The greatest faith-based movie of all time is 1997’s The Apostle. Yeah, okay, The Passion of the Christ, whatever. But Passion was a different kind of movie. In The Apostle, a pastor dances across the stage in a white suit and sunglasses, takes out a $100 bill, waves it in the air, stuffs it in the pocket of the youth minister who is having an affair with his wife, and this is before the two pastors get into a fight and the youth minister gets hit in the face with a baseball bat and dies, at which point the pastor fakes his own death, baptizes himself, then flees into the bayous of Louisiana as a nameless evangelist who tries to earn his salvation back by rebuilding a rural church, preaching radio sermons, attempting to bang the radio station’s secretary, feeding the hungry, defeating racism in a fistfight, and leading the main racist to Jesus when he comes back with a bulldozer. You’re not getting this in God’s Not Dead 8: Threatened Non-Profit Status.
Robert Duvall is Sonny Dewey, a brash, glad-handing Pentecostal preacher from Texas. Sonny is not the kind of pastor who goes to seminary; no time for that, brother, gotta be doing the Lord’s work, which in his case is dancing on stage in that marvelous white suit, pumping revival crowds into a frenzy with spiritual jingo-speak, and taking care of his mama (June Carter Cash!)
It is easy to dislike Sonny. He is a man with spectacular flaws, and those flaws reflect enough of our own humanity that he feels icky. He is a womanizer, he is proud, and he has just enough of that slimy televangelist feel about him that you keep waiting for him to pass the offering plate and coax you to drop your money in.
But he is not a bad man, not exactly. He is a man who gets his hands dirty. A sanitized, proper Christian is not going to throw himself into uncomfortable situations. For Sonny, there is no comfort or discomfort; there is only whatever is in front of him.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Sonny drives up on a roadside accident. The ambulances are on the way but are minutes away from arriving. Sonny immediately parks his car and wades into the fray, Bible in hand.
Soon thereafter, Sonny’s wife leaves him and uses the church’s bylaws to have him removed as pastor. Sonny moves in with his mother. He cannot sleep; he paces to and fro, screaming at the ceiling. When he has said his piece, he leans forward, intently listening for the Lord’s reply.
Sonny falls into depression. He gets drunk and goes to talk to the youth pastor, except instead of talking he hits him with a baseball bat, and I guess the youth pastor was a bleeder, because he ups and dies, and this is sort of a problem. Sonny fakes his own death and treks into the bayou, where he stumbles upon an abandoned church in a poor, rural area. He talks some locals into giving him a job and letting him fix up the church, and this is the kind of thing you could do before smart phones, otherwise people would have just looked up the mysterious drifter and realized “oh, he’s not sent from God, he’s on the run from the law.” The internet ruined everything.
Sonny coaxes the church’s former minister out of retirement and they join forces to reopen the church. Soon they have a growing, racially diverse congregation, which draws some local troublemakers out of the woodwork.
It isn’t long before Billy Bob Thornton reappears with some friends and a bulldozer to raze the church to the ground. Instead of calling the police, Sonny and his congregation place a ring of Bibles around the bulldozer and begin to pray. One by one the men slink off, until only Billy Bob is left.
The unfolding scene is fascinating in that Sonny’s object of concern instantly changes from the building itself to the man who intended to knock it down. Would a proper, formal minister have been able to make this pivot? Perhaps it required an impulsive man who lived moment to moment. And then we see the beauty of Sonny; an impetuous, eccentric pastor kneeling in the dirt with a despicable man. Even his method of leading the man to Christ is crude; he puts the man’s hand on the Bible and implores him to simply cry out to God. This might not be formal theology, but Sonny’s theology is always simple: full speed ahead and let God work out the details.
Eventually Sonny’s crimes find him out, because how could they not; he was never going to get away for good. Even his alias, “The Apostle E.F.” was so hastily conceived that he used his actual initials. Sonny is arrested and led away to answer for the youth pastor’s death, and we hear him chatting away at the deputy, laying the groundwork for an invitation to come to Christ.
A post-credits scene shows Sonny in a prison uniform working a roadside detail with other prisoners. As guards watch intently, Sonny leads the prisoners in a call-and-response sermon. He is happy; for Sonny, there is neither comfort nor discomfort, only what is in front of him.