The Labyrinth of Accusation

 Originally Appeared in: Venue 3 | Published: 1998

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do.
                                                                — NICK CAVE

As the credits and the last scene of Robert Duvall’s The Apostle finished, the theater empty of everyone except those who make a habit of watching all the way through the music credits, I turned to Ben and said, Don’t ever say I never took you to church.

We had been tiptoeing around a discussion of religion for several months, wary perhaps that it would be contentious and divisive. My remark was flip, and the anxieties it masked took a while to show themselves. Ben is now, at twenty, taking a close look at religion, attending Mass occasionally with his girlfriend and her family and reading books on belief and spirituality. My unease stemmed in part from having taught him so little about religion. My sons were spared a religious upbringing but were also, unjustifiably I have come to feel, deprived of a religious education.

The deeper unease, and source of our shying away from the topic, was that we had just had several conflict-ridden discussions about moral values in relationships and marriage. Ben was questioning choices I had made and disputing my explanations. He was also anxious about the difficulties that changes in my life were creating for him. Would he be to blame if he couldn’t make all the adjustments he was facing? He said, It’s like someone throwing you a plate. If you drop it and it breaks, whose fault is it? He then looked me in the eye and said, You’ve thrown me a lot of plates, Dad.

Our talk turned to the longer history of plates he has caught, including his mother’s and my divorce, which he had seemed uncannily to take in stride when he was barely five, and the upheavals each of us had gone through when I moved away when he was twelve. We both revealed things that shocked the other. Our talks were honest and hard and painfully inconclusive. We both came away shaken and with a sharpened sense that there was much in our respective moral outlooks that diverged.

Ben’s challenges were judgmental but not moralistic, for they sincerely arose from his own ongoing effort to express and validate the values he wants to live by. It remained implicit as we talked that religion — along with his discovery of the important role it played in another family — was crucially a part of his search for an ethic of relationships. The conflict between us made the question of belief too hot to handle for the moment. And I sensed that his current perception of my life as a whole made my nonbelief the backdrop or dogma or absence against which he was asking what to believe.
In the wake of these exchanges, I realized that while I have helped convey to my sons a thoroughly secular vision of the world and thoroughly secular values, I did not share with them the role religion itself centrally played in my own route to nonbelief. After a childhood of attending Sunday school, usually irregularly, at various easygoing, middle-class Presbyterian churches, I suddenly took the religious teachings to heart when I went through confirmation classes at fourteen. I avidly embraced the faith, spurred on by reading the Bible, religious tracts and doctrine and (considerably softened) accounts of the role of Luther and Calvin in the Reformation. It was a period of intense religious conviction that came tumbling down within a year as my readings and discussions took a rationalistic and atheistic turn. My loss of faith followed a common pattern: thrilling enlightenment and angry disillusion.

My nonbelief deepened, but my attitude toward it eventually changed, most decisively from reading the work of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur’s intent was to break down the dichotomy between reason and faith, the dichotomy in which my own loss of faith and secular convictions had first formed. He did not ask: does God exist? But rather: what are the symbols, narratives and discourses through which believers experience the existence of God? His question, it seemed to me, held for nonbelievers too. Just as theologians got stuck trying to prove the existence of God, nonbelievers usually get stuck trying to choose between the suspect certitudes of atheism and the timid hedging of agnosticism. The question lies elsewhere. I experience the nonexistence of God, and that experience is maintained through a range of ambiguous symbols, narratives and discourses which are my “equipment for living.” From that standpoint, belief and nonbelief are both forms of belief. To believe there is no God is the same order of experience as believing there is one.

Religious and secular morality crisscross far more than we usually admit, and the admixtures follow no set pattern. Contemporary Christianity runs the gamut from fundamentalism to liberation theology and so connects faith to thoroughly contradictory moral premises, ethical principles and social aims. As for the confident expectations of Enlightenment atheists, whose rationalism provided the style of my own loss of faith as a teenager, the secularizing force of modernity has not rendered religion obsolete at all; religions grow worldwide as a response to modern life itself and often as a power politics.

Nonbelievers have to face an even more important fact of the crisscrossing of the sacred and the profane: there simply are no purely secular moralities. The genealogy of morals — of the symbols, maxims and feelings of moral experience — reaches “back” into religious traditions.

The reverberations of past belief still speak in all our moral languages. Christianity casts wrongdoing as sin, and the Christian experiences sin as a need for redemption. Secular morality has to answer the challenge of understanding how people inevitably do harm and injury to one another. It tries to address this essential fallibility of social and interpersonal life, to assess the forms and meaning of injury, the experience of harming and being harmed, the demands of answerability and responsibility — all without appeal to an ultimate source of reconciliation.

Watching the Apostle was the most engaging look at religious experience Ben and I have shared. It wasn’t a bad place to start, for the film itself puts the secular and the sacred uncomfortably in the same space. Robert Duvall (writer, director, star) creates in the figure of Sonny a southern Holy Roller preacher, entrepreneur, womanizer and felon, a man who uses his masculine swagger to give his ministry charisma just as he uses it to charm, persuade or intimidate the people around him. Much of the film is in fact like going to church — from the opening scene of a blind preacher in a tiny rural black church rhythmically pounding out the refrain “Nails in His feet for you and I,” through Sonny’s performances on the circuit with his Holy Ghost Power revivals, to the long sequence at the end in which he preaches and shouts and leads his congregation through spirituals, testimonials and a conversion before surrendering to the state troopers who have come to arrest him for murdering his wife’s lover.

This dramaturgy of salvation is gripping and as likely to unsettle a believer as a nonbeliever, for Duvall’s intent goes well beyond staging evangelical worship. Sonny’s preaching is set in the thick of his troubled life. Yet the film is not a study of religious hypocrisy, either. Rather, it shows religious belief shaping a life and the life shaping the beliefs. The Apostle fulfills a thoroughly secular aesthetic imperative; it’s a good movie because it dramatizes how a character, equipped with the unique design of his beliefs, symbols and values, shapes his acts and faces his fate.

In Sonny’s case, this equipment for living takes its design from his religious faith. When events bend to his will, he is certain the Lord is leading him. When they confound it, he feels himself to be wrestling demonic powers, uncertain whether they lie within or outside him. Sonny’s passions are violent and possessive, and the entire story is driven by his uninterrupted willfulness. When he discovers that his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) is having an affair with Horace — the “puny-assed youth minister” — he first terrorizes them and then confronts Jessie in a scene filled with prayer and menace. As she sits on the sofa unloading his gun, she tells him, “I just want out of all this, that’s all.” He threatens to expose her affair, and she retorts that she knows all about “what you do and have done.” He admits to his “wandering eye and weak and wicked ways,” but affirms his love for her and tries to force her to pray with him for a reconciliation. She refuses: “my knees are worn out from praying with you.” Sonny storms out, only to learn that Jessie has already orchestrated his ouster from the church.

Sonny lives his jealousy and rage as a spiritual crisis, for he is unhinged from the certainty his faith always gives him when he knows the meaning of what he does and what is done to him. In a riveting scene, he spends the night yelling at God. “I’m mad at you, Lord. I don’t know who s been fooling with me, you or the devil.” He acknowledges he is “a sinner once in a while, a womanizer,” but appeals to the Lord for some word because they have always been “Jesus and Sonny” to each other. Give me a sign or something,” he pleads. “Blow it out of me. Give me peace. The depth of his crisis is revealed in the very fact that no sign comes; as the Lord stays silent, Sonny hurls himself into the film’s two most explosive scenes.
First, he arrives at the church — “They can vote me out, but they can t lock me out. These people love me.” — and struts in, decked out in his three-piece white suit and sunglasses, captivating the congregation as the choir sings “He’s all right” and Jessie plays the keyboard. He dances around to Horace, stuffing a hundred dollar bill in his pocket and kissing him on both cheeks and then struts out, laying his hand on a woman’s forehead (she faints). The swagger and mockery are flawless but empty; Jessie controls the church. His rage and a pint of whiskey take him next to the church camp baseball game, where, like a Homeric warrior tracking down the female spoils, he grabs Jessie by the hair and tries to force her and the children to go with him. When she resists, he picks up a baseball bat and knocks Horace unconscious — and flees.

The wrong is done, and this turning point in the film marks a decisive encounter between profane and sacred meanings, sharpening the potential conflict between Sonny’s moral-symbolic world and the spectator’s. He committed his crime feeling oppressed by rage and confusion and cut off from his God. In explaining to his friend Joe what has happened, he exhibits more righteousness than remorse: “I done it this time. Well, I let that sucker have it. I beat him like a one-legged stepchild. He may be on the road to glory this time.” After ditching his car in a lake and throwing away all his identification, he stands one morning waist deep in a river and rebaptizes himself. He asks “permission to be accepted as an apostle of our Lord” and christens himself “without witnesses” the Apostle E.F. The clash of meanings is stark. For there is no difference between the Apostle’s rebaptism and the fugitive’s assumption of an alias; Sonny’s exodus is life on the lam, his renewed dedication to walking a “straight line forever” with the Lord a flight from prosecution. Secure in his relation to his personal savior — “Once you’re saved it’s a done deal” — he goes where the Lord leads him, to Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, to preach again and build his One Way Road to Heaven church.

The question the film poses in these scenes is not whether Sonny should have fled or stayed to face the consequences of his action. It is a question, rather, of his experience of accusation and blame and of the symbols in which that experience is cast. God and Satan are monsters of the absolute in fundamentalism’s melodrama, and Sonny’s language, private and public, is filled with the purifying symbolism of Good and Evil. The sacred permeates the film as the language in which Sonny interprets all that happens to him. The Apostle is drama not melodrama, however, and Duvall leaves pointedly unanswered the question posed by Horace’s death: does Sonny ever see his violence as anything other than a jealous husband’s righteous act of laying claim to what is rightfully his?

It is not in these terms that Sonny poses the question of his wrongdoing, but according to the design and idiom of his faith. Fleeing his crime, he says, “Satan has driven a big wedge between me and my family.” And when he learns that his Mama is dying and he cannot return to be with her, he says, “Gettin’ back at me, Lord, ain’t you?” — as though his mother’s suffering and death were God’s retribution against him. These are the metaphors through which he feels accusation and punishment.

To say they are metaphors is not to say they are false. Ricoeur is clarifying here, for he has written with great insight on the experience of accusation, its centrality to the cultural and psychological foundations of morality. The Enlightenment tradition, from Kant to Freud, has tried to solve the conundrum of conscience: that blaming voice within ourselves which is mysteriously the voice of another — or an Other. Even the most secular explanations attribute conscience to some patently symbolic source: superego, parental authority, “community.” Moral experience, as Ricoeur argues, is inescapably symbolic. The pure and the impure, captivity and exodus, sin and redemption — all these fundamental experiences of evil and the surpassing of evil are metaphorical. They are not simply draped in symbolism; we live the symbols, in the sense that our moral experience is inseparable from the metaphors and narratives through which we apprehend harm and the overcoming of harm.

What fascinates me about Robert Duvall’s Sonny is that his experience of faith is so different from my own and yet is made accessible to understanding — to interpretation — through its symbolic unfold ings in the drama. In setting Sonny’s symbolisms of evil over against his actions, Duvall discloses the all-too-human lineaments of the redeemed sinner. Sonny designates himself a sinner and feels himself redeemed, but how fully does he recognize his responsibility for the things he has done?

Nowhere is this question more forcefully raised than in the scene which most complexly explores the psychology and symbolism of accusation. The scene occurs the night before Sonny’s rebaptism. As he lies with his Bible on his chest and a picture of Jessie and the children pinned to his tent, awaiting a sign to point his way, there is a voiceover of Jessie confessing her sins: “I feel as though I have crucified Christ afresh in what I have done. Adultery is a demonic possession. Once one has nullified the work of the cross, iniquity sets in. I am chagrined at my sin…. Forgive us our deeds and let us carry on your work, in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” This confession of course is not Jessie’s inner monologue at all, but what Sonny imagines her confessing. His accusations against her come back to him in the voice of her abject repentance for wronging him. Having committed his crime in the dead space where he could not hear the Lord, he now hears the meaning of betrayal and loss in the form of what he wants Jessie to say, on the shadowy border between imagination and delusion. He needs her to speak these words to set his own moral universe right and give his own deeds their rightful place: he is the freshly slain Christ more than the wayward sinner, as though the iniquity that has set in — not only his ouster from the church but his own violence and separation from his children — sprung from her sin alone. In the course of the night he tears her head from the picture he has pinned up. 

The path of accusation twists inside out, dispelling his confusions by demonizing her. The paths of accusation are always twisted, the labyrinth in which we have to discover in the inner and outer voices of blame what we are responsible for and answerable to. Sonny’s demonization of Jessie opens anew for him the path to salvation; the next morning he becomes the born-again-again Apostle E.F. And so Duvall leaves another question pointedly unanswered: does Sonny’s delivery into divine redemption turn on his refusal of a merely human responsibility?

The redemptive promise of Christianity has increasingly taken the form, especially in contemporary Protestantism, of an affirmative religion of love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” according to John 3:16 and the banners that proselytize at public events from baseball games to anti-abortion rallies. Jesus died that we might live. In Sonny’s preaching, the promised redemption is sweet, but God’s love is even more fearsome than his retribution in its beyond-the-human extremity. At his last church service, Sonny takes a plump, happy baby from its mother’s arms and, holding it up, exhorts his congregation to imagine driving nails through its soft tiny hands and into a board: “I don’t have this much love in me to do this to my son, but God does.”

The violence God let be done to his Son is the literal crux of Christian redemption. Whether expressed in the refined poetics of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or the crude poetics of Sonny’s theatrical preaching, that basic truth of the faith is meant to inspire terror and gratitude. Jesus’ earliest followers saw the reversed parallel between Abraham’s willingness to butcher his son Isaac in obedience to God and God’s willingness to sacrifice his Son for the love of humankind. The more pacific themes of most Christians today mute the terror in favor of the gratitude, but I find the gentler promises of redemption even more disturbing. 

The image of children singing “Jesus Loves Me” is repellent to me. It’s not just the sentimentality and kitsch. It’s the thought of imbuing children with the idea that they are loved, ultimately and unconditionally, only insofar as they accept the Christian faith’s story and dogma. The glow of adoration and security which the loving Jesus offers confers on the darkness around it the meaning of abandonment, anomie and punishment. Sin and death are in this sense the fruit of the promise of love and redemption. Children know these things, whether the message comes to them in the fire-and-brimstone shouting of fundamentalists or the reassuring tones of suburban Congregationalists.

One of the most grueling questions to be faced in raising children without religion is how to approach the question of death. When Sam, my older son, was less than four years old one of his closest friends at pre-school was diagnosed with cancer and died within a few months. Wyatt’s illness was a challenge to the school’s parents, and we talked anxiously with each other about what we were going to tell our children. Several friends, whose lack of religious beliefs was as pronounced as Jean’s and mine, panicked, telling their children that Wyatt wasn’t coming to the school anymore or that he had moved to another city or that he was now an angel in heaven. We decided to try to tell Sam about death and give him solace without the fictions. He mulled over our explanations and undoubtedly assessed them against what he saw in many visits to the child who weakened and withered before our eyes. One day as we were coming home, he found a dead butterfly on the porch; he picked it up, sat down and looked at it for a few moments. The butterfly is dead, he told us. We felt he understood more than most adults were willing to. And he mourned in the lower registers of the imagination; standing in front of a mirror the day after his friend died, he declared, I hate Wyatt. I want to eat Wyatt. There was not much sense of triumph in these moments, only relief and hope. How stark can you stand your three-year-old’s sense of reality to be?

Deaths often force differences of belief into the open, and they can tear at the closest family bonds. When my sister and I were around thirty, our younger brother, twenty-two, was killed in a motorcycle accident. A few months later she and I drifted into a discussion of religion and the afterlife. She pushed the question: Do you mean you don t believe David is still alive somewhere, in some way? I had to answer, No. Never have I encountered a look of such dismay and accusation, a look with so much packed into it that I didn’t know if my words had been for her worse for their hurt or their betrayal or their falsehood. 

Between the poignancy of the butterfly and my sister’s anguished look lies for me the puzzle of love, belief and death. Believers and nonbelievers ask the same questions, tread the same ground, even as they experience its secular and sacred contours in completely different ways. Families cohere around their shared beliefs, and dissenters can suddenly feel like outsiders. Between parents and children or brothers and sisters or between lovers, differences of belief put tolerance harshly to the test, especially at those moments when there is suffering or loss or wrong that we don’t know how to comprehend or bear except through our belief that God is or is not there.