If you haven’t seen Logan Miller’s Sweetwater, you’ve got plenty of company. The film is a low budget Western that saw limited distribution in 2013. I was largely unaware of it until it was recently released on DVD. While the film does feature notable actors such as Ed Harris, January Jones, and Jason Isaacs, it is fairly unmemorable, though competently made.
The story revolves around a small town run by a charismatic preacher whose approach to ministry and government is based on fear and violence. Over the course of the film, the preacher kills several people in cold blood, often muttering scripture to himself as he does. Undoubtedly, he seems to believe that what he is doing is the will of God, regardless of how brutal it may be.
Okay. So far, nothing remarkably novel here. There are plenty of movies that have portrayed Christian preachers as villains, often emphasizing their piety and self righteousness as an underscore to their cruelty. In fact, one of the best villains in film is a murderous preacher with deep psychological issues, played with disturbing charisma by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Some might view portraying a clergyman as so evil as risky, but it is actually pretty common; we’re used to it.
However, just when I was ready to write off this aspect of the film, a most peculiar thing happened. There is a scene in which the preacher is confronted by an eccentric lawman, whose confidence unnerves the preacher. The preacher does what he can to intimidate the lawman, but is rebuffed each time. The frustration of this man- whom is very used to getting his way through sheer force of will- is palpable.
The next scene involves the preacher, alone in his church, furiously flipping through the pages of the Bible, a wooden cross looming over him. He mutters to himself about how the lawman shamed him. His prideful rage flies off the screen, and we soon realize that he’s not muttering to himself. He is, in fact, praying. In his shame and embarrassment, he has turned to God for comfort. And, much to his dismay, God gives him none.
The preacher, furious that God “let it happen”, searches the Bible, looking for justification for the things he has done (or perhaps the things he wants to do). He becomes increasingly frustrated as the Bible provides him with no shelter from his shame. He begins to rip out the pages, eventually declaring that he hates God. The scene culminates with the preacher grabbing an axe and chopping down the wooden cross at the front of his church.
It is a scene of tremendous power and maturity. Many filmmakers use the flawed nature of their Christian characters as a way to imply the imperfection of Christianity itself. Logan Miller, however, understands that the truth is more complex than that. Here we have a character that uses his idea of God to validate his own selfishness and brutality. But God is indeed bigger than those that follow Him, and certainly bigger than those that attempt to trade in on His name. And when faced with the actual truth of God’s transformational power, those that wish to stay focused on themselves have a choice to make.
What we see in this scene is a visual representation of what all Christians go through, as we come up against God with the expectation that He won’t really require anything of us. Surely, most of us will not kill another person or anything as extreme as that, but that doesn’t change our reaction. How many times have we looked at a particular passage in the Bible and thought, “Man, I wish that wasn’t in there”? How many of us have been so very sure of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, only to discover that it is not God’s way, and reacted in a way every bit as emotionally violent as that of the preacher in this scene?
And indeed some Christians respond quite literally the way the preacher does, philosophically ripping out the parts of the Bible that don’t fit with their personal agenda. There are things in the Bible that make our lives harder- sometimes seemingly impossible- and some of us, rather than simply wish they weren’t there, make a little deal with ourselves, saying, “Well, that’s just how they did things back then. It’s different now.” We do that little by little until we’re finally left with a god that we approve of and that asks nothing of us.
We end up with a god that thinks and sounds a lot like us, and the reason for that is because we’ve put ourselves in the position of a god. We are the ultimate authority, and we use the Bible- or at least that parts we like- to confirm that. It is notable that in a separate scene in Sweetwater, the preacher demands that a person fall on his knees and beg God for forgiveness. What was this man’s sin? Why, insulting the preacher, of course! Literally, in the preacher’s eyes, to insult him is to insult God and, though he would never consciously agree with this assessment, his actions and attitude bear this out.
And so here we are, faced with the same choice the preacher has. We flip through the Bible, desperately looking for personal validation. We do not find it, instead reading verses about taking up our crosses and being transformed.
We’ve got three options. We can reject God’s Word and keep doing our own thing. We can figuratively rip out the pages we don’t like until we don’t have to change at all. Or we can acknowledge that God is God and we are not; that He knows better than we do and His definition of what is good and holy and true is the only definition, regardless of what we wish were the case.
Two of these choices are easy, and one is most definitely not. One requires that we walk a narrow and at times treacherous path. It is not very appealing, but, in the end, it is the only path that leads to actual Truth and Love. The other path leads to destruction, but people walk it anyway, because it is broad and easy. And it is littered with torn out pieces of the Bible deemed too inconvenient to accept.
Note: Sweetwater is rated ‘R’ for language, sexual content, nudity and violence.