Today marks the release of Paul, Apostle of Christ, a new film about the end of the life of the Apostle Paul. In it, Luke (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ) sneaks into Rome to visit Paul (James Faulkner, Downton Abbey) as he awaits his eventual execution. Priscilla (Joanne Whalley, Willow) and Aquila (John Lynch, The Secret Garden) host Luke as well the remaining Christian community in a small compound. They live in constant fear of discovery and wrestle over their place in the city. What would be wiser and more God-honoring: escaping to save the lives of their people or staying to love the broken city seeking to kill them?
As the movie progresses, one sees the struggles and suffering of Christians in Rome as well as Paul’s reflections on his life. Looking for leadership from Paul, Luke eventually convinces him to relate his story to him that it would be spread among other Christian believers suffering for their faith in Christ. The writing depicted in the movie would obviously be a major portion of Acts in the New Testament.
The trailer for the movie can be viewed here:
I had the opportunity to view an advance screening of the movie before it went into final edits. I must say, I found myself pleasantly surprised. In my opinion, Christian-produced movies generally do not have high standards in production. While usually free from all that makes most movies worthless or harmful in the moral sphere, their execution proves shallow and their messaging moralistic. For example, I can think of several such films that seem to make it their burden to show urban areas as places of moral degradation while the suburbs or rural ares provide the habitat for the truly faithful. If not moralistic, but explicitly evangelical, profession of faith seems to be the cure of all life’s ills. Paul, Apostle of Christ makes neither error.
Before commending the film, I’ll provide two words of caution:
The film has a PG-13 rating for a reason. Remember, the film depicts the Christian community in First Century Rome. The emperor Nero haunts the film as an unseen antagonist. More than once, the movie depicts Christians hung on poles and lit on fire by Roman soldiers. While not graphic to the level of a horror film, the movie does not depict these people as peaceful and serene saints. It shows them for what they were: suffering human beings dying in one of the worst conceivable ways. If you are a parent, I’d think about leaving young ones at home for this one.
In addition to the caution concerning violent suffering, the viewer should understand that while nothing in the movie contradicts the text of Scripture, the plot itself is mainly speculative. I’m not the expert on the history or tradition of what occurred between the time of the apostles and the first post-apostolic church fathers. However, I do not know of any stories which unfold as in the same way as Paul, Apostle of Christ. It contains much in the way of speculation. I disagree with how the movie interprets Paul’s thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The movie also has egalitarian leanings (not heavy handedness) pertaining to church leadership. For that matter, no denomination will likely be satisfied with the lack of church structure that seems to exist among the Christian community.
I do not think either of these cautions should dissuade people from seeing the movie should they so desire. One film cannot contain everything related to its subject. The studio does not seem to be promoting the film as fun for the whole family, nor does it make its point to reflect everything related to church government in the Pastoral Epistles.
What contributions does the film make? Several.
1. The viewer is reminded that the majority of Christian experience does not resemble suburban America. The narrow streets of Rome, the languishing in prison, and the real danger faced by the Christians in the movie do not resemble our day-to-day lives at all. Instead, I suspect our brothers and sisters in places like Central and East Asia or the Middle East would find the movie to reflect their own experience. While we should never minimize the reproaches Christians suffer in the West, most of us fear evangelism because of rejection. These people feared evangelism because the hearer of the good news might pull a sword. Rejection is real, but swords are sharp.
2. Building on the previous point, and in reference to Monday’s post, no prosperity preacher can view the film and see himself in it. Instead of worldly gain, the film depicts worldly loss. When one sees the movie, he might be tempted to ask, “Why would anyone become a Christian in that day and age?” These people saw their reward as eternal and saw suffering as proving their faith, not revealing a lack of it. They weren’t too blessed to be stressed; rather, they were too dedicated to expect decadence.
3. The film depicts the world and Christianity in opposition to each other. No one argues to accommodate one to the other. The warden of the Roman prison sees Christ in opposition to his cultic idols, not something complementary to them. Those who seek to advance Christ through worldly means receive Paul’s strict condemnation.
4. While the movie sadly does not make a big point of justification by faith, this is not surprising (despite Romans and Galatians, but I’ll move on). What the movie gets right about faith in Christ is that it is an actual thing. Paul, Luke, Priscilla, Aquila, and others do not give lip-service to the big guy upstairs. Instead, they trust in Christ for their very lives, and explicitly so. The gospel changed them, and Jesus bears on their lives in a real way. Their belief is no throw-away thing.
No one has the Christian duty to see any movie, ever. Movies, like so much else, will pass away. However, is this one worth your time if you are so inclined? I think so. Do you need to see it? No, of course not. Insofar as it helps you reverence the Christ presented in the pages of the Bible, it is helpful.