Preachers and the Humble Thing: Part II

Editor’s Note: The first part of this article appeared
in the May 2009 edition of Perspectives.
In this second part Roy Anker picks
up where he left off in reflecting on the character
of the revivalist preacher Sonny Dewey
from Robert Duvall’s film
The Apostle.

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?

What can happen to a man such as
this, a Jesus lover, a saver of souls, and
God’s own special boy and friend (as he not
so casually reminds the Almighty after he
finds that wife Jessie has been cheating
on him with the “puny-assed youth minister”).
Sonny can handle lots of insult,
mostly with his fists, but this particular
insult riles his macho self to the core. Being
humiliated by Jessie exposes much
of what he really is beneath his revivalist
preacher exterior: in truth he is vain, egoistic,
violent, coercive, vengeful, and sexually
predatory, to name just the big ones.
Still, this is no Elmer Gantry, who exults
in his shame, nor is he Graham Greene’s
whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory,
an alcoholic fugitive whose sacramental office
seems to function in spite of himself.
Needless to say, the outlook for Sonny is
not so good, especially after he himself has
been trespassed against. He just does not
get the adage about the goose and gander.
Moreover, he cannot imagine this happening
to him–of all people–given his special
intimacy with the Almighty: “I call you Jesus,
and you call me Sonny.” Well, Sonny
Dewey goes on a tear so to speak, hitting
the bottle and raising hell in general in the
church and out.

Desperate and confused, Sonny
crashes the raucous Sunday morning of
his thriving church, or rather his former
church, for he has at the machinations of
Jessie been, for reasons unexplained, deposed.
In the midst of the ecstatic singing,
he parades about in that white suit, pink
tie, and sunglasses, waving a $100 bill but
soon concludes that he has not received
the sort of welcome-back uprising from the
congregation that he had hoped for. Having
lost his wife, kids, and church, Sonny
takes to drink and then shows up drunk at
his son’s ball game where he dispatches the youth minister with a bat. Now undeniably
guilty as sin–as well as being now criminal,
prodigal, and fugitive–Sonny hits the
road in his fancy car, taking backroads to
God-knows-where (stopping at empty crossroads
to kneel in prayer for God’s direction).
What happens then is the Big Problematic
in the film: preacher Sonny gets redeemed.
Or does he?

Bereft of wife, children, home, church,
deeply shaken by his deed, and now suddenly
an alien in his own land–alone and
vulnerable, wandering and wondering–the over-wound Sonny slowly winds down,
ending up quiet and still at the ground zero
of his being. Necessity forces him to get rid
of that telling emblem of himself, the fancy
car and vanity plate, and he does that decisively.
He quite literally sinks them both in
a rural pond, and Duvall the director lets
the camera, as the car settles to its watery
grave, dwell in close-up on that license plate,
a fitting visual emblem of and, at the same
time, farewell to, all that Sonny has been.
At the same time, the watery burial prefigures
the Sonny who will rise from a similar
pond to signal what Sonny understands to
be an authentic rebirth, one that will be
displayed in subsquent words and deeds.
For now, though, out in the boondocks and
on foot, the strut and hustle of this man
who was always perpetually on the run–a
fellow who could barely constrain himself
to simply walk–wearies and fades. Slower
and slower he goes, as if the stuff of life and
belief slowly drain from him.

At the nadir of his life, the once highstepping
Sonny ends up sweat-soaked,
tired, and dusty on the shore of a rural
lake, begging a one-legged black fisherman
(played by Brother William Atlas Cole, himself
a holiness preacher who never goes to
movies) if he can freeload a place to stay for
a couple of days. And so Sonny ends up
in a poor man’s pup tent where, dead-still,
fasting, and flat on his back, he proceeds
for days to shrive his spirit, repenting and
petitioning. There, still and quiet for once,
maybe the first time ever, Sonny travels farther
than he has in all his journeys on the
revival circuit, for he reckons, seemingly for
the first time, with his own deep darkness.
 
Sonny ends up just plain different,
meaning he slowly transmutes into
a new substance, a different and
“fuller” person, especially as he
now takes on, so to speak, the mind
and heart of the Jesus he was always
babbling about.
 

Duvall the director accomplishes all this in
virtually wordless fashion, showing rather
than telling. Sonny simply lies there in his
tent praying and repenting, a process that
parallels the moral sorrow of Jessie, whose
prayers and readings from the Bible provide
the voiceover text for Sonny’s own inner
searching. It is a deft, efficient touch by
director Duvall, one that exposes the depth
of seriousness in the religious tradition in
which he sets the film. Yes, there’s often
more spectacle than substance, but when
things get tough, the tradition can serve to
sober and refocus the derelict. The days of
introspection end when Sonny immerses in
the lake, baptizing himself into new being
with, tellingly, a new name, “Apostle E.F.”
The old Sonny is gone, not a shred left, in
name and spirit, and thank God.

Throughout Sonny’s brief sojourn by
the lakeside, his host wisely sleeps with a
shotgun by his side, having no idea who
this itinerant white guy is, but in an apt
way that neither Sonny nor viewers recognize,
this old, soft-spoken, and very unspectacular
fellow who accommodates this
crazed white man, offering him his backyard
and food and drink, points the direction
that, spiritually and practically, Sonny
himself will go. First, this man is humility
and gentleness incarnate, lacking in airs
and bravado; second, as we find out when
Sonny moves on, he provides Sonny with a
ministerial contact, his cousin in a small
Louisiana town, where he might be allowed
to return anew to ministry. From his refuge
on the lakeside, Sonny sets out again,
always seeking God’s course through the
mess of events, and arrives, in very curious
fashion, in a small Louisiana bayou town
where he seeks to restore a defunct holiness
church and congregation. It is there,
in contrition and humility, that Sonny truly
seems to find for the first time the fullness
of his calling. And it doesn’t look at all like
what he once was.

What is significant here, and proves
bothersome for a lot of people, is that in
his transformation Sonny continues still to
believe and do the same old religious stuff
he has his whole life. In personality and
style, he remains very much the same fellow,
bumptious and a little wild, and, more
curious still, there is no repudiation of the
means of the past, meaning his preaching
and spiritual style. That kind of change
would for many critics make liking the film
a lot easier, thinking that the genuineness of Sonny’s change should appear in an embrace
of a proper theological tradition, like
Lutheranism or Calvinism, and most all
of some higher “worship style,” something
from what Sonny dubs the “frozen chosen.”
What gets changed, though, is Sonny
himself. As it turns out, the resources of
this theological tradition, as threadbare as
many would deem them, suffice to effect a
profound, albeit gradual change.

Sonny ends up just plain different,
meaning he slowly transmutes into a new
substance, a different and “fuller” person,
especially as he now takes on, so to speak,
the mind and heart of the Jesus he was
always babbling to or about. That happens
not in a Damascus Road blitz or with angels
flitting about, as both Hollywood and
Sonny usually render it, but it comes clear
bit by bit, both to the Sonny and to the audience.
Sonny’s understanding of God and
redemption go through a change
that is not so much articulated as
shown, which is altogether proper
in drama (as in Christianity generally).
In other words, Sonny does
not change doctrines or cultures,
theologically or religiously. He is,
first and last, a Southern holiness
preacher and that he will remain
even through an arresting final sequence
that plays beneath the end
credits.

The marks of this alteration
are several. First, shriving himself
in that pup-tent, Sonny repents of his
crime but also of his life in general, soon
admitting to God and to himself that his
zeal and virtue have zig-zagged–in fact,
“a lot more zagging than zigging.” Indeed,
Sonny seems to sense that much in his life
has been deeply mistaken, first in that lakeside
voice-over read by his wife and then by
Sonny himself as he makes his way to the
small Louisiana town of Bayou Boutte. He
earlier conceded that the human creature
in general, including himself, is a “mutt,”
a sort of half-lovable mongrel but nothing
too nasty, especially Sonny himself. Thus
far he’s been able to deny the seriousness
of his flaws, but not any longer. Homicide
has a way of getting one’s attention, especially
when you are the culprit. With the
clarifying reality of his own murderous
heart staring him smack in the face, he’s
plain scared, for his inmost self has caught
up with him, and so apparently has God.
Now a new sense of essential wrongness
pervades his soul, taking the shine off his
habitual “me-and-you-Jesus” egotism and
bravado. Sonny gets repentant and humble.
This is nowhere more evident than in
the fact that while he first rages against
his cheating wife, after a time he forgives
her and sincerely prays for her well-being.
His own clearly visible sin and brokenness
bring him to forgive hers as well.

Further, Sonny’s manner softens not
so much in his preaching, although there
is subtle change there too, but in what we
now might call his “relational style.” Personally,
and in his address to God, he is
quieter. With others, too, he is gentler and
more patient, especially as he gathers a
new congregation that consists of the lowly
and outcast of all sorts, black and white together,
an interracial mix that has historical
roots in the holiness tradition. Their
church–and it is more their church than
in any sense Sonny’s church–he aptly
names, displayed in bright lights, “One Way
Road to Heaven.” There Sonny reconciles
spatting ladies and in worship he relishes
the cacophony of an old man spluttering on
a battered trumpet and little kids whacking
at toy guitars, a marked contrast to the
fancy pumped-up electric bands of his Fort
Worth church where he exulted mostly for
his own sake. Nobody is too humble for
Sonny to affirm–no more reflexive high
and mighty preacher-olatry, a virus that
probably afflicts the mainline and liberal
establishments more than those lowly unschooled,
tasteless backwoods folks.

If before Sonny seemed a locomotive
whose tracks were the people that he ran right over in the name of Jesus, this “Apostle
E.F.” comes to exude a restless tender
love for his people and his work. The
new preacher runs, just like the old one,
but now it is from homes of the poor after
he anonymously drops off food at their
front doors. This new practice results, as
the Apostle confesses, from having known
both abandonment and the grace of charity
amid his dire exile. And now, having
known lostness and exile, he wants to start
a summer camp for fatherless kids like his
own. The old Sonny, we sense, did not do
much good without making sure that God
and other people knew about it. The new
Sonny is humble and, partly because of
that new-found meekness, deeply grateful
for every little thing. And especially for the
people, the skinny and the fat, the halt and
lame, deaf and daft, all, and the lowlier the
better.

Viewers witness a host of small incidental
changes that betoken the profound
shift within. Sonny goes from gaudy attire–white suits and gold ties–to bland
ties and plain dark suits, an ample indication
of new self-effacement. And there are
no more fancy cars for him to sport about,
but he now happily rides with other people,
including his cheerful last ride. Or he
drives a borrowed car or a notably unsplendorous
tubby old church bus. More than
that, in a nice symbolic echo, Sonny now
supports himself and his new church by
fixing things (auto mechanic) and serving
up sustenance (ice cream man and shortorder
cook). Ultimately he gets their vehicles
and them running better, which is especially
the case with Sam (Walt Goggins),
the young man he has moved in with (and
on whose couch he happily sleeps each
night, again a marked contrast to his fancy
Fort Worth house).

The most conspicuous instance of Sonny’s
new self comes in the oft-mentioned
encounter with the racist in the bulldozer
(Billy Bob Thornton), who wants to flatten
Sonny’s interracial country church. When
the fellow shows up with his machine during
a church picnic, Sonny quietly stands
up to him and forgives and loves him into
repentance and into the congregation. Admittedly,
this sounds like the old hokey
melodrama of revivalism, but here it works.
The odd thing is that somehow Duvall
shifts the focus of the event from the actors
to the baffling strangeness of the event
itself, and even the most skeptical viewer
departs the sequence wowed and hushed.

Nor is Sonny the same bully that he
once was, especially with women but also
with people in general. That is not to say
that he has become a sensitive new-age guy,
but neither does he any longer coerce and
dominate, able now to hear “no” and still
respect the person who says it. He comes
to know Toosie (Miranda Richardson), who
works in the radio station where Sonny advertises
his church, and that relationship
slowly grows. However, when Toosie finally
reconciles with her estranged husband,
Sonny abruptly removes himself from her
life, likely seeing in her restored family
what he himself wrecked and now misses.
Perhaps the most affecting moments in
Sonny’s transit have to do with his meager
new congregation. In his first meeting, only
nine people show up, including kids, but
the new Apostle nonetheless relishes the
occasion and quite sincerely cajoles them
into mutual warmth and festive gratitude.
Weeks later, Sonny sits at night by himself
outside his ramshackle rural church,
and he mumbles quiet but complete gratitude
for the place and the people. And in
the closing sequence, in roaring holiness
preaching style, he bids an aching fervent
farewell to the congregation, finally giving
all that he has to the tiny church. Again
all this contrasts mightily with the prosperity,
showiness, factiousness, and pride
in the Fort Worth church in which Sonny
paraded like a bantam rooster. Back there,
he flashed money to celebrate himself; in
Bayou Boutte, he gives all quietly, not letting
the left hand know what the right
does.

What this all amounts to is that, as an
exile in a hick town, Sonny has come to
know a notably fuller measure of himself,
of God, and of the reasons why he preached
in the first place. He no longer runs for
Jesus or success in soul-counting but for
something different and more, so much so
that he ultimately chooses to run no more,
and he tranquilly meets his punishment at
the film’s end. Redemption in the case of
Sonny has had a slow, hard take, as is the
case with most people. Some fundamentalists
have complained that Sonny shows no repentance, apparently because he does
not engage in the histrionic breast-beating
repentance and dramatic turn-arounds
that predominate in that religious style
and “taste culture.” That repentance and
redemption do occur, however, is clear and
certain and displayed in manifold ways,
including a last-minute confession to his
fellow pastor (John Beaseley). Sonny cum
the Apostle E.F. has by happenstance and
by God’s steadfast care journeyed, however
haltingly, into a fuller realization of
the Love that lies at the core of the message
that he zealously preached but faintly
grasped. There is the shedding of evil-doing
and a loss of self-exultation. What’s
more, in a new-found wholeness of soul,
Sonny is never so free and whole as when
he heads off to jail.

The shape and direction of Sonny’s
“one way road,” and the pilgrimage of all
Christians, is best suggested by that resolutely
high-church poet T.S. Eliot at the
end of his Four Quartets, and to be sure, it
works as well with holiness preachers as
with elitist Anglicans. Eliot understands
Christian maturation as the “expanding/
Of love beyond desire,” as a “lifetime’s death
in love,/ Ardour and selflessness and selfsurrender,”
all of which proceeds from the
“purification of the motive/ In the ground
of our beseeching.” For Sonny the fictional
holiness preacher, as for Eliot the quite actual
poet, and all would-be pilgrims, “In order
to arrive at what you are not/ You must
go through the way in which you are not,”
and in that traverse, if Love abounds, all
end up “renewed, transfigured in another
pattern.” Eliot’s journey is much the same
charted by Paul: “This is my prayer, that
your love may grow ever richer in knowledge
and insight of every kind, enabling
you to learn by experience what things really
matter” (REB; Philippians 1:9-10). And
Sonny’s soul does learn and grow, and that
indeed is cause for stomping, shouting,
and much gospel song. To Robert Duvall’s
enormous credit, he accomplishes far more
than simply making Sonny’s suspect world
credible and palatable. That “more” makes
Sonny’s “one way road” a path both enticing
and luminous, a path that imbues its
earnest pilgrims with love and delight and
unceasing humility.

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