Atheist Film: The Apostle

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 10, 2010 in Atheist Film & TV

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The Apostle was a writing/directing/acting labor of love for Robert Duvall over 13 years.

I first saw the film when I was starting to realize I could not longer believe Christianity was true, and I thought it was the most genuine and affecting atheist film I’d ever seen.

And then I read the reviews and was shocked to learn evangelical Christians loved it and thought it was a celebration of the virtue of religious faith.

This gives you some idea of how Duvall made the film. It’s a straight-faced portrait of a Pentecostal preacher, and how you interpret the story depends on your worldview.

The Apostle is the story of Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher whose infidelity leads his wife to begin a relationship with a youth minister. In an emotional fit, Sonny attacks the youth minister with a bat, and then flees. Sonny hides his identity and starts a new church in another state. In the end, the law finds him, and he is taken away after giving one last impassioned sermon to his flock.

If you’re a Christian, you might read the film as an affirmation that religious faith can redeem even the wickedest sinners. Sonny is sexually unfaithful, violent, and deceiving, and yet he continues to do the Lord’s work, save souls, and even converts a racist bigot near the end.

If you’re an atheist, you might read the film (as I did) as a critical examination of how religious faith blinds its followers, encourages hypocrisy, corrupts behavior, eliminates moral responsibility, and wastes precious lives on superstitious nonsense.

After sharing the gospel with a paralyzed kid stuck in his car immediately after a road collision, Duvall mutters prayers to his invisible friend while his mother sings a gospel tune. Through flashbacks, we learn that young Sonny was so indoctrinated as to be a hootin’ and hollerin’ Pentacostal preacher at the tender age of 10.

The outrageous services Sonny leads resemble tribal fire dances where emotional excitation is thought to bring forth the spirits. When Sonny hits the youth minister with a bat, the people don’t give him medical attention but rather lay hands on him and pray.

When a racist bigot comes to the church inquiring about Sonny’s identity, Sonny beats him up, justifying his violence as protection of God’s ministry. Later, to make money, he promises on the radio to personally bless scarves he is selling so that people will can put them under their pillows and “sleep more peacefully at night.”

Well. As long as it’s all for Jesus.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Bradm May 10, 2010 at 7:18 am

Despite the influence of one’s worldview on their interpretation of the arts, there is such a thing as a bad interpretation … and this review is one example. The movie didn’t suggest at all that religious faith encourages hypocrisy or corruption or the elimination of moral responsibility or anything else like that. While I agree that one’s worldview can influence how the interpret works of art, only somebody blinded by their worldview would think the movie suggested any of those things. The movie does portray all those things you suggest – hypocrisy, corruption, etc. – but in a much more complex (and real-to-life) way than you suggest. Roger Ebert shows this nuance in his review. Hell, even those Christian reviews you linked to understand this.

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Jeff May 10, 2010 at 7:47 am

I think Luke was saying that HIS take on the film was that it made him see these things. Not that this was the intent of the film makers per se. I certainly see that when watching this movie. Then again, I see it when I spend the weekend with my religious family and see them try to keep their christian worldview alive by having to continually affirm their beliefs in the face of contrary evidence.

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Matt May 10, 2010 at 8:03 am

From http://www.adherents.com/people/pd/Robert_Duvall.html

Appearing on the David Letterman show after release of the film, Duvall was asked, “Is Sonny doing this because he is good at it or he has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior?” Duvall responded, “What do you think” and Letterman said, “Probably, he’s good at it.” No,” Duvall corrected, “it’s both. That’s why I put in the first scene (at the car wreck).”

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Joshua Allen May 10, 2010 at 8:09 am

It’s an amazing film. Easily in my top 2 or 3 of all time.

“The Apostle” likewise came around the time that I was starting to walk away from atheism. Not that this film was influential in that, and Duvall’s character was no role model — but I noticed the same odd thing that Luke did. I remember thinking, “I can see this film two different ways, and people do”

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Bradm May 10, 2010 at 8:25 am

I understood that he was saying it was his take on the film, not the film-makers. I don’t necessarily think film-makers have the last word on what their film means or how we should interpret it. But I happen to think Luke’s take on the film is a poor. I have no problem with Luke or anybody thinking religion encourages those things, I just don’t see that in the movie.

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Lorkas May 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

there is such a thing as a bad interpretation

That’s just bad lit crit right there. There are lots of ways to interpret any work of art, and there isn’t a way to show objectively that one is better than the other.

Many people agree that even the author/director’s word is no better than anyone else’s when it comes to determining what a work means, since it means something different to everyone.

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Robert Gressis May 10, 2010 at 8:50 am

That’s just bad lit crit right there. There are lots of ways to interpret any work of art, and there isn’t a way to show objectively that one is better than the other.Many people agree that even the author/director’s word is no better than anyone else’s when it comes to determining what a work means, since it means something different to everyone.  

By the above, do you mean that you like egg drop soup?

Well, whatever. That’s how I’m going to read it.

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Baywolfe May 10, 2010 at 9:21 am

Well, this dialog pretty much proves his point, doesn’t it?

The Book of Revelation spawns the same type of argument. Is it the most dynamic, prophesy laden book in the Bible, or the rantings of a madman, driven crazy by his/her faith?

As someone who has learned to have a deep abiding distrust of “the clergy” in all of its manifestations, I side with Luke’s interpretation.

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Derrida May 10, 2010 at 11:36 am
Justin May 10, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I will have to check this one out! Do you know if the director is an Atheist?

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Stig May 10, 2010 at 1:06 pm

When I saw this on TV it seemed extremely obvious that Duvall was trying to convey a “faith and doing the Lord’s work as redemption” morality.

And I absolutely hate the film for it. To my mind that’s an absurd, deeply immoral message: Firstly, doing good things is not an excuse for bad (even criminal) actions you have run away from and never owned up to. Secondly, even if it were, indoctrinating others in a fairytale worldwiev would not be an example of good actions!

In a sense Luke’s interpretation is right (or would be right if these were real events), but I dont’ believe Duvall (himself a believer) intended or considered it. Maybe I would see some redeeming value on a second viewing…

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Mark May 10, 2010 at 1:53 pm

By the above, do you mean that you like egg drop soup?

Well, whatever. That’s how I’m going to read it.

Maybe there is a distinction between pragmatic and aesthetic reasons to accept/reject interpretations?

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Martin T May 11, 2010 at 3:36 pm

I find decentfilms.com to be a pretty even handed site for understanding religious themed films. Too bad this review is so short but the bottom line, “Viewed critically, Duvall’s film, like the troubling fiction of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor, is in the end a vindication of belief without being a vindication of every believer.”
http://decentfilms.com/reviews/apostle.html

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe May 12, 2010 at 4:30 am

@luke: this is an excellent review

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dgsinclair May 30, 2010 at 9:30 pm

As a Christian, I saw this film and found it honest, but also a real downer. The message I got was a confirmation of the scripture “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” – or even more, “and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” Numbers 32:24

I didn’t find it anti-Christian per se, though the main character was not exactly lovable. I haven’t seen it for years, so don’t remember what I thought the movie’s point of view was.

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Tshepang Lekhonkhobe May 30, 2010 at 11:43 pm

@dgsinclair: so what is it about the movie that let you down.

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Michael June 1, 2010 at 8:45 am

I wil go check it out, but it it sounds that one could easily use it as a critique not of all of Christendom, but of the radical Pentecostal church that is really frightening, even to Christians like me. I would say that if Duval really meant the film to be taken at face value, that this is “good,” then he is a moron.

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Rodney Howard Browne August 20, 2010 at 9:11 am

Thanks for letting me read this post. Now I feel I gonna watch it. Thanks again for the info.

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