The Apostle E.F. and God in Spite of Us

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 18]

If The Godfather did not exist, my list of favorite movies would probably begin with The Apostle. It’s certainly the movie I have watched most. Robert Duvall is brilliant and complicated. For a long time after, I couldn’t watch him in any other role without thinking of the Apostle E.F., because he embodies the character so fully. Farrah Fawcett as Jessie and June Carter Cash as Mrs. Dewey are perfect as Sonny’s estranged wife and mother, respectively. Even minor roles are nicely cast, with Billy Bob Thornton and Walton Goggins, as well as John Beasley (who happens to be a Lutheran).

Perhaps one of the things that appeals to me most about the film (besides the religious aspects) is that there is nothing flat about Duvall’s writing, directing, or acting. As I said, he becomes Sonny so completely that, other than Tom Hagen in The Godfather, this is the role that, for me, bleeds into every other film I’ve seen of his.

Incidentally, this is a film about celebrity pastors who build empires to their own names. Sonny finds himself suddenly expelled not only from his church but from his marriage. This leads to one of my favorite scenes, where Sonny is praying loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. His mother gets a phone call asking her to tell him to be quiet, but she says, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight, he’s yelling at Him.”

The unexplained unfairness of everything that happens and Sonny’s inability to make it right, coupled with his desire for vengeance, lead him to a shocking and violent action that he can’t undo. So he dumps his car in the river, flees, and “baptizes” himself the Apostle E.F. The Lord can’t do without him, he seems to think. He arrives in a small Southern town and starts asking around in order to begin a new church, which involves him broadcasting on the local radio station.

There’s almost a Paul-of-Tarsus-quality to the second act of the film, as his church grows to encompass the poor, both black and white, in spite of what the viewer knows about Sonny’s past. Because of that knowledge, there is an uneasiness that runs beneath everything good that seems to be happening. Perhaps because he knows he can’t outrun his actions forever, he doesn’t try to rebuild an empire, but is content to work in the little church he built. But that is part of the problem, because he can’t separate the church from himself. It’s his church, and no one’s going to take it from him, he tells Billy Bob Thornton’s character. It’s almost as if the sheer force of Sonny’s persona brings the troublemaker to repentance—that, and a few blows from his fists.

I’ve had friendly arguments with others who have seen the film about how the cops eventually find Sonny. Does Jessie hear his voice on the radio? Does Sam (Walton Goggins) call the cops after over-hearing Sonny’s confession to Brother Blackwell? Either way, you know that Sonny has to be brought to justice, but you wish things could be different. There are few characters in film as complexly rendered as Sonny, whose childhood, adult life, vocation, and choices all feed the story.

As Sonny watches Roman Catholic priests blessing boats on the river, he says, “You do it your way and I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?” Even The New York Times recognizes that very few Pentecostal pastors would have kind words to say about Roman Catholics. Even so, that’s the way it goes in The Apostle. Somehow, as Sonny does things the way he does things, good things seem to happen. It’s almost an echo of Paul’s words in Philippians, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18). Sonny seems more pretense than truth, yet his motives almost don’t matter, at least where the people in his congregation are concerned.

And so the Apostle E.F. becomes, in some ways, a denial of Donatism, which held that the sacraments of any priests who had apostatized were invalid. Augustine argued the opposite, that it was the Word of God that validated the sacraments, not the character of the priest.

More than that, Sonny is a visual depiction of the tangle of motivations that make up each one of us, including those who preach—even if we aren’t hiding from a murder prosecution. Those motives cannot be untangled because they constitute our selves. Sonny’s faults are more readily apparent than ours, perhaps. Yet he, like us, is both aware and unaware of them. He seems to confess them easily, but sometimes that confession is simply another way of concealing.

Even though I’m far from Sonny theologically, The Apostle is fundamentally about the contradiction between the work of God and the sinful man who, somehow, God uses to do that work. It’s ridiculous, in fact. Even though it’s been happening for thousands of years, it still doesn’t make much sense. If you haven’t seen The Apostle, remedy that oversight immediately. It’s one of the few films that I’ve watched over and over without tiring of it.

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