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Pentecostalism and the Deplorables in The Apostle

A show called The Apostle popped up on my Netflix recommended list this weekend. I assumed it was the 1997 Robert Duvall film, and intended to add it to my watch list. It was something else entirely. But it put me in mind of the Duvall film, so I watched it on another platform instead.

This put me in mind of a couple of other movies to rewatch. I don’t know that all would be in my top ten list of all time (indeed, I don’t have a top ten list given the incommensurability of films), but these are three movies I watch repeatedly. The Apostle, A New Leaf, and In Bruges. I discuss The Apostle today; I will turn to A New Leaf and In Bruges in my next post. Be warned, my brief discussion includes some spoilers.

The Apostle, written and directed by Duvall, tells the story of a Pentecostal minister, “Sonny,” played by Duvall. After braining his church’s youth pastor, who was having an affair with his wife (Farrah Fawcett), Duvall escapes into neighboring Louisiana. There, shedding his past identity—literally baptizing himself and adopting a new name—Duvall starts a new life and a new church. The deeds of the old Adam still claim their due in this life, however, and the police ultimately catch up with him.

Four items of note in the film, the setting of the story and three performances. First the performances. Duvall is a treasure as Sonny. Nothing new there, other than to state the obvious. Despite the eccentricities of Sonny’s character, Duvall avoids caricature. If anything, Duvall underplays the idiosyncrasies of the sort of Pentecostal preacher he wrote and portrays.

Two remarkable performances in the film are Farrah Fawcett’s and a small, but crucial, part played by Billy Bob Thornton. Fawcett’s performance in the film perhaps surprised me most. She must have delved into her South Texas roots to find this character within her. She is a hard-used, working-class Pentecostal woman enjoying a modicum of success for the first time in her life. A former beauty, which undoubtedly attracted Sonny years earlier, she’s on the verge of losing what looks she retained. Tired of being second (or third) place in her older husband’s life on account of the ostensible call God has placed on his life as a minister, her fling with the (younger) youth pastor is nothing new. Neither is her hard-ball-church-politics tactics she then adopts toward her husband, leading the congregation in voting him out as its pastor. Fawcett provides the role real poignancy.

So, too, Billy Bob Thornton. In a small role, but one pivotal to the story, Thornton plays a brittle, working-class reprobate, manifestly hostile to Duvall’s work and his church. In a surprisingly moving showdown with Duvall, Thornton converts. The scene was incredibly risky; it could easily have careened off track and, literally, ruined the film. That it didn’t has to be chalked up to Duvall and Thornton. I cannot imagine the scene reads as well as it is performed, and directed, on the screen.

Thornton’s conversion in the film leads us to the story itself. It’s Flannery O’Connor-style folk-religion with a lighter touch on the grotesquery. I mean that to praise not to dismiss; O’Connor lays on the grotesquery a bit too thick for my taste, and despite the apologia, she provides for it.

For all the absurdity, for all the near and actual heresy, and for all the vacuity and materialism of so much Pentecostal folk religion, a fair section of it retains enough of a nugget of truth that it can break through to hardened, working-class reprobates like the one Thornton plays. Sometimes this folk Christianity, so easily dismissed and caricatured, is the only thing that can break through to the hard, messy lives of the people who so often populate its congregations. American Evangelicalism is too concerned about attaining respectability (not yet grasping the goal is a chimera), and driving off the coveted middle-class congregants it needs to pay for the new basketball court, to reach out earnestly to this messy, disrespectable social strata. And mainline churches won’t even feel guilty about ignoring them. After all, they are the deplorables of the deplorables.

What The Apostle portrays accurately is that for all the abject messiness, even the hokeyness, of these churches, as well as the often poor, hard lives of the people to whom they minister, something real can happen. Something viscerally and spiritually real. One of the things that impressed me most about the late Peter Lawler, despite his Catholic intellectualism (or perhaps because of it), was his repeated recognition of, and respect for, this kernel of authentic Christian life that subsisted at the core of so many of those first-generation college students, children of deplorables if not deplorables themselves (not that he would ever call them that), who sat in his classes at Berry College.

The Apostle bears witness to them, and a way of life.

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