Gospel and The Gospel

Yesterday, thanks be to Netflix, I saw the latest Spike Lee joint Red Hook Summer.  It was a loose-jointed, semi-improvised shambly thing, likeable enough, but also tonally inconsistent and a bit strange.  But what it reminded me of, more than anything, was a 1997 film that I loved, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle.

Red Hook is in Brooklyn, and it’s also where Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) serves as pastor for his tiny church, the ‘Lil Piece of Heaven Baptist Church of Red Hook. (Those names suggest a comedy, do they not?)  Bishop Rouse is visited one summer by his grandson, Flik (Jules Brown), in from Atlanta.  Flik, who is maybe thirteen, does NOT want to be there, spends his days with his head buried in his I-Pad grousing about basically everything his grandfather wants from him, from going to Church to spending less time on his I-Pad.  He complains to the one friend he makes in Brooklyn, a girl his age named Chazz (Toni Lysaith).  The Chazz/Flik friendship is terrific, largely because Lysaith is an adorable little spitfire, great fun.  But the heart of the movie involves the Church services over which the Good Bishop presides.

As a white Mormon guy, I’m deeply envious of those services. There’s so much passion, so much energy, such amazing music. Gladys Knight, when she joined the Church, has said that the hardest part of it, for her, was the music.  Our music is staid, white bread, pretty boring, honestly.  But the black Baptist services that Lee depicts are really amazing, the music, and the oratory.  Clarke’s amazing in those scenes, and we can see why his tiny congregation reveres him.

Duvall has similar scenes in his movie. In The Apostle, which Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in, he plays The Apostle E. F., who starts a new congregation while on the lam for murder.  The charismatic evangelical style of preaching featured in both films is so exciting, so gripping.  My daughter watched one of the church scenes of Red Hook Summer with me, and her response was ‘sign me up.’  That’s my reaction too.

I love going to Church, don’t get me wrong.  I love the companionship of my brothers and sisters.  But our services aren’t . . . exciting, not in the same way.  When we read accounts of early Mormonism, it’s clear that preaching in our church used to be pretty exciting.  Charismatic.  Lots of speaking in tongues.

What we didn’t have back then, though, was gospel music. Electric basses and organs and drums and guitars. Full-throated backup singers.  Check out this medley.  Is it really possible not to feel the Spirit?  Is it possible not to respond to it?

And is it possible, after hearing so much lugubrious dirge-like Mormon music Sunday after Sunday not to feel serious hymn envy?

But, again watching these two movies as a Mormon, I was struck by the theological differences between us.  In The Apostle, Duvall’s character is a murderer.  Early in the film, we see him beat a man to death with a baseball bat–his estranged wife’s new fiancee.  He runs off, changes his name, starts a new congregation.  Seduces the women of his congregation.  He’s a lousy person.

And although he’s not a murderer, The Good Bishop Rouse, in Red Hook Summer, is also a louse.  SPOILER ALERT: He’s a child molester.  A young man who he had taken advantage of comes to a service, accuses him in front of his new congregation, tells the story of how he’d been seduced years before.  And destroys young Flik’s budding conversion.

But these films aren’t really intended as attacks on Christianity.  They’re not exposes of evangelical Christianity, they’re celebrations of it.  In both films, we see these erring pastors as genuine, as good people.  We see quite specific good things they’ve accomplished.  They serve their congregants faithfully and well.  And one is a murderer and the other is a child molester.  If these films were made about Mormon bishops, they’d be seen as anti-Mormon.  The point would be that erring Mormon bishops are hypocrites.  But neither Duvall’s character in his film or Clarke’s character in Lee’s are shown as monsters.  They’ve sinned badly, and that makes them sort of oddly extra blessed.  God has to extend that much more grace to reclaim them.

The difference is theological. The heart of evangelical Christianity is the doctrine of grace.

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.  Romans 7: 14-19

Not only is Romans 7 a scripture we Mormons and evangelicals understand differently, it’s one we don’t even have–I don’t think I’ve heard Romans quoted from the pulpit in ten years.  We have, I think, a reasonably equal understanding of what constitutes sin.  We’re both against lying and stealing and adulterating. But in general, evangelicals don’t think much of our chances of avoiding sin.  We’re too weak, too worldly. That’s where grace comes in, because without grace, we don’t have a chance.

And we Mormons don’t disagree.  We believe in grace, and believe that without grace, we’re condemned.  We just think we have to do more to access grace.  We basically think repentance is harder than evangelicals think it is.

I think our differences on this score have an historical root.  Protestant notions of grace hearken back to the early Reformation, when the single point that most united Calvin and Luther and Zwingli and the rest of them was their belief in predestination.  Salvation was entirely by grace.  Nothing we humans ever did, ever, pleased God.  He only saved those he predestined for salvation.  It was a ferocious doctrine, in which salvation was almost arbitrary.  If you were chosen, if you were part of God’s elect, then God would forgive the sins you–and everyone else– committed by the bushel-full.

Predestination was never part of Mormon theology. And I think that might be why grace isn’t terribly emphasized in Mormon preachifying. We do believe in it, though. We just think that there are things we mortals can do to access it.

We Mormons even commit the ultimate papist heresy–we think a formal church organization has a sacramental role in our repentance.  If an active Mormon were to commit serious sins (such as the ones Enoch and the Robert Duvall character commit), the Church has to get involved.  Repentance, in our view, requires, in some cases, confession to Church authorities and action by them, possibly including excommunication.  The specific acts that constitute sin, the deeds that we, as Christians, shouldn’t do are pretty uniformly understood by Evangelicals and Mormons alike.  We don’t either of us steal, or lie, or adulterate.  But we may possibly have a different understanding of how one repents from those sins.

Which may be why both these films bother me, as a Mormon.  We look at Duvall’s character, or at Bishop Enoch, and we think, ‘really? That’s it?’  When Enoch tells his grandson that he’s asked God for forgiveness and knows he’s received it, he seems really sincere. But pedophilia is more than just a serious serious sin, it’s also a pathology.  You don’t just get over it.  And it’s immensely, incredibly damaging to its victims.  Repentance requires restitution, in our view.

So I love the Church services in these movies, and I love the whole-heated embrace of overt spirituality, while still, coming out of my own religious tradition, preferring our quieter communion.  And I grant God’s endless grace, and embrace it for my own sins, while also thinking these two specific sinners got off way too easily.  They’re both lovely films. I rather prefer my own theology.

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