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I love high-church liturgy. Smells and bells, processions and litanies, choirs and acolytes—the more the merrier. It might be because of the sere Christian Reformed atmosphere in which I was reared. It might well be a function of my education and social class. (Final exam question for Liturgics 101: “All evangelical academics wind up Anglican. Discuss.”) Doubtless a strong factor is my allergy to revivalism and its sundry assumptions, abstracting the person from history and context, subjecting her to intense rhetorical pressure, and calling the tear-stained consequence a free-will choice of Jesus as personal Savior.
Image my surprise, then, when I witnessed this scenario unfold to great and moving effect. Moving on me, I mean. It happened as I watched The Apostle the other night in preparation for a film-discussion class I’m leading at church. I had seen the movie before and had been transfixed by its characterization and drama, creditable in no small part to Robert Duvall’s masterful acting, screenwriting, and direction. (For detail on The Apostle as Duvall’s lifetime labor of love, see Roy Anker’s discussion of the movie in Of Pilgrims and Fire.) But this time I was struck by the power of liturgy unfolding on screen. Of Pentecostal Holiness liturgy, the ne plus ultra of the revivalist brand. It’s this liturgy that does the “saving” in the film.
A brief synopsis. Duvall’s Sonny Dewey has been a hot-shot preacher since he was 12 years old. He has a devoted church, a hot wife in Jessie (played by champion ‘70s pin-up Farrah Fawcett), and a successful itinerant ministry flavored with the occasional fling, the lissome Jessie notwithstanding. When she starts to stray, however, Sonny explodes in murderous rage, his target being his youth minister and Jessie’s paramour, Horace, whom he clocks out with a baseball bat at his kids’ Little League game. Sonny hits the road as a fugitive, but then as a pilgrim too, as we see when he stops at a crossroads to give his soul not to the blues-man’s devil but to the Lord. Next he drowns his fancy car in a pond and immerses himself in the waters of baptism, sealing his new status as “Apostle E.F.” That the baptism is self-administered is sign enough that our fugitive and pilgrim might (still?) be a con-man, too.
Which of these roles will triumph is the question behind E.F.’s new gig/ministry as preacher to a fledgling church in rural Louisiana. Spiritual quality control comes in the person of Rev. C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), a retired African-American preacher. “Why should I trust you?” he asks E.F. when the “apostle” asks him for help. Blackwell answers his own question with a great formula for any ministerial-credentials committee: ‘I’ll keep my eye on you. You keep your eye on Jesus. The both of us will watch out for the devil. And the Lord will mind all three of us.’ E.F. plays it straight and the church prospers, only to see trouble arise on two fronts. E.F. starts playing a local woman, separated from her husband and half taken with E.F.’s charisma, and a local goon starts menacing the church over its interracial character.
As it turns out, E.F. is saved from the first situation, saves the troublemaker (Billy Bob Thornton) in the second, but is finally caught by the long arm of the law and taken off to jail. Not, however, before conducting a dramatic last service where conversion and praise come to a compelling climax. As film critics we have to ponder: how does this scenario not devolve into pure cheese? As moral critics, especially as Protestants, we will ask, has E.F. really changed? Are his words and deeds sincere, issuing from a new heart? The answer to both questions comes in the power of ritual and icons.
It’s the iconic stature of the Bible—the big, floppy sort that Billy Graham used to such effect on the revival stage—that saves the church from the racist goon. Placed in the path of his bulldozer, the Good Book stops the troublemaker in his tracks, precipitating his then-and-there conversion at the hands of E.F. And it’s the powerful Pentecostal Holiness message that E.F. delivers at his last service, while the judgment-day lights of police cruisers flash in the background, that puts paid to the question of sincerity. He doesn’t just deliver the word, he incarnates it in voice, gesture, and body; in riding the call-and-response tradition of his audience; and, at a crucial moment, by invoking the most iconic of all evangelical Scripture passages. How do we know this is all true, E.F. asks. How do we know God changes, redeems, heals, inspires? Because, E.F. quotes John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son….” At that moment the Incarnation is incarnate in the room, and God’s objective power is poured out as surely as it is in high-church sacraments of real presence and presumptive regeneration.
Yes, our faith needs to grasp this grace, and that faith is tested by works. As to the faith part: Calvinists have always said that it’s God’s power and presentation which makes our faith possible in the first place; The Apostle shows that those can come also in a shout and a cadence and a leap and a dance. As to the works, we see, as the credits roll, the no-longer con-man but convict E.F. leading his prison work-crew in a call-and-response chant about Jesus. They’re scything the grass at the side of the road, bringing in the sheaves under the gun of the guard who controls their bodies but not their spirit. Ex opere operato.