Faith and the movies
IN A CYNICAL, scandal-driven Washington, it was a surprising reaction: a Saturday-night movie audience breaking into spontaneous applause for a serious film about religious faith. Hollywood has not dealt kindly with religious themes or figures in recent years, from the controversial Last Temptation of Christ to the more recent Primal Fear, so it was with some trepidation that I went to see Robert Duvall's new movie The Apostle. Ads promised "lust, obsession, revenge... redemption."
To my relief, the movie instead offered the story of one man's abiding faith and his desire to inspire others to share it. And if the reaction of my fellow moviegoers was any indication, it is a story Americans want to hear.
To be sure, the character Euliss "Sonny" Dewey -- later, the Apostle E.J. -- is no saint. He has committed adultery in the past and fails to turn the other cheek when he discovers his wife in an adulterous relationship with a younger minister. His fall from grace and his effort to rebuild his life after he attacks his wife's lover provide the film's spare plot line, but it is the apostle's relationship with the Lord that is at the center of this movie.
In the hands of a less skillful actor than Duvall, the Apostle E.J. could easily become a grotesque. He never does -- even in those scenes where he is carrying on a two-way conversation with God in which he clearly "hears" God's voice speaking directly to him. But it isn't just Duvall's acting talents at work in the movie. He also wrote, directed and produced the film, working on the project for more than six years.
"In trying to portray these religious figures, you have to show them without patronizing or caricaturing," Duvall told a press conference at the New York Film Festival.
Duvall used many non-actors in the movie and reportedly went out of his way to involve people with strong religious backgrounds. There is a kind of affectionate respect that comes across in the way Duvall develops each of these characters, large and small. They are never side-show freaks or sanctimonious hypocrites but sincere, devout humans who sometimes sin but try each day to do better.
The irony of "The Apostle" is that it took so long for Hollywood to tap this theme except to ridicule it. Evangelism is an important strain in American history. From the 19th-century tent revivals to the current Promise Keepers, evangelical Christianity has helped to shape American culture and morals. A growing number of Americans consider themselves born-again Christians who believe they have personal relationships with Jesus.
Over the past 30 years, evangelical Christian denominations have grown while mainline Protestant ones have declined dramatically. There are 44 percent fewer Episcopalians (as a proportion of the total U.S. population) today than in 1967, 38 percent fewer Methodists and even 3 percent fewer Catholics, despite the influx of so many Catholic immigrants from Latin America.
But the Jehovah's Witnesses have more than doubled in this same time frame, the Assemblies of God have grown by more than 200 percent, and the Church of God in Christ has grown by a whopping 863 percent, according to a 1997 survey reported in The New York Times. There are also now more than 400 "mega-churches" in the United States, offering non-denominational, evangelical Christian services to gatherings of 2,000 or more people at a time.
Americans still have greater confidence in religious organizations than in any other public or private institution by a fairly wide margin, according to polls by the Gallup organization and others. Yet, many elites -- from Hollywood producers to journalists -- are cynical about the influence of religion in American public life. Too often, figures like convicted televangelist Jim Bakker are used to symbolize an entire community of faith. The media often portray religious leaders as greedy manipulators and their flock as ignorant bumpkins, skewering those who try to live by God's rules but fail to do so perfectly as smarmy hypocrites.
What these portrayals miss is the very point of Christian faith: man must constantly struggle to do what is right and will often fail, but with God's grace, he'll pick himself up and try again. It is faith in the power to be saved from his own sinfulness that keeps Sonny Dewey preaching the Gospel to anyone who will listen. And among those listening will be millions of American moviegoers who might otherwise never hear this message of
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