, old rank ego, the idea of being
God’s fair-haired boy, which status he pursues
with conviction and fervor. The conviction
breeds a good deal of moral blindness
to the point of raising the question
of whether Sonny really “gets” the Jesus
he so fervently pushes and preaches. For
him, Jesus heals and saves, and Jesus
is full of power to save, power that he inevitably
imparts in some measure to the
very special Sonny, but Sonny’s theology
does not stretch much further than that.
The glass through which Sonny sees God
seems not only dark but also distorted,
like a fun-house mirror. Given this disposition
of soul, what will happen to Sonny
once his house and all he thinks he is
comes tumbling down, big-time?

Roy Anker is professor of English
at Calvin College in Grand
Rapids, Michigan.