The Apostle Paul, writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright in his new biography of the most famous and widely discussed convert to Christianity,
might dispute the suggestion that he himself changed the world; Jesus, he would have said, had already done that. But what he said about Jesus, and about God, the world, and what it means to be genuinely human, was creative and compelling—and controversial, in his own day and ever after. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.
Paul’s writings make up just eighty or so pages, which Wright notes is less than any solitary dialogue by Plato or treatise by Aristotle. Why, then, have countless books, articles, and monographs been written about Paul’s life, epistles, and thought? While the new movie Paul, Apostle of Christ does not try to answer that question, it provides a hint of an answer while indicating, in a rather low-key but often compelling way, why Paul is just as challenging and, yes, relevant as he was nearly two thousand years ago.
To the credit of the writer and director Andrew Wyatt, the film does not aim to be epic or even, in many ways, intensely dramatic. This has been a point of criticism in some reviews; I suggest they are missing the point, which is to depict the daily struggles of an extraordinary man among ordinary people living a radical faith in a death-dealing, soul-crushing culture—specifically, the city of Rome in the year A.D. 67, not too long after the crazed emperor Nero had accused the Christians of starting the great fire of Rome. Much has been made, quite rightly, about the film’s focus on the persecution of Roman Christians under Nero, which is related, in some ways, to the very real persecution of Christians today, especially at the hand of various radical Islamic groups and movements. (The movie is dedicated “to all who have been persecuted for their faith”.)
But to focus on this alone would miss a key point made early in the film by Priscilla (Joanne Whalley), who tells the evangelist Luke (Jim Caviezel), “We are the only light left in this city!” She says so in the midst of a struggling group of first generation Christians who are frightened, perplexed, and even doubting. Wyatt and crew, fronted by the strong acting of Caviezel and James Faulkner (Paul), choose to focus on the small details and subtle struggles, emphasizing how the daily choice to follow Christ must be rooted in an abiding, even struggling, faith in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. When I spoke to Wyatt recently about the film, I asked him if it was fair to say it is a more intimate drama aimed at capturing the inner struggles of both Christians and non-Christians in ancient Rome. That’s very fair,” he replied, “Not to downplay what others [filmmakers] are trying. But epics can lose the humanity. In this film, you do get to know the personal struggle of what these people are dealing with.”
Not that the film is devoid of drama or tension. The brutality of Roman rule is depicted efficiently and effectively; the general callousness toward women and children is contrasted with the care and charity shown by the Christians. Paul, who is in chains in Mamertine Prison, is not just weary, but beaten down in every possible sense. His isolation can be heard in his own words, in his second letter to Timothy: “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim 4:11). That simple line, in fact, was an inspiration for the film, which quotes heavily from Paul’s writings, mostly to strong and even powerful effect. In short, life in the ancient Roman Empire was usually short, often ugly, and occasionally hellish.
One of the key narratives in the film involves Mauritius, the Roman prefect in charge of Mamertine, whose young daughter is near death due to a mysterious illness. Mauritius repeatedly beseeches the gods for aid, but to no avail. His wife, Irenica (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), believes that his uncharacteristic generosity toward Paul and Luke may be the cause for silence from the heavens. When Paul suggests the prefect have the physician Luke look at his daughter, the Roman scoffs, “I will not anger the gods by bringing a Christian to my home.” All indications point to a dramatic and miraculous resolution; thankfully, the film stays the course, emphasizing again how faith and “ordinary” life are not only compatible but completely sympatico.
Without being didactic or heavy-handed, the movie ably depicts the centrality of the Resurrection in the thought and life of Paul, not only through an effective flashback to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, but also in an exchange with Mauritius that echoes contemporary debates. “You keep saying truth, truth”, says Mauritius sarcastically to the two Christian leaders, as a sort of mimicry of Pilate before Christ. “But it is only truth according to you.” Mauritius shows himself to be as much a post-modern relativist as an ancient pagan, desperately appealing to dead gods while smirking at the startling, revolutionary faith of men and women who are willing to die for a mysterious Jewish rabbi.
“Christ who is Truth rose from the dead,” replies Luke, “but there are many who still do not believe.” Paul adds: “Men do not die for things they doubt. … It does not take an intelligent man to look around and see that the world is missing something.” The world still groans, longing for the fullness of Truth (cf. Rom 8:22), but far too many still refuse to look into the empty tomb or to contemplate the simple question: why would the followers of The Way willingly suffer and die for Christ unless there really was something to the Christian belief in the Resurrection?
Nothing would ever be quite the same again. Which bring me back to the persecution of the early Christians. Why were they so often persecuted, maligned, and even executed? In large part, it was because of who they refused to worship and Who they insisted on worshiping; it was because of their renunciation of the empire and their embrace of the Kingdom. As Bishop Robert Barron has emphasized:
From the beginning of his public work, Jesus is opposed, often violently, and that opposition culminates in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman governor, who with delicious irony places on the cross a sign indicating that Jesus is king: “This is the King of the Jews.” The baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and the criminal dying on a cross are both meant as a taunt, a challenge, a turning upside down of our expectations.
This was indeed subversive. The Romans were fine with the Christians worshiping Jesus, as long as they also worshiped the Roman gods. As the New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado puts it in Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2017),
the key neuralgic issue between Christians and their critics and opponents in those early centuries was worship … [The] pagans demanded specifically that Christians should worship the traditional gods. Recall that pagans such as Celsus were willing to tolerate Christians and their their other various objectionable features, if only they would worship the traditional gods. But Christians were noted as typically refusing to do so, declaring that they worshiped only the one biblical deity and, still more offensively, that everyone ought to do likewise.
As Hurtado goes on to argue, this was for both Christians and pagans a deeply religious issue, for both recognized that their specific beliefs were in direct conflict with one another, especially since for the early Christians the “key concern of fidelity to the one true God [was] set over against what they saw as the the many false and unworthy deities of the day.”
This, for me, is a core strength of Paul, Apostle of Christ, for it depicts, in a compelling and artistically satisfying way, the contrast between empty faith in the pagan emperor and joyful faith in Jesus Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). It is important to remember those who are persecuted; it is just as important that we know why and for Whom they are persecuted. “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14).
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!