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. 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.